Hawkins agrees to return

3-17-02, 4:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

ORLANDO, Fla. _ The Bengals turned to one of their own Sunday in making their first move in free agency when they reached an agreement on a three-year deal that cornerback Artrell Hawkins is expected to sign Monday.

Hawkins, fresh off a workout in Oakland with the Raiders, landed red-eyed back in Cincinnati early Saturday morning and was greeted by the Bengals' strong desire to lock up their second-round draft pick from 1998 who has started 48 games. Details of the done deal were apparently still to be finalized late Sunday afternoon while Bengals officials were in closed-door sessions here on the first day of the NFL meetings.

Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of college/pro personnel, spent much of his Saturday on the phone with agent Don Yee in negotiations that heated up late in the week.

Hawkins and Yee couldn't be reached for comment Sunday and terms of the deal weren't available. But the Raiders, Vikings, and Steelers were believed to have made good enough offers to Hawkins that the Bengals had to adjust their original designs to land him.

The Bengals are still pursuing other cornerbacks, such as the Colts' Jeff Burris, scheduled for a visit this Friday at Paul Brown Stadium. But the Hawkins' signing allows them more flexibility with the 10th pick in next month's NFL Draft and means they don't have to draft a cornerback to simply to line up in minicamp.

Hawkins, 25, had his best year

this past season when he started 13 games at right cornerback and tied his career high with three interceptions. He's had a rocky road since coming out of the University of Cincinnati, and his inconsistency playing the ball earned him a benching early in the 2000 season.

But Hawkins showed why the Bengals like him, sucking it up and earning his job back this past training camp. He made no bones about admitting his career has been revived by cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle, who is moving into his second season with the club. Indeed, one of the major reasons Hawkins is returning is because of his relationship with Coyle and defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. Both men lobbied management heavily for Hawkins' return.

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