Frustration slotted

8-22-01, 6:10 p.m.

Updated: 8-22-01, 8:20 p.m.

Updated: 8-23-01, 1:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Now that everyone in the NFL but Justin Smith is signed, his agent figures there is nowhere left to go in the negotiations with the Bengals but into the slot.

"The landscape has changed," said Jim Steiner Wednesday, encouraged by the signing of Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

In fact, Steiner said the landscape has changed so much with the Tomlinson contract that the Bengals are probably second-guessing themselves for turning down a deal Tuesday that was close to what the team wanted with no guaranteed split signing bonus and escalators that didn't blow up into huge salaries late in the deal.

Then hours later Tuesday, Tomlinson, the draft's fifth choice picked a spot behind Smith, signed what ESPN.com reported as a six-year deal that has a guaranteed split signing bonus and can max out at $38 million with annual salaries in the final three years escalating to $5.5 million, $6.5 million and $7.5 million. He must gain 1,000 yards in any of his first three seasons to get those later salaries.

"That's not true," said Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of business development. "They haven't put a deal on the table yet that we wished we had taken."

Steiner is mystified talks went nowhere Wednesday now that the players drafted ahead of and right behind Smith are signed.

"A slot is what we have been asking for. It should be easy now, shouldn't it? " Steiner asked.

But it won't be.

Bengals President Mike Brown said Wednesday night the club is prepared to stand its ground if Steiner continues to insist on the guarantees and one-time triggers that are in the deals bracketing Smith at Nos. 3 and 5.

Steiner said he gave on the guarantee issue during Tuesday's negotiations here at Georgetown College. But he couldn't get the incentives package he thinks is warranted from the players signed around Smith.

"They want it the Bengal way. They want everything," Steiner said Wednesday night from St. Louis.

Both sides are accusing the other of "cherry picking," from other deals and failing to look at the big picture for Smith, a junior defensive end from Missouri.

Brown said the sides spoke Wednesday evening, "but I think it stands pretty much where it was yesterday. We don't apologize for our offer. We're offering (Smith) more than Tomlinson in the first year, in the first three years, and he can make more than $40 million if he's a good player.

"And our base package for the six years is bigger," Brown said.

Steiner disputed the claim that the Bengals have offered Smith more than Tomlinson in the first year and the disagreement reflects how differently they are interpreting their positions.

Steiner says the Bengals are offering Smith $3 million

less than Tomlinson in first-year compensation. Tomlinson gets $6 million of his $10.5 million bonus this year and the remaining $4.5 million, which is guaranteed, in March. Plus, he gets a $1 million salary, good for, Steiner says, $11.5 million in first-year compensation.

The Bengals have offered Smith a $7.5 million bonus this year, a $2.5 million bonus in March that's not guaranteed, and a $1 million salary. The Bengals argue Tomlinson gets $7 million in the first year while Smith gets $8.5 million.

But the big hangup now seems to be the escalators and how big they blow up the last three years of the deal.

Browns defensive tackle Gerard Warren, the No. 3 pick, has a similar deal to Tomlinson and it's a structure the Bengals are intent on not doing. They point to players like Ryan Leaf and Andre Wadsworth who have been let go early in their deals and the club was forced to eat the signing bonus.

"We don't like the structure of the Tomlinson and Warren deals because unless the player is really a top performer, you have to cut him after three years," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn. "We're for a structure if he plays well, then he's paid well. And that works better for the player and the team."

Brown called the Tomlinson deal "a Ryan Leaf deal. It's a three-year deal and we're not going to do a Ryan Leaf deal. We're not going to start guaranteeing contracts and we're not going to pay players for not performing."

Steiner says he also gave on the escalator package during Tuesday's talks, recognizing that the Bengals want players to perform over a period of time instead of rewarding one-time triggers.

"Usually it's a blend of low, mid, and high achievements," Steiner said. "But for the Bengals, it's always on the high side."

But Troy Blackburn said Steiner seeks the best part of Peter Warrick's deal (high base, low escalators) and Edgerrin James' deal (low base, high escalators) out of the last two previous No. 4 picks. Plus, he says in some of the Smith proposals the other side is not putting enough emphasis on play time.

"Look at the top defensive ends in this league," Troy Blackburn said. "They're playing 75, 85 percent of the time. They're not just third-down pass rushers . That's not the kind of player we drafted and that's not the kind of player we think we have. We drafted a three-down guy."

The Bengals argue that counting the upside of Warrick's contract, Smith gets a 25 percent increase. Steiner sees the total package including base money differently.

While Troy Blackburn says Steiner is "cherry picking," from Warrick and James, Steiner says the Bengals are "cherry picking," from the deal for No. 2 Leonard Davis (no guarantee) and No. 6 Richard Seymour (tough escalators) while ignoring the deals for Nos. 3 and 5.

"They are forcing Justin Smith to stay out of training camp until they accept the market and stop cherry picking from deals that work to their advantage," Steiner said.

Steiner's hope the Tomlinson deal would push the negotiations appear to be dashed.

"Justin and the Smith family hopes (the Tomlinson deal) is a major step in getting signed," Steiner said.

"There should be no resistance to a slotted deal because that's what the draft is all about," Steiner said. "We're not asking for more than one, or two, or three. We're only looking between three and five and that doesn't just mean total dollars. It's structure, bonus, front sides and back sides."

But the Bengals have been resisting doing guarantees and one-time triggers for huge salaries because they feel those things will hamper their ability to work with the salary cap in future years and because not every team did first-round deals mirroring the Warren and Tomlinson contracts.

Katie Blackburn said she thought the sides were close to a deal a few times during Steiner's three-day visit that ended Tuesday. The club was frustrated by what they thought was Tuesday's slow pace, but Steiner said it had nothing to do with what was happening in San Diego.

"(The Tomlinson deal) was always a factor, but I already had a feel for what it was going to be (a few weeks ago)," Steiner said. "We were unable to use it, but we proceeded anyway to try and get a deal without it."

Despite the war of words, both sides said they would still work to get a deal. Steiner said, "There's no reason Justin Smith should be out of camp. Let's get the deal done now."

Troy Blackburn said, "There are 50 ways to get this thing done. We've looked at a lot of ways and the two sides haven't come up with it yet. But we're still going to keep trying and find a way."

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