Deals, Dillon spice report day

Updated:
7-27-03, 1 p.m. Updated:
7-27-03, 3:35 p.m. Updated:
7-27-03, 6:50 p.m. Updated:
7-27-03, 11:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ With Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis hours away from addressing his team for the first time Sunday night at training camp, the club signed three-year deals with their two fourth-round picks, Oregon State cornerback Dennis Weathersby and Eastern Kentucky fullback Jeremi Johnson.

When running back Corey Dillon showed up about eight hours late after missing a flight from the West Coast at about 11 p.m., the Bengals had just two players missing in unsigned rookies Eric Steinbach and Kelley Washington. Lewis wouldn't say if Dillon would be fined for missing the mandatory team meeting after not informing the club of his whereabouts until he arrived.

Also not in the meeting were Steinbach and Washington, but at least one of them was on campus Sunday. Steinbach drove into the players' parking lot in the afternoon, but he was only dropping off first-rounder Carson Palmer. The agent for the third-rounder, Washington, couldn't be reached for comment.

Steinbach, who flew in from Chicago Sunday, had his luggage in the back of Palmer's truck. But he turned it around and headed back to Cincinnati while waiting to hear from agent Jack Bechta.

Bechta said he was surprised he had been unable to reach a deal with the Bengals Sunday and said he was "disappointed." He's looking for a slot deal at No. 33 that compares with the No. 34-36 picks.

"We're not looking for anything out of the ordinary," Bechta said. "We just want a fair deal for Erich that fits with everyone else."

Steinbach briefly spoke to the media before making the U-Turn.

"My job is to go back to Cincinnati and wait for a phone call," Steinbach said. "As soon as I get the phone call, I'll shoot right down. It's an hour ride. My orders are to go back.

"The ball is in their court, hopefully it gets done," said Steinbach, who says he doesn't what is holding it up. "At least I have car. Easy access to get down when it gets done. We're roommates, he can trust me with his car."

Weathersby made the the drive down and stayed. According to Steve Caric, one of his representatives, Weathersby got the highest signing bonus in the round as the fourth round's top pick. He signed the contract later in the day when he drove in from Cincinnati to report with the rest of the team this afternoon.

"He's thrilled," Caric said. "Three months ago, he wasn't sure he'd even be in this position, but he is and he's excited to get going."

Weathersby is one of three projected first-round draft picks that fell to the Bengals later and could end up with significant playing time as rookies. He was shot six days before the draft on Easter, but has recovered enough to be in opening drills after missing all the pre-season camps. Steinbach is the only rookie slated to start when he lines up at left guard, and Washington, a wide receiver from Tennessee who has recovered from a neck injury, was drafted to complement Chad Johnson on the other side.

Bechta said Saturday night a deal with the Bengals was "inching closer," less than 24 hours before the club reported to Georgetown. But as midnight neared and talks closed for the night, Bechta said, "We still have a lot of work to do on most of the issues and we'll get going on it first thing in the morning."

Bechta said he thought they were in the final stages of negotiations because the market for the first pick in the second round (33rd overall) is pretty much set after deals for Nos. 34 and 36 had been inked, but he said they were still hashing out all the numbers, such as average per year and escalators.

"We've traded proposals three or four times in the last 24 hours or so," Bechta said. "The market is pretty much what it's going to be because the Bengals are one of the last teams in. We're not there, but we're working at it."

The Bears reportedly reached a deal with the No. 35 pick Saturday night and all indications are that contract fell in line with the high second-round trend of a five-year term with escalators.

Last week, Bechta indicated it might be an 11th-hour deal that brings Steinbach into the fold as he looked at the Bengals' track record on signing second-round picks. Last year, safety Lamont Thompson agreed to terms on reporting day. The year before that, Chad Johnson inked two days before reporting. The two years before that, Mark Roman and Charles Fisher held out, but Bechta hasn't mentioned that possibility and keeps saying things will get done.

"There have been a series of five-year deals with escalators and if we decide to go that route, I would expect the Bengals to jump all over that," said Bechta, referring to deals right behind Steinbach in the second round. "We're not committed to that yet, but I guess that's a way it might go because of the trend."

The Bengals did get a deal done Friday when seventh-rounder Elton Patterson, a Central Florida defensive end, signed a three-year contract. They also signed a rookie Thursday in college free agent Noah Happe, a fourth-year junior who is a defensive end from Oregon State.

The agent game is to get more money for their player than what the player got last year drafted in the same spot. The problem for all NFL teams is the league's rookie pool for 2003 is roughly the same amount that it was in 2002.

According to numbers reported by ESPN.com, the problem for the Bengals and Steinbach is the club has already used up 62 percent of the pool on their five signed draft picks, with 47 percent of that going to the draft's overall No. 1 pick in Carson Palmer.

Bechta would no doubt have like to have used the voidable-concept that would stretch out the signing bonus over seven years in a contract that would void to four years. The Bengals, fearing that money would be robbed from their veterans in future years, have always avoided voidable deals in the second round, and Bechta knows why.

"It makes your cap a little less complicated to manage (without the voidables)," Bechta said. "Teams don't like to use them and the Bengals don't want to open the door after the first round. I can understand that. But at the same time, if you're buying a house in the neighborhood. . ."

But the neighbors din't opted for voidables. At No. 34, a slot behind Steinbach, Detroit linebacker Boss Bailey signed a five-year, $4.6 million deal, which gives him a $95,000 roster bonus that comes equipped with an escalator clause. At No. 35, Louisiana-Lafayette safety Charles Tillman also reportedly got a five-year deal with escalators as well as a signing bonus in the $2.1 million range. At No. 36, the Patriots also signed cornerback Eugene Wilson to a straight five-year contract that includes an escalator in the fifth year.

The Bengals haven't been in love with giving rookies escalators, but they would probably rather make up the signing bonus to Steinbach in that fashion rather than doling out voidable years.

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