Gardener watch into next week

6-3-04, 6:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Although the agent for Daryl Gardener has yet to confirm a visit to Cincinnati for his client, the defensive tackle appears to be the club's lone target in the post-June 1 market.

But it looks like the watch is going to move into next week because there was no indication Friday that Gardener had arrived in Cincinnati for a physical and the Bengals said they had no plans for a news conference Friday. The speculation now is that Gardener is going to remain in Florida over the weekend and make the trip early next week before the mandatory June 11-13 minicamp.

The club and agent Neil Schwartz still aren't commenting on a deal that was reportedly done two months ago, and no one is revealing a timetable on Gardener's arrival. But the Bengals don't take the field again until a week from Friday for the minicamp.

Gardener, 31, is viewed by many as the biggest impact player cut in the NFL this month. The other available big name defensive players have yet to be linked to Cincinnati, although head coach

Marvin Lewis has coached former Steelers outside linebacker Jason Gildon and former Redskins middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter.

At least nothing has surfaced yet.

The physical is a key part of the process because Gardener underwent back surgeries in 2000 and 2001 during his last two seasons with the Dolphins. In 2000, he suffered a disc herniation and had a fragment removed from his lumbar disc by a spince specialist. He missed six games and returned later in the season, but missed the last eight games of 2001 for laser surgery that removed fragments and scar tissue. He then had his career year in Washington in 2002, but the Bengals no doubt want their doctors to check him out to see if there are any remaining complications.

Gildon, who turns 32 at the end of July, has 77 career sacks and began his career as a 1994 third-round draft choice when Lewis coached the Pittsburgh linebackers. He's a 250-pound 3-4 backer who may morph into a defensive end in a 4-3, and has been linked with Cleveland, Houston, Green Bay, and Baltimore. But Ravens officials are saying they won't pursue him now.

The Bengals have two 270-pound starting ends in Justin Smith and Duane Clemons, and similar-sized backups in veterans Carl Powell and Elton Patterson and rookie Robert Geathers, and they just drafted two backers they like in coverage in the third round who weigh 225 pounds.

But things could change as the offseason gets closer to training camp with the Bengals trying to jack last year's sack total of 30, fourth fewest in the AFC. Indications are they don't have to cut anybody if they sign Gardener, but they would probably have to start lopping people to make room for players now cropping up on the wire.

Schwartz indicated as early as February that Gardener's next contract would be incentive-based in which his client gets paid only if he plays. That probably translates into no signing bonus and most likely minimum salaries for four years that can grow into as much as $9 million total if he hits all his play-time milestones.

The physical is a key part of the process because Gardener underwent back surgeries in 2000 and 2001 during his last two seasons with the Dolphins

Trotter, 27, was designated the Eagles' franchise player before they took the tag off and he signed with the Redskins before 2002 and played in the defense Lewis coordinated for a season.

Does Trotter fit here? He does know Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and is a solid guy. But the Bengals look to be seeking a different type of player there. Trotter is a 260-pound run stuffer and the Bengals just signed 240-pound free agent Nate Webster and drafted 225-pound Caleb Miller to run around and cover receivers in the middle.

The best available cornerback is Mike McKenzie, still looking for a trade from Green Bay. But his numbers might wreak havoc on the Bengals' salary cap, and they probably want nothing to do with the price tag involving first- and fifth-round draft choices.

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