DILLON IN THE FOLD

5-11-01, 8:00 p.m.

Updated: 5-11-01, 10:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Corey Dillon, who has set most of the Bengals' rushing records in his four seasons, went into the book again Friday when he became the highest paid player in team history.

Dillon, a two-time Pro Bowl running back, is now running on the high ground of the NFL's elite backs with a five-year contract that reports say averages $5 million per year and is worth more than $12 million in first-year compensation.

Neither the Bengals or Dillon's agents would divulge financial terms. But Dillon said Thursday he deserved a deal comparable to the one Tennessee Pro Bowl running back Eddie George signed last year.

So it's believed the Dillon deal surpasses George's first-year compensation of $10.4 million and his first three years compensation of $17 million.

It's also believed Dillon is just the fifth running back in history to receive an eight-figure signing bonus, joining George, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis.

Dillon couldn't be reached for comment and Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn would only say the numbers are big and well earned.

David Dunn, Dillon's lead negotiator, said Cincinnati has a future as bright as his client's.

Which maybe, just maybe, means the breakthrough free-agent this franchise needed to sign to impress other free agents turned out to be a guy they've had all along.

"This team, with its salary cap situation, high draft choices, and new stadium with all its revenue is in a unique situation to contend," Dunn said. "They truly did step up and Corey is pleased."

"It's the richest contract we've ever offered Corey," said Blackburn, who has chaired the three Dillon negotiations of the past year. "This deal pays Corey at the very top for running backs in the NFL.

"We're thrilled because it means Corey is going to be a Bengal for the rest of his career," Blackburn said. "That means a lot to us because he's going to be a key figure in our success."

The Bengals' captains saluted both sides for a deal that they think helps the club on and off the field.

"It's good for him, it's good for the team, it's good for the city," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "It shows that management is trying to get it done. I think he came back because he knows we've got a shot at winning."

Dillon's deal comes nearly a year after the Bengals made right tackle Willie Anderson the NFL's richest offensive lineman. Now Cincinnati has the linchpins of the NFL's second-best rushing offense wrapped up long term.

"He's so important to what we do," Anderson said. "If he had gone to Cleveland, it would have been devastating. It's a big lift for

us. I guess looking back on it, it paid off. They wanted to save room for Corey and also get some good solid players who will help and that's what happened."

Dillon is the fourth offensive starter to re-sign with the club after the season in a flurry that also includes the signing of six veteran free agents who played elsewhere in the NFL last season, four of whom have been projected as starters.

And Bengals President Mike Brown said Friday night after the Dillon signing more moves could be in the offing. Particularly after June 1 and specifically in the hunt for a veteran cornerback.

The hit under this year's salary cap for Dillon figures to be in the $4.5 million range and Brown said the Bengals, "might be able to do one more thing, but I'm not ready to say if we will or what we'll do. We've been talking and meeting pretty much every day since the end of the season and it's always changing. This is another step in what has been a step-by-step process."

Dillon, like George, has rushed for 1,000 yards in his first four seasons in the AFC Central and felt he should be compared economically to George's seven-year, $42 million deal.

Dunn and Joby Branion hammered out the particulars in day-long negotiations Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium with Blackburn.

Dillon didn't sit in on the meetings, but he was apparently with his agents when talks switched to the phone after dinner and went to nearly midnight.

The deal was virtualy in place at the end of the night, but Dillon didn't decide to take it until nearly 24 hours later, at about 7:30 p.m when he signed the deal at his Blue Ash home.

It turned out to be Friday, the day he wanted a deal done when he issued his challenge last Sunday night to the Bengals.

The challenge, which also put his agents on notice, was to stay in a room to get a deal on Friday. Dillon had a day to spare when the Los Angeles-based Dunn and Branion flew into Cincinnati Wednesday night.

Their only break Thursday came when the agents lunched with Blackburn and the rest of the team at the stadium after a voluntary practice.

Dillon, 26, figures to be at those practices starting Tuesday. Last season, when he set the Bengals' single-season rushing record with 1,435 yards, he didn't work out with the team until he ended a three-week holdout at training camp after signing a one-year, $3 million contract.

After setting the NFL's single-game rushing record with 278 yards against the Broncos last Oct. 22, Dillon capped off his big year with the big contract that eluded him last year.

Dillon has had a love-hate relationship with the Bengals since they picked him in the second round of the 1997 NFL Draft. It turned ugly when his three-year rookie deal ended without a contract extension while the club struggled on the field.

But he settled in Cincinnati after this season for the first time and urged the Bengals to step up even before he went on the free-agent market with the transition tag. The tag cooled other interest because it gave Cincinnati the right to match any offer in a market where a majority of teams were squeezed by the salary cap.

Dillon began free agency by requesting a blueprint from the Bengals for turning around a franchise that doesn't have a winning record in 10 years. When he saw the Bengals add a playoff quarterback in Jon Kitna, a seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle in Richmond Webb, and one of the league's top blocking fullbacks in Lorenzo Neal, he noticed.

"My whole thing. . .wasn't trying to go to another team. It was what my team was doing," Dillon said Thursday. "I've seen the moves they made and that's all I wanted. I wanted to see how we were going to get better. They went out in the market and they picked up some guys that are going to make this team better. They answered my questions."

On Thursday, Dillon sounded like a Bengal for life.

"If we can get a long-term deal, I'm here. I don't have a problem with that," Dillon said. "My career would be much more satisfying if I stick it out and turned this around. It would be much more special.

"(As a free agent) you could go to a team that's already established as a winner or stick it out here, sweat and shed tears with the guys, and bring the program back where it needs to be. It would a little bit more special the way I want to do it. That's to tough it out."

The 6-1, 225-pound Dillon's power has toughed out two of the seven biggest rushing games in NFL history and 4,894 career yards. So he has a shot at matching stats as big as his salary. At the moment, only five running backs who played most of their career in the AFC have 10,000 career rushing yards: Marcus Allen (12,243), Franco Harris (12,120), Thurman Thomas (11,938), John Riggins (11,352) and O.J. Simpson (11,236).

Here are Dillon's Bengals' records that got him the team's richest deal:

Most yards rushing in a game; 278 vs. Denver, Oct. 22, 2000.

Most rushing yards in a season; 1,435, 2000.

Most carries in a game; 39 against Tennessee, Dec. 4, 1997.

Most rushing yards in a game by a rookie, 246 against Tennessee, Dec. 4, 1997. He held the NFL record until Denver's Mike Anderson broke it in 2000.

Most yards rushing in a rookie season; 1,129, 1997.

Most yards from scrimmage by a rookie; 276 vs. Tennessee, Dec. 4, 1997.

Most 100-yard rushing games in a season; five in 1999 and 2000.

Most 200-yard rushing games in a career; three.

Most 200-yard rushing games in a season; two in 2000.

Most rushing touchdowns in a game, 4 vs. Tennessee Dec. 4, 1997.

Most touchdowns in a game; 4 vs. Tennessee Dec. 4, 1997, a record he shares with Larry Kinnebrew.

Most points in a game; 24 vs. Tennessee, Dec. 4, 1997, a record he also shares with Kinnebrew.

Dillon is 1,554 yards shy of the team rushing record set by James Brooks from 1984-91.

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