Free players beckon

2-22-03, 3:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ Free agency starts this Friday, but the Bengals are already researching names that have shaken loose on the waiver wire.

Rick Smith, the agent for former Patriots wide receiver Donald Hayes, said here at the NFL scouting combine that he is under the impression the Bengals are interested in his client. Wide receiver/punt returner Jermaine Lewis, released by the Texans earlier this week, has a Marvin Lewis connection from Baltimore and could get considered because he has close ties to former players.

And, "The St. Paul Pioneer Press," reported this weekend that the Bengals might have made a push for blocking specialist Jim Kleinsasser, but now that the Vikings have put the franchise tag on the tight end, they won't. They might have made a run if Minnesota had put on the transition designation, which would have brought no compensation if the Vikings didn't match.

The 5-7 Lewis, 28, fits the profile since head coach Marvin Lewis knows him from their time together in Baltimore. He isn't doling out the club's money, but he has virtually that power in his first free agency rush as a head coach.

"What I have to help do is put a value on it," Marvin Lewis said. "It all has to fit together, but I've got to help with the value of what the player

is both right now and long term and keep that budget in mind for the football team because I can't say we need this guy now, but next year we're without someone else. It's my responsibility to make sure we have enough quality players at every spot to continue a process of cycling guys through and hopefully we can get a good start on that this year."

Lewis is confident he can lure players he knows from being on other teams with them, but he won't let sentiment get involved.

"You just have to make it fit. We're not going to get ahead of ourselves just because there's an affection there," Lewis said. "It's got to be the right fit. You have to be careful falling in love with a guy if he's not the right guy. You have to make sure it's the right guy for us, we don't have a great deal of space and we have to make sure we're right."

The Bengals just cleared $5 million under the salary cap with the release of left tackle Richmond Webb ($4 million salary, $1 million roster bonus), and before that ESPN.com reported they had about $9 million to spend. But it's unclear if those numbers include the $4.8 million transition tag on Takeo Spikes and the $3 million in one-year tenders to restricted free agents.

Marvin Lewis isn't commenting on his free-agent targets, or if his plan is to get several solid players, or one or two marquee players. Cardinals wide receiver David Boston? Redskins defensive tackle Daryl Gardener who played for Lewis in Washington last year?

"The free agency thing depends on the market," Lewis said. "We have some places where we want to acquire some people. You get a chance to shape maybe a direction down the line, that if you get into the draft and both guys are rated the same, then you can pick a player as a need player if they have the same grade. Hopefully we can fill some slots and make some positions competitive through free agency. I think we will."

The 6-4 Hayes, 27, has the size and speed they seek at wideout. He caught just 12 passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns in New England after signing as a free agent from Carolina. With the Panthers, he caught 132 balls for 1,855 yards and seven touchdowns.

"It just wasn't a fit in the Patriots' offense, but he is a big guy who can run," Smith said.

The 5-7 Jermaine Lewis, 28, had his best days in Baltimore as a punt and kick returner, culminating with his touchdown return in the Ravens' Super Bowl win two years ago.

His salary made him expendable in Houston after he caught two balls for 41 yards in 13 games, and didn't break either return. He averaged 20.9 yards on kicks and 7.8 yards on punts, but he would figure to help a punt return game that finished at the bottom of the NFL last season.

"It's opportunity what you're selling," said Marvin Lewis of the free-agent sales pitch. "I think we can provide that opportunity for them to showcase their talents and become a better football player than they were when they walked in the door and help us win football games. That's what most free agents want. It's going to come down to that opportunity and being able to meet their terms somewhat financially. The other part of the process is very minimal in the guy's mind. I'm excited when we get to that point that there'll be some opportunity."

Lewis thinks some sanity has been injected into free agency the past few seasons, which means not many teams think it's going to be a free-wheeling market.

"Players and teams have realized that we don't need to write too many ridiculous contracts on the back end," Lewis said. "Let's keep our guy employed throughout. Let's make the increases minimal so that the team feels good about at least maybe a restructuring rather than having to totally release the guy. I think that's why the number of (available) guys are down."

Bengals President Mike Brown has rarely re-structured because they don't like dumping money into future years. But many other teams do it and Lewis thinks it's a thing to consider, but not right now because his plate is crowded.

"It has to be the right time and the right way, and we haven't got as much into that," Lewis said. Maybe in the future, as you have young guys, becomes something to do. . . It has to be something Mike is comfortable with. That's really not where we're at right now. We're a long ways from that. Let's take care of where we're at right now."

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