Hall's replacement already here?

3-3-03, 11:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Cory Hall was shocked the Bengals never called. The Bengals were shocked the Falcons gave Hall a $2.75 million signing bonus.

Shock is the only thing they had in common Monday after Hall vacated the Bengals' secondary for Atlanta with a five-year, $12.5 million deal. Hall, a third-round draft pick from 1999 who started 29 games at both safeties the past two years, joins fullback Lorenzo Neal as the second starter to leave Cincinnati in 48 hours.

But asked if both were in the Bengals' plans for next season, head coach Marvin Lewis said, "With Lorenzo, we made an attempt to sign him," and he had no comment when asked about Hall, indicating his new free safety could be on the current roster, maybe even at cornerback.

"I don't know if we have any starters anywhere," Lewis admitted.

For his part, Hall said Monday night from Atlanta, "I felt some loyalty to the Bengals and I just couldn't believe it when they never called to make any kind of offer. It kind of hurt, to tell you the truth. From what I heard, the coaches were upset with the front office for not talking to me."

Hall, who wanted to play strong safety instead of free, kept getting pulled back to free the past two seasons when other combinations

failed. So imagine his face when the Falcons told him, "You can pick your position. Free or strong.'"

Hall picked strong and now those days of getting pulled back and forth in Cincinnati are long gone. This past season, Hall was supposed to be the strong safety with second-round draft pick at Lamont Thompson at free. When Thompson struggled early, swingman Mark Roman replaced him on Opening Day, but Hall went back to free the next week for the rest of the season.

Yet everyone in the Bengals' secondary looks to be under the gun in the Lewis regime after allowing an AFC-high 30 touchdown passes in '02. Plus, there were several blown coverages.

"They couldn't find their free safety," Hall said. "I can't blame them for that. They made a move, it didn't work, and they ran out of options. I've been reading some of the names they're thinking about (like the Saints' Sammy Knight) and I'm thinking, 'You've already got your safety and he's only 26 years old."

The Bengals love Hall's motor, tenacity, speed and his good-guy rep. He's also been in the middle of a defense that hasn't been able to generate many turnovers. He leaves with three career interceptions, and one the past two years. Lewis hinted strongly that Hall wasn't in the mix for him. And he's not thinking about a high-price replacement like Knight. He's looking at Thompson and Marquand Manuel, last year's sixth-rounder who replaced Hall when he went on injured reserve in the last few games.

"They drafted two safeties last year. That was a statement made by the team," Lewis said. "We have to go forward."

Another possibility is putting Roman there for good instead of swinging him between cornerback and safety. And, asked if the Bengals could move one of their cornerbacks to free safety, Lewis said, "It's a possibility."

That could be Roman, or another prime candidate is nickel cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn, a 6-1, 190-pounder who has a penchant for getting his hands on the ball. In order for that to happen, the Bengals would have to land a free-agent cornerback, and they hope to do that Wednesday during Denver cornerback Denard Walker's visit.

"I would like to have come back," Hall said. "But they never called."

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