Copeland returns as backup

6-6-01, 12:00 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

John Copeland figures being the dean of the Bengals' defense (again) should count for something.

Which is why he is lobbying fiercely for equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner to give him back his plum locker.

The one at the end of a row, closest to the equipment and weight rooms.

The one they gave to quarterback Scott Mitchell when Copeland was cut six weeks ago.

"I'm the oldest guy, I should get it," Copeland said with a laugh, then catching himself. "Well, not the oldest. But I've been here the longest."

Not as long as tight end Tony McGee, who was drafted with Copeland in 1993. Now that Copeland, 30, has been cut and re-signed, McGee is team dean. But no one can take away the fact Copeland has started eight seasons on the Bengals defensive line.

And he knows he won't be starting the ninth year backing up first-round pick Justin Smith at right end.

"I'm not going to be pushing Smith for the starting job. I know that," Copeland said. "Before I signed,

we talked about my role and I'm going to be backing up and rolling through the rotation. It's going to be a change for me, but I'm not going to gripe. I'm not going to complain."

But Copeland admitted he was hurt when the release came and he was no longer making $4.7 million over the next two years. Now it's estimated at about $1.5 million for two years.

""It's just pride. I know I'll be hearing about that, but that's just what happens in locker rooms," Copeland said.

But Copeland was boiling until Bengals coach Dick LeBeau explained how much he admired him as a player and would love to have him back one day.

"Dick handled it great and he's probably the main reason I'm back," Copeland said. "I know him. I know the guys. I know what I'm supposed to do."

Copeland said talks were "real intense," with San Diego and he believes he could have started for the Chargers.

"But the difference in money wasn't big enough to go some place else," Copeland said.

Besides, Copeland got a lift from what the Bengals have done over the offseason. Particularly their last two free-agent pickups in left tackle Richmond Webb and fullback Lorenzo Neal. Copeland played against both this past season and said, "Webb is a hell of a player and Lorenzo Neal is a great fullback. I think they've made some great moves and I think we can do something."

Copeland became the 10th player on the roster who is at least 30 years old. And with former Chiefs cornerback Carlton Gray coming in for a physical Thursday, it could be 11 by the end of the month, when Gray hits the magic birthday.

That's compared to last year, when the Bengals had one thirtysomething player (Mitchell) on the roster heading into training camp.

Now, Webb, 34, and John Jackson, 36, can sit in what they call the "Wise Corner," of the locker room and call over Vaughn Booker, 33.

But Copeland never thought the Bengals' lack of age was a big factor.

"But I do think the guys they've brought in have been good players and they're going to help us," Copeland said.

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