BY GEOFF HOBSON
With right tackle Willie Anderson in the fold, the Bengals' objective is to ward off a 10-game holdout by Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon and get him to the negotiating table to hammer out a long-term deal. The club has already sent him the June 1 letter in which the Bengals re-tendered him a one-year offer of $1.37 million. But they will cut it to $553,630 if Dillon doesn't accept the tender by June 15, the date teams can offer players a 110 percent raise from last season's salary. Dillon, a three-time 1,000-yard runner, made $503,300 in 1999.
Also on the horizon is the first number-crunching in the negotiations of first-round draft choice Peter Warrick. His agents are expected to send the Bengals a proposal Friday or next week. But the spotlight is clearly on Dillon.
He's not only on the minds of the Bengals' negotiators, but players and coaches are keeping him in their thoughts. Quarterback Akili Smith went as far today to predict a Bengal postseason if Dillon shows up.
"If we can find that missing piece, which is Corey Dillon, I think we'll finish better than .500. Easy," Smith said. "Playoff berth. Everything. Wild card. Corey's the missing piece. Nothing against our running backs. We've got some good running backs in camp. Corey's the missing piece and hopefully they'll get together and get him a good contract."
At his own news conference today, Anderson went out of his way to emphasize Dillon's importance.
"I was wishing Corey's deal got done first," Anderson said. "As offensive linemen, we need Corey Dillon. Akili's only going to take us so far. But Corey's going to take the burden off Akili. We need to sign him."
Actually, Anderson thinks there might be a thaw in the cold war after talking with linebacker Takeo Spikes. Spikes told Anderson that Dillon, "sounds more positive.
"(Spikes said) he sounded more positive than you think he would," Anderson said. "I think it will come to an end. If you talked with him during the season, he (wasn't negative)."
The Bengals tried to deal with Dillon, a restricted free agent, before approaching Anderson. They invited him to come to Cincinnati with agent Marvin Demoff after last month's draft, but he didn't take them up on it. A month ago, Dillon balked at the Bengals' most recent offer of a $3.6 million average salary for five years. He seeks the $5 million per year range.
Demoff, who couldn't be reached for comment, has indicated he would be willing to meet in the next week or two. The Anderson deal could heighten Dillon's resolve to get similar numbers. The Bengals think if Dillon met with them like Anderson and agent Terry Bolar did, a deal could get done.
"He can sign the tender to protect himself, but that doesn't mean we can't work on something long term and re-do the deal," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn. "Yes, we'll reduce the offer if he doesn't accept. That was built in for a reason. It's designed so guys would be signed on time and wouldn't create holdouts."
Dillon is threatening to sit out the first 10 games and return for the final six, the minimum number to earn another year's credited experience and become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Blackburn says the Bengals want him here and feel they can pay him as well as Anderson.
It's getting tight under the salary cap. Anderson's $1 million salary this season and bonuses of about $8 million counts $3.5 million against the cap, boosting his cap number by $1.8 million and shaving the Bengals' pad from $5 million to about $3.2 million under the cap. And they need to spend about $3 million on rookies.