Draft talks heat

7-6-01, 6:10 p.m.

Updated: 7-10-01, 3:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals agreed to terms Tuesday with fifth-rounder Victor Leyva as the Arizona State offensive lineman became the club's first draft pick in the fold. Leyva, who is backing up right guard Mike Goff but can also play tackle and possibly center, is expected to sign a three-year deal.

Meanwhile, since the Bengals and first-round draft pick Justin Smith reached an agreement last week to talk this week, there have been no discussions yet as the sides try to get a deal for the Missouri defensive end before training camp's first practice on the morning of July 21.

Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn discussed the Bengals' allotment in the rookie pool with agent Jim Steiner Friday while covering some general topics in what she termed "preliminary discussions," regarding Smith and his selection with the fourth pick in last April's NFL Draft.

Meanwhile, talks with second-rounder Chad Johnson, third-rounder Sean Brewer and fourth-rounder Rudi Johnson have heated up for Bengals vice president Paul Brown. But no deals are imminent heading into the weekend as the sides size up a variety of issues.

Steiner said Smith's deal won't resemble last year's seven-year, $42 million contract the club reached with wide receiver Peter Warrick even though he was also taken with the fourth pick.

But Steiner is confident he can do any kind of deal with Blackburn because she has structured the first-round

contracts for Warrick (which has already voided to six years) and Akili Smith in multiple ways the past few seasons.

"In the last two years, the Bengals have done it all," said Steiner Friday from his St. Louis office. "They've done voidable years. They've done escalators. They've done incentives. I've got an open mind and it seems like Katie does, too."

But how open her mind is on guaranteed money is uncertain.

Steiner is still digesting the NFL's lone first-round contract in which the Falcons gave overall No. 1 pick Michael Vick guaranteed money spread out over a few years. That device took a small chunk out of their rookie pool instead of the big bite that comes with an immediate lump sum signing bonus.

The major element at work this year is the extension of the league's collective bargaining agreement, which limits contracts to six years

"Because we're short a year of pro-ration and there are three years until uncapped years, this year's contracts are going to look different," Steiner said.

Steiner indicated he'll be taking a look at the Vick deal, feeling his client shouldn't be devalued because he's a defensive player and not a quarterback.

"It's not apples and oranges," said Steiner of the Smith-Vick comparison. "(Smith) is not that dissimilar since he's only three picks below the first pick. The draft doesn't differentiate all that much."

Also looming over the negotiations is wide receiver Ron Dugans' four-day holdout from last year's training camp. Represented by Steiner, Dugans balked at the so-called "Carl Pickens Clause," which attaches standard loyalty language to the signing bonus.

But since then, all the Bengals' free-agents have apparently signed the clause since it was upheld in January by an arbitrator in a grievance brought by the NFL Players Association.

And the clause didn't stop the Bengals from getting in hot-and-heavy negotiations with Steiner back in March for free-agent quarterback Elvis Grbac.

"I'm just not going to comment on that," Steiner said. "It's too early to talk about things like that."

The Bengals don't think it's too early for Auburn running back Rudi Johnson to sign. Not with the 99th pick of the draft (Falcons center Robert Garza) and the 101st pick (Jets defensive back Jamie Henderson) already signed around Johnson, the 100th pick. Garza got $330,000 to sign and Henderson $322,000, according to CBS Sportsline.com. Brown indicated Friday that the Bengals have offered a bonus in the middle of those numbers.

"We feel we made an offer that fits," Brown said. "Our number out of the rookie pool is higher than the rookie pool number for the player taken right after Rudi."

But according to CBS Sportsline, Henderson signed a three-year deal that includes incentives.

"Those two deals are done and we're not, so what's that say?" asked agent Peter Schaffer. "We're not there yet, but we're working."

Brown said the club wants to adhere to its policy of limiting incentives to the first two rounds.

An incentive will no doubt be discussed in the Chad Johnson negotiations. The player taken before Johnson in the second round, Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler, got a five-year deal that voids to four if he plays on a certain number of snaps.

The Bengals' desire to give voidable years only to first-round picks was at the heart of second-rounder Mark Roman's 17-day holdout last year, the NFL's last holdout by a non-first rounder.

Brown won't say how hard he'll go to the wall this year. But with Johnson bringing speed to the club's last-in-the-league passing game, the Bengals have made getting him into camp on time a priority.

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