Copleland sees no room

4-12-01, 4:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

John Copeland, dean of the Bengals' defense, figures he's on the way out after the signing of fellow end Kevin Henry.

Copeland, the fifth pick in the 1993 NFL Draft, was taken 103 spots ahead of Henry that year. He thinks after 107 games, 102 starts, 322 tackles, and 24 sacks, this is probably it for him in Cincinnati after an underachieving but solid career.

"Somebody has to go," said Copeland of a defensive line the club has suddenly stockpiled in free agency. "That's what it's looking like."

The Bengals have added Henry and Vikings tackle Tony Williams to a mix that already includes a group of 2000 starters in end Vaughn Booker and tackles Oliver Gibson and Tom Barndt.

But defensive coordinator Mark Duffner says it's premature for Copeland or any other lineman to think they are going to get cut with the roster in its current state.

"You say we've got a lot of ends,

but I don't see it that way," Duffner said. "We're going to put our best four guys on the field and go from there. There's going to be competition and that's what we want. John's a valuable guy. He can also play inside for us."

Copeland, 30, was surprised to hear that Henry, a former Steeler, had signed last week and that head coach Dick LeBeau is thinking of moving him to the tight end side. That would move Booker to the other side, which is where Copeland thought he was headed.

"To be honest, I have no idea where I'm going to play," said Copeland, who doesn't want to play tackle any more after playing it for the first time last season. "I know (Henry). We came out together. I met him at the combine and I see him around at different functions. I think he's a damn good player. I've had a chance to see him through his whole career and he always seemed to make some plays whenever they played us."

But you have to figure a team needs at least three ends, and probably four. Copeland looks to be in the top three with Booker and Henry. The guys who appear to be grinding already for work are Reinard Wilson and Jevon Langford.

That could change if another defensive end comes on the market and the Bengals have to bid to get him. Releasing Copeland before June 1 would save the club about $2.1 million under the salary cap. Just before free agency in '98, Copeland signed a five-year deal averaging close to $3 million.

But despite what Duffner says, Copeland thinks he's gone.

"I might not be around here for the competition," Copeland said. "You never want to be cut. By anybody. I have to prepare for the worst. I'd love to stay. I've got a great contract, but they have to do what they think is best for the team."

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