3-11-02, 7:00 p.m.
Updated: 3-11-02, 10:10 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals defense has won over more than the NFL's top 10. Upon further review, Bears cornerback Walt Harris, who visited town last year, is looking at Cincinnati again. For Harris, the Bengals No. 9 defense doesn't look all that different than Chicago's defense looked the season before it fueled the Bears' 13-3 run in 2001.
"I' m a little more attracted to what is happening as far as defensively and where this organization is headed," Harris said Monday in the Paul Brown Stadium locker room. "I'm excited I can be a big part of that because I think this team's defense is very talented. A few holes (filled) here and there and this team can be a team on its way to getting to where they're trying to go."
Jaguars left defensive end Renaldo Wynn, a player whose work ethic and solid production has caught the Bengals' eye, had similar sentiments Monday during his visit and before he left to visit the Packers. While the Bengals covet both players, particularly the 27-year-old Harris, they aren't anxious to move all that quickly in what is a slow free-agent market.
"These are like pieces of a puzzle," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "If you sign someone, it forecloses you from doing something somewhere else. We've still got a lot of options open to us and we want to weigh some."
Brown wouldn't talk about what the options could be and if they included holding all available money in a trade for a quarterback. But it is clear they need a starting cornerback and Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel working on the Harris deal, says the position is a top priority. What is less clear is what the market holds for one.
After Harris left Cincinnati Monday, Tobin confirmed there is interest on both sides and although he said, "We have a lot of work to do," Tobin has a line of communication open with Harris' agent, the Miami-based Brian Levy.
Meanwhile, Artrell Hawkins, the Bengals starting right cornerback this past season, met with the Super Bowl champion Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., Monday before heading to his hometown Steelers in Pittsburgh Wednesday on his free-agency tour that began in Seattle last week.
Harris, a former No. 1 pick who started for the NFC Central champion
Bears, apparently wasn't impressed with Arizona's initial talks and has his eyes on Cincinnati. He said there is a potential visit to Oakland, but he'd like to get a deal "sooner," rather than later.
"Just coming here seeing where this team is defensively, I see the same thing (that happened in Chicago)," said Harris, who opted for a one-year deal with the Bears last year instead of what was believed to be a four-year, $10 million contract in Cincinnati.
"It's just a matter of going into the free-agent market and (filling) some holes where you need and that could be the difference as it was for us last year," Harris said. "I just see that they've got the guys they need up front and the linebackers are fairly deep. . .I think they've got some young guys back there in the secondary and that's why I'm here. To try to get (the Bengals) where they need to be."
Harris spent some of Sunday night in Cincinnati with former Bengals cornerback Tom Carter, his close friend from their days in Chicago. Even though the Bengals released Carter late last season, Harris indicated his friend pumped up his old club.
"He's a stand-up guy," Harris said. "He's a guy I fully trust. All of the things I'm telling you are what he told me and what I analyzed personally."
Harris alluded to a stigma attached to the Bengals because of their lack of winning, but he also remembers the knock on the Bears: "I've been with the Bears for six years and we were down and out. You just basically have to put those things in the past behind you and see where the team is headed. That's what I see."
It's believed that Hawkins has yet to see an offer, but he is visiting places that need corners. The question is, do they need starting corners? In Pittsburgh, he would be competing for the third corner behind Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington.
But Hawkins may be what Pats head coach Bill Belichick is usually looking for in free agency: A coachable, hard-try, hard-hitting corner with a reasonable price tag. But Belichick already has starters in Ty Law, a Pro Bowler, and 36-year-old Otis Smith. Nickel backs Terrence Shaw and Terrell Buckley aren't likely to be back. The Pats do like the speed of last year's sixth-round pick from Miami, Leonard Myers.
While visiting the Lions Monday, Redskins tight end Stephen Alexander cancelled Tuesday's trip to Cincinnati when the numbers of the two sides didn't match up close enough.
But Tobin said he'll continue to talk with Levy as the Bengals seek a starting corner. Hawkins, a favorite of the coaching staff, remains in that mix, as does the possible selection of a cornerback with the 10th pick in next month's NFL Draft.
"Walt has the ball skills and size (5-11, 195 pounds) you're looking for," Tobin said. "He's got experience, he's played at a high level, he played on a very good team last year, and he comes in expecting to win. He's been in a division with Randy Moss, where he's covered the other team's best receiver.
"He's got that confident level you need going into the first year of a new scheme," Tobin said. "In that first year, you go through some pains. Hopefully, a veteran guy knows how to handle the change and knows what to expect and be able to recognize coverages quicker than a rookie would."
While Harris has used Carter to research the Bengals, Wynn has been picking the brain of Oliver Gibson, the Bengals defensive tackle and his teammate at Notre Dame.
"Oliver (told me) 'You come here, you can play with a great, cohesive (group of) players. Guys that love to compete. It seems like a tight group of guys out there. You always want to play with guys like that, that love to compete, love to do whatever it takes out there."
Wynn, who turns 28 Opening Day week, is a guy the Bengals have admired for the five seasons he's played against them twice a year.
"He's strong, and he's pretty active, especially against the run," said Bengals director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott. "He's smart and he's got great work habits."
Wynn got a hug from Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon upon his arrival Monday in the Bengals locker room. The two came out in the 1997 draft, when Wynn went in the first round and Dillon went in the second. Wynn, who also has interest from New Orleans and Green Bay, sees Dillon as one of the reasons he's considering the Bengals.
"There's a lot of people taking the Bengals seriously now," Wynn said. "Take a team like the Baltimore Ravens. How they just got key players together and made a difference. I think Cincinnati, that's what they're doing."