Deal might not be in slot

8-22-01, 6:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Now that everyone but Justin Smith is signed, his agent figures there is nowhere left to go in the negotiations with the Bengals but into the slot.

"The landscape has changed," Jim Steiner said Wednesday. "A slot is what we have been asking for. It should be easy now, shouldn't it? "

Maybe not.

With the Chargers signing running back LaDainian Tomlinson late Tuesday night, the players drafted a slot ahead of and a slot below Smith at No. 4 are believed to have contracts that give guaranteed signing bonuses and one-time minimum triggers for escalators.

"Justin and the Smith family hopes this deal is a major step in getting signed," Steiner said.

But those are two elements the Bengals have been fighting in a stalemate that hit its 34th day Wednesday.

ESPN.com reported that Tomlinson, the draft's fifth pick, got a six-year deal that can max out at $38 million with annual salaries in the final three years escalating to $5.5 million, $6.5 million and $7.5 million. He must gain 1,000 yards in any of his first three seasons to get those later salaries.

Browns defensive tackle Gerard Warren, the No. 3 pick, has a similar deal and it's a structure the Bengals are intent on not doing. They point to players like Ryan Leaf and Andre Wadsworth who have been let go early in their deals and the club was forced to eat the signing bonus.

"We don't like the structure of the Tomlinson and Warren deals because unless the player is really a top performer, you have to cut him after three years," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn. "We're for a structure if he plays well, then he's paid well. And that works better for the player and the team."

Steiner hoped the Tomlinson deal would speed up negotiations and he planned to call the Bengals Wednesday. But there had

been no contact at the end of the Bengals' afternoon practice here at Georgetown College.

"There should be no resistance to a slotted deal because that's what the draft is all about," Steiner said. "We're not asking for more than one, or two, or three. We're only looking between three and five and that doesn't just mean total dollars. It's structure, bonus, front sides and back sides."

But the Bengals have been resisting doing guarantees and one-time triggers for huge salaries because they feel those things will hamper their ability to work with the salary cap in future years and because not every team did first-round deals mirroring the Warren and Tomlinson contracts.

It's believed the Bengals are in line with their offer of base money and what the total could become with escalators. They also appear to be close in signing bonus and first-year compensation that's believed to be in the $11 million range.

But they can't agree on what triggers the escalation or guaranteeing the second portion of the signing bonus.

Blackburn said she thought the sides were close to a deal a few times during Steiner's three-day visit that ended Tuesday. The club was frustrated by what they thought was Tuesday's slow pace, but Steiner said it had nothing to do with what was happening in San Diego.

"(The Tomlinson deal) was always a factor, but I already had a feel for what it was going to be (a few weeks ago)," Steiner said. "We were unable to use it, but we proceeded anyway to try and get a deal without it."

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