Deal might not slot

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

Updated: 8-22-01, 8:20 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," said Jim Steiner Wednesday, encouraged by the LaDainian Tomlinson deal. "A slot is what we have been asking for. It should be easy now, shouldn't it? "

But it won't be.

Bengals President Mike Brown said Wednesday night the club is prepared to stand its ground if Steiner continues to insist on the guarantees and the minimum triggers that are in the deals bracketing the No. 4 Smith at Nos. 3 and 5 in the first round.

Brown said the sides spoke Wednesday evening in the wake of Tomlinson, the fifth pick, reaching a deal late Tuesday night.

"But I think it stands pretty much where it was yesterday," Brown said. "We don't apologize for our offer. We're offering (Smith) more than Tomlinson in the first year, the first three years, and he can make more than $40 million if he's a good player."

ESPN.com reported that Tomlinson 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."

Brown called the Tomlinson deal "a Ryan Leaf deal. It's a three-year deal and we're not going to do a Ryan Leaf deal. We're not going to start guaranteeing contracts and we're not going to pay players for not performing."

Steiner's hope the Tomlinson deal would push the negotiations

doesn't seem to be happening.

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

"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, which Brown says could be more than $40 million. 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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