3-11-02, 7:00 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals defense has won over more than the NFL's top 10. On 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 defensive end Renaldo Wynn 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. What is less clear is what the market holds for one.
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 didn't like Arizona's initial offer and has 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 said 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. But 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.