Division of labor

4-05-01, 9:00 p.m.

The best division in football has spent the free-agency period getting better.

The Bengals feel they're better with the addition of quarterback Jon Kitna and defensive tackle Tony Williams.

And they better be, because the AFC Central iron of Baltimore and Tennessee has turned into steel with their productive offseasons.

All Super Bowl champion Baltimore did was add Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac to its legendary defense.

All Tennessee did was trade with the Rams for defensive end Kevin Carter and team the NFL sack leader over the past three seasons opposite Jevon Kearse, second only to Carter in sacks during his first two seasons.

There are those pundits who rip the Bengals for standing still in the supersonic division, for fiddling while guys like Ozzie Newsome, Floyd Reese and Dwight Clark burn the salary cap.

Still, Newsome, the Ravens' super architect, won't sell the rest of the division short.

"Cleveland got better, Jacksonville has retained the core of a good team, and Pittsburgh kept their big gun (running back Jerome Bettis)," said Newsome, who has always been a big fan of Bengals running back Corey Dillon.

"The Bengals got Kitna, but I think they can be better because of the people they already have," Newsome said. "Their young players are maturing and they've got good players coming back from injury. Brian Simmons will be back and Takeo Spikes will have another year like he did. And Corey's a Pro Bowl guy. If we're the best division then it just got better."

Reese, general manager of the Titans, agrees with the Bengals' philosophy of putting a premium on the draft. Like the Bengals, he's also eager about the return of two key players who missed virtually all of last season in receiver Kevin Dyson and cornerback Donald Mitchell.

"We're better," Reese said. "We don't usually use free agency to get our core players." "We've used it to get some good (complementary) players, guys like Lorenzo Neal, but that's about it. We like the draft."

Bengals President Mike Brown says his team is better because he feels the quarterback play will be upgraded by Kitna's numbers and Akili Smith's experience.

"I think everyone has helped themselves," Brown said of the Central. "We certainly have with Kitna. He's a guy who has won games in this league and he'll make Akili (Smith) better.

"Baltimore and Tennessee were arguably the two best teams in the NFL to start with," Brown said, "and they haven't done anything to diminish that in the offseason."

The lowly Browns have gone after people, too, in an effort to turn around a 3-13 season. They added tight end Rickey Dudley and right tackle Ross Verba to their questionable offensive line and produced a playoff-tested veteran at linebacker in the esteemed Dwayne Rudd.

Newsome: "Rudd adds speed to their defense."

Reese: "I haven't kept up with all the teams, but I read the names going in there and you have to say they'll be better."

On paper,

Jacksonville and Pittsburgh don't look as good as they did when the offseason started.

The Jags, struggling with the salary cap, have only been able to sign Redskins defensive end Ndukwe Kalu (one sack) and Redskins wide receiver James Thrash (50 catches), but lost players who could have been big-time contributors in right tackle Leon Searcy, guard Brenden Stai, and wide receiver Reggie Barlow.

The Steelers have re-signed Bettis, added guard Jeff Hartings, and swiped safety Mike Logan from the Jags. But defensive end Jeremy Staat and linebacker Levon Kirkland went to Seattle, and linebacker Mike Vrabel went to New England.

Reese, general manager of the Titans, doesn't get too concerned when he sees an interior offensive lineman or safety leave. At least he wasn't when he saw center Jeff Mitchell and safety Kim Herring leave Baltimore.

"They're good players and we really liked their center," Reese said. "But you have to look at which positions are key. They brought in a tackle and quarterback, two important spots where they needed help."

Not only did Baltimore bring in Searcy at right tackle, but they re-signed aging Harry Swayne to a much a cap-friendlier deal that gives them an experienced third tackle.

"When we evaluated after this season, we wanted to upgrade on offense and maintain our defense," Newsome said. "We had to do some things with the cap and we may have to look at re-shuffling the deck in '02."

On defense, the Ravens lost Herring. But Newsome said the re-signing of linebacker Jamie Sharper and the anticipated signing of safety Rod Woodson keeps the record-breakers intact enough.

Newsome sees his main rival in Tennessee adding Carter and re-structuring a deal for left tackle Brad Hopkins. But what Newsome noticed was the re-signing of dangerous receiver and special teamer Derrick Mason to a five-year, $20 million deal.

"Our objective was to retain our Pro Bowlers and then if we ran across a significant guy, we'd go after him," Reese said.

Reese's "significant," other turned out to be Carter in a trade with St. Louis for Tennessee's 29th pick in the first round.

"Their 29th pick is almost equivalent to our second-round pick," said Brown, who wouldn't part with the fourth pick in such a trade. As Reese said, "how can you do any better with a pick so far down in the round?"

But because Carter's $45 million contract includes $14 million in signing bonuses over the next three years, Reese will probably have to do what Newsome has to next year and re-tool some contracts.

He already cut four of Tennessee's NFL Europe players Wednesday to clear $1 million cap room for Carter.

But for now, it's trying to figure out a way to beat Baltimore. On and off the field.

"I wouldn't bury us yet," said Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "We should be better just because our players are older and have been around longer. I know this. We'll be stout against the run. There's a lot of talent here."

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