Deadline Spiked

2-27-03, 6:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

A lot of name players have already flooded the market, and will continue to do so as Thursday night turns into Friday morning and the official start of NFL free agency at 12:01 a.m.

But in Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' mind, there are many who are just names and not players. In fact, some of the players Lewis is trying to attract might not have neon names, but they have everything else in his attempt to infuse the locker room with his kind of competitor. Keep an eye on those former Ravens and Redskins.

"The guys we have now, I don't really know," Lewis said Thursday. "There are some guys you know how they're going to act in good times and bad. You know how they prepare. You know how they conduct themselves. You know how they can handle adversity and I think those are guys that have an appeal to come in and help uplift our team. If we can inject some of that professionalism with athletic ability, that will really help."

The pattern has already been established with some of the contacts the club has set up this week, which should turn into free-agent visits next week. With leading tackler Takeo Spikes nowhere near a long-term deal just hours from free agency, the Bengals are examining market linebackers for the first time in years.

"We're doing evaluations of some other guys," Lewis said. "We're going to be prepared to do things if we allow Takeo to leave."

All indications are Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal is also nowhere near a deal as midnight beckons.

The Bengals have offered Spikes $4.8 million for this season to get the right to match any offer. Lewis said the only way that transition tag would come off is if the Bengals felt they had to spend that money elsewhere, but he also said they want to sign him.

"Every time we attempt to sign somebody, we've got to equate that with Takeo as our player," Lewis said.

With the bevy of cuts this week as teams slice to the NFL's $75 million salary cap by the Friday deadline, Lewis has already tipped his hand on the kind of player he seeks.

The agent for speed wide receiver Donald Hayes said the club has been in contact and is trying to set up a visit. Reports out of Miami say wide receiver/returner Jermaine Lewis is headed here after meeting with the Dolphins. Cornerback Denard Walker is also supposedly headed this way, too.

Lewis knows of Hayes because his agent, Rick Smith, said his client played on special teams for Darrin Simmons in Carolina, where Simmons was the assistant special teams coach.

Lewis has said he likes Walker's six years of experience and that he played on Tennessee's Super Bowl team before moving to Denver the past two seasons.

And, of course, Marvin Lewis knows Jermaine Lewis from the Ravens' Super Bowl title team of 2000.

"You can have two approaches," Lewis said. "We find the player that has the athletic ability and the skills we're looking for to fit in what we do. Or, we have to change what we want to do to what the player's skills are."

Lewis won't shy away from adjusting to a player if the guy is good enough, such as "a vertical receiver or lights-out man-to-man corner." When told this is a thin market on any front, Lewis flashed his philosophy.

"On whose terms?" he asked.

The terms Spikes appears to be looking at are the ones Falcons middle linebacker Keith Brooking agreed to last week: A seven-year, $40.5 million deal that voids to six years at $34 million with a signing bonus of $10.6 million, first-year compensation of $11.2 million, $13.9 million in the first two years, and $17.4 million in the first three years.

"The deal has to be considered. It can't be ignored," said Todd France, Spikes' agent.

Brooking has been to the Pro Bowl and Spikes hasn't, but Spikes has also been their leading tackler for four of the past five seasons. If Spikes is looking at the Brooking number, the Bengals have to decide if they are willing to put that $6 million average into the middle of the defense with middle linebacker Brian Simmons' $3.73 million average as they also attempt to beef up the defensive line and secondary.

One former Bengal is already getting play on the market. The agent for left tackle Richmond Webb said one team has already inquired about him as a starter, and three or so others are interested as a backup. The Bengals are considering asking him back at a backup price, but Steve Zucker said, "all things being equal, he'd go back to Miami, but we'll see what unfolds."

Webb, 36, cut last week to clear $5 million of salary cap room, spent the first 11 years of his career with the Dolphins before going to the Bengals the past two years. With Mark Dixon moving back to guard, Miami is also seeking a starting left tackle.

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