Hawkins about to join Wilson on market

2-14-02, 10:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

There is some mystery this offseason when it comes to the Bengals' quarterback plans. But there is no theater when it comes to cornerbacks.

With hopes fading at re-signing starter Artrell Hawkins by March 1, they plan to actively pursue another veteran cornerback in free agency because it is not a drop-dead cinch that they will take a corner with the 10th pick in the April 20-21 NFL Draft. In fact, they may be leaning to taking the best player available from a crop of offensive and defensive linemen.

The Bengals can't comment until then on a list that begins with the Ravens' Duane Starks and the Bears' Walt Harris, a player Cincinnati went after repeatedly last year before he re-signed with Chicago for a year.

But they could say Thursday why Hawkins is their No. 1 choice and why they have given him a couple of offers in the hopes he returns for a fifth season.

They remember how Hawkins was 65 minutes from free agency on a team with four wins in a game the Bengals trailed by 13 points with five minutes left and how he still lowered his 185 pounds into 250-pound Steelers running back Chris Fuamatu'afala on a sweep and how Hawkins separated his shoulder on a tackle that sparked the Bengals' comeback win.

After sleeping a few nights in a chair, Hawkins played on passing downs next week in the season finale because there were no healthy cornerbacks left. Told to only cover and not tackle, Hawkins ended up making some hits.

"We know what we have in him and we like him as a person. He's a quality character guy," said Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of pro/college personnel who is negotiating the contract. "He's tough in run support, his coverage skills are developing, and we think his career is on the upswing.

"We've made what we feel is an offer commensurate with his abilities," Tobin said. "I think they feel the offer is perhaps commensurate, but they would like to see what the market has to offer. We've expressed to them if they're going to look, so are we."

Hawkins, the University of Cincinnati product coming off the best season of his career after losing his starting job in 2000, would like to stay in the town in which he has lived for nearly a decade. He also salutes the impact new cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle had on his development last season. But the Bengals' initial offers apparently haven't been good enough to convince Hawkins to put down roots.

"I'd like to get something done," Hawkins said. "But I feel in my heart that I'm playing with so much confidence and playing so much

better that I'm going to make a lot of progress in becoming a shut-down corner in the next year or two. From the things Kevin has taught me and how I've seen myself learning how to play in the NFL in my first four years, I'm not only a better player, but a better student. I just feel I'm going to get better than I am now."

Which means maybe Hawkins doesn't think the offer is so commensurate with his abilities. But he also understands the Bengals are going to look while he looks.

"That's the way the business goes," Hawkins said.

"I think we're both in a waiting game right now to see what the market holds," Tobin said. "There are other corners and we would follow the trail. We'd like to be in position to take the best available player (with the 10th pick) no matter what happens here.

"We've got guys on the team who have played pretty well," Tobin said. "Rodney Heath is coming back from injury. (Robert) Bean and (Mark) Roman will have another year of experience under their belt. Kevin Kaesviharn showed he can be an NFL starting corner. All these guys, like Artrell, have up side. But we still need to add some quality and we'll try to do it in a lot of different ways."

With free agency and the trading deadline still two weeks away and the expansion draft for the Texans set for Monday, things have been relatively quiet at Paul Brown Stadium.

The two Bengals thought to be the most appealing of their five available to Houston because of their age and low salaries, rookie linebacker Riall Johnson and defensive end Jevon Langford, hadn't heard from the Texans as of Thursday night. That doesn't mean Houston won't take a Bengal, but the odds are against it with the club planning to draft only between 12 to 18 players.

David Levine, the agent for Bengals defensive end Reinard Wilson, figured after last month's Senior Bowl conversation with management that his client is headed to the market and nothing has changed. He said the sides haven't exchanged specific numbers, but the sense is they would be far apart if they did.

"There's a number out there that we would take and I'm here if the phone rings," said Levine of the unlikely call. "I think they thought long and hard about it, but they're probably not willing to pay him like a three-down player."

After a team-high and career-high nine sacks for Wilson, Levine is banking on at least one team thinking his client is worth comparably what the free-agent sack leaders pulled down last year. Wilson may not be a carbon copy of Marcellus Wiley or Kenny Holmes, but $4-$5 million per year is in that neighborhood of his statistics and Wilson figures it only takes one team to make the connection.

Looking purely at the stat sheet to identify teams that lacked sacks on the outside in 2001, Levine thinks Arizona, Denver, Indianapolis, Seattle and Minnesota are possible suitors.

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