Gray's visit to turn into homecoming?

6-05-01, 11:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

It has taken nearly 30 years and three stops along the free-agent trail, but cornerback Carlton Gray is finally taking a physical for the hometown Bengals this week.

And the 6-foot, 203-pounder out of Forest Park High School looks to have a good chance at becoming the fourth local prep product on the roster.

After taking stock of Gray's enthusiasm at making a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, the Bengals have re-evaluated their situation and scheduled a Thursday meeting and doctor's appointment.

"For a lot of reasons, he's attracted to Cincinnati," said agent Marvin Demoff Tuesday night of his client's desire to possibly end his career at home. "If there is no great difference in the money, the Bengals would be his first choice and I don't expect the money is going to be all that different. It's home and that's important to him."

The Bengals have always felt Gray was lukewarm to them when they pursued him heavily in the 1997 and 1999

free-agency periods.

But while Cincinnati was looking to pay Gray less than $1 million per year, he pulled down multi-million deals from the Colts, Giants and Chiefs that also made him vulnerable under the salary cap.

The Bengals aren't looking to drop much more than the minimum salary. But clearly the two sides have come a long way since Gray turned down director of college/pro personnel Jim Lippincott's offer a few years ago to visit Spinney Field while Gray was in town for a family visit.

Although the Bengals maintain they still don't see a starting cornerback available on the market, they know they would be getting an experienced guy who is two games shy of playing in his 100th NFL game after spending the past two seasons in Kansas City.

"He can come in here and be at least a solid veteran backup," Lippincott said.

Gray, who turns 30 later this month, last stared consistently for the 1997 Colts. But Gray is a big corner who has contributed on special teams and on passing downs.

After graduating from Forest Park, Gray became a consensus first-team All-American at UCLA before Seattle made him the 30th pick in the 1993 draft.

The Bengals have sought at least a two-year deal in their bid to get veteran cornerbacks such as Walt Harris and DeRon Jenkins. Jenkins wanted a shorter contract, but turned down a one-year proposal that included the Bengals' right of first refusal for the second year.

There are indications Gray would prefer a two-year deal. And Tuesday's extension of the collective bargaining agreement through 2007 appears to make that more feasible for all veteran backups.

Part of the extension agreement allows veterans to be paid more starting next year through an arrangement with the NFL Players Association that would allow veterans making the veteran's minimum to count for a rookie's minimum under the salary cap.

Despite Tuesday's CBA extension, contracts done this year can still only be pro-rated over six years even though the last year with a salary cap is now 2006 and 2007 is now uncapped.

The Bengals have had productive talks with fifth-rounder Victor Leyva and sixth-rounder Riall Johnson even though the Falcons threw a curve to most of the league.

That's when they got around the six-year pro-ration by signing No. 1 pick Michael Vick to just one percent more than last year's No. 1 pick with the use of guaranteed money in later years.

That means the Falcons can give about a 10-percent hike over last year to the rest of their rookies. The only other team that can do that is Cleveland, which cut its fifth-rounder after an arrest surfaced.

But Lippincott indicated Tuesday night that the agents for Leyva and Johnson haven't raised the point in discussing the club's initial offers.

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