James deal spikes Takeo?

3-9-03, 10:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

More evidence that the Bengals are expected not to match the Takeo Spikes offer as soon as Monday came Sunday night.

The agent for Raiders cornerback Tory James said his client has agreed to a four-year deal with the Bengals and would be signed Monday. The Bengals did not confirm the deal Sunday, but "The St. Paul Pioneer Press," is reporting that the Vikings didn't want to match the Bengals $14.4 million offer that includes a $3.7 million signing bonus and a $6 million payout in the first year.

Plus, one of the agents for Reggie Kelly said the Bengals were talking to them Sunday about a deal for the Falcons tight end.

The 6-2, 190-pound James, who turns 30 in May, is coming off a season he was one of the Raiders' Super Bowl cornerbacks. He fits the Marvin Lewis profile even though he has just 21 NFL starts as a big corner who can cover man-to-man and has played on Super Bowl teams in Denver and Oakland.

"Tory is a true cover corner and he really likes the style of defense that Marvin Lewis and Leslie Frazier are going to use," said Mark Bartelstein, James' Chicago-based agent.

That means Lewis has responded to Buffalo's offer of more than $11 million in guaranteed money to Spikes with about $11 million of up-front money to three likely defensive starters on Opening Day in James, linebacker Kevin Hardy, and tackle John Thornton.

Which also means the Bengals aren't going to drop a lot of money on a fullback after Nicolas Luchey opted to go to Green Bay. The Bengals don't have a fullback on their roster with one NFL carry, but Lewis won't panic.

"We've been evaluating fullbacks the entire time and we'll be OK there," Lewis said. "We've got guys here on campus who can do it and they'll get some looks."

That would indicate the Bengals aren't looking to spend the money they offered Luchey and Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal before he went to San Diego. Neal said the Bengals offered about an average of $925,000 per year, and while Luchey wouldn't comment on the Bengals' offer, it probably was a little less.

"I was leaning toward the Bengals over the Packers until they took the incentives off the table," Luchey said Sunday. "It came down to the Packers paying me the money and the Bengals weren't."

Luchey said the Bengals decided to not to offer him incentives for touchdowns and other statistical milestones. He also wondered if there were financial reasons why he didn't play in the season finale the week after he beat the Saints on 12 carries for 59 yards and two touchdowns

"If it comes down to money like that, then he should go to the other team," Lewis said. "Nick is a good player, but those are the things that we're paying him to do."

Lewis likes Luchey's athleticism and versatility, but he apparently had only so much to offer for a player whose weight and durability had been questioned in the organization. He played 16 games for the first time last year, and was also used as a conventional tight end as well as an H-Back. But he only carried 12 times last year, and that was all in that one quarter.

"I don't think they used me right, but I think that was going to change if I had stayed," Luchey said. "I think they were going to use me more as a runner. We just scratched the surface with all the packages they could use me in last year. But they did get me some snaps last year even though we had a Pro Bowl fullback (Neal)."

The Packers thought Luchey was the best available fullback on the market, and certainly the one that fits their system the best in which the fullback is asked to catch and run. Now look for them to send the 32-year-old William Henderson packing.

"The way they use (running back) Ahman Green as a receiver, a lot of times that leaves six men in a box," Luchey said. "I don't think with my speed and size that there are many defenses that can stop me with six in the box."

Luchey, the club's fifth-round pick in 1999, said he felt a lot of gratitude to the Bengals' brass and running backs coach Jim Anderson.

"And even though it was short-lived, I had a good relationship with Marvin," Luchey said. "There's no question he's making big changes and I think the Bengals are going to be all right. It just came down to business."

The fullback free-agent market has been picked over, with the leading candidates New England's Marc Edwards, Seattle's Mack Strong, and Philadelphia's Cecil Martin. But they may be too pricey now with the James' agreement.

One candidate could be Sam Gash. Lewis has shown a penchant for players he knows from Baltimore and Gash would probably come in for close to the minimum.

Lewis indicated that he thought the Bengals had some tight ends Chris Edmonds and Tony Stewart who could block from the fullback spot.

"We're looking for athletic guys," Lewis said.

The only fullback on the roster is Terry Witherspoon, who played in three games with the Cowboys and caught one pass in 2001 before the Chargers cut him after last year's training camp.

The Vikings indicated they didn't match on James because of his age, his penchant for injury, and because last year was his first as a regular.

But Lewis and Frazier apparently see James as a nice fit for what they're trying to do, which is pressure and blitz, making man-to-man coverage a premium in the secondary.

Frazier has said he likes playing with big corners, and Lewis is always looking for players who come from successful teams. Hardy, Thornton, and James come to the Bengals from teams that played in a combined eight AFC championship games.

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