Kelly makes it official as Bengals take fifth

3-12-03, 4 p.m. Updated:
3-12-03, 11 p.m. Updated:
3-12-03, 11:30 p.m. Updated:
3-13-03, 3 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals confirmed their four-year deal for Falcons tight end Reggie Kelly Thursday in a move that may have brought the Bengals their fifth new starter in free agency.

After addressing a variety of needs on defense the past few days, they turned their attention to their biggest hole on offense in finally securing a proven NFL blocking tight end.

That may end the most successful and earliest foray into free agency in club history after dropping what is believed to be about $11-12 million in salary cap room for 2003 on the five signings.

The Bengals may have to deal with an offer sheet for backup linebacker Armegis Spearman, a restricted free agent. His agent could get an offer sheet from the Packers Thursday. "The St. Louis Post-Dispatch," reported Thursday that although the Rams would like to sign center Andy McCollum as a guard, several teams have expressed interest in him, and his agent confirmed Thursday he has had conversations with the Bengals. The club's dwindling salary cap space may preclude a deal now, but Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Tennessee are also talking to him.

Also Thursday, the Bengals signed running back Ray Jackson, a first-year free agent from the University of Cincinnati, to a two-year contract. The 6-1, 223-pound Jackson, 24, began his college career in 1997-98 at Michigan and played for UC from 2000-01, where he averaged four yards per his 369 carries.

"We don't have to do that yet," said head coach Marvin Lewis of cutting players to make more room. "We've made projections and we've got room because we don't have draft picks to sign yet."

Wednesday was another big day in Lewis' new regime. He sent offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese to watch quarterback Carson Palmer at USC's pro day in Los Angeles.

"We're probably going to go out there again to take another look," said Lewis of a player they could take with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

The 6-3, 255-pound Kelly, who turned 26 last month, is a second-round draft pick from 1999 giving the Bengals a dramatic

upgrade in their running game as a highly-regarded blocker. But he is also looking to pick up where he left off in 2000, when he was Atlanta's No. 1 tight end and had 31 catches for two touchdowns and an 11-yard average. A Bengals tight end hasn't had 30 catches since Tony McGee went for 34 in 1997. But since the Falcons drafted Alge Crumpler in 2001, Kelly has caught just 30 balls combined the past two seasons. He started all 16 games last season, had 14 catches, and he wanted to go some place where he'd get more action.

Matt Schobel, the Bengals' third-round pick, became one of the season's bright spots during his rookie season when he caught 27 balls for two touchdowns. He is known more as a catcher than a blocker and could be seen as a perfect No. 2 tight end, but he is the incumbent starter.

"They really haven't given me any promises, which is good," Kelly told "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution." "If I do what I've done in the past, I'll be the starter."

Kelly fits the profile Lewis seeks. He is seen as a tremendous locker room presence, and he is finishing up classes at Mississippi State, where he had a 3.3 grade point average as an Industrial Technology major during his playing career. In fact, he spent Monday in class as Sexton and partner Kyle Rote Jr., finished off his deal.

"Just looking at Coach Lewis and his resume, he's been winning," Kelly told the paper. "Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington. Looking at his resume, we know he's committed to winning and that's what we're committed to do."

Bratkowski has spent the offseason trying to find ways to jump-start the running game. The Kelly move should have a big impact on running back Corey Dillon because injury and inexperience dictated the Bengals could rarely use double tight-end sets.

With two rookie tight ends in Schobel and Sean Brewer, the Bengals ended up using rookie left tackle Levi Jones as the second tight end during the first month of the season. Then when Jones had to play tackle and Brewer got hurt, it was left to Schobel and Nicolas Luchey, who is really a H-Back not a conventional tight end, and, not to mention, now a Green Bay Packer.

Now with Kelly, the Bengals can use a two tight-end set more often, and that should help them run the ball in the red zone and on the goal line, where they struggled mightily last season.

The Kelly acquisition also means the Bengals may put finding a fullback on the backburner for financial and football reasons.

According to reported numbers from the day free-agency started, the Bengals may have slightly less under the salary cap than the $4 million plus they need to sign their draft picks by adding the five free-agents. ESPN.com reported the Kelly deal as $6.8 million over four years with a $2 million bonus. One agent said Wednesday that their figure, according to the league, was $4.8 million under before Kelly's deal took what is believed to be about another $1.5 million, an estimate according to the ESPN figures on the deal.

They could end up cutting somebody to make room for Kelly, but they don't need the draft pool money until they start signing rookies after the draft.

The addition of a blocking tight end may give the Bengals some luxury in that now they may feel they don't have to get a high-priced fullback. They may want to wait and see what happens when the prices go down.

In other free-agent news, the agent for Spearman wouldn't confirm that the Packers have made an offer to his client. But David Levine told a Milwaukee newspaper, "Either we'll get it done with Green Bay or he'll go back to Cincinnati. He'd be the starting middle linebacker in Green Bay and a backup in Cincinnati. We prefer the end result in Green Bay."

Levine did say Spearman visited and he is talking to Green Bay, where former Bengals defensive coordinator Mark Duffner is the linebackers coach. The Bengals wouldn't get any compensation if they chose not to match an offer.

Former Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes was officially introduced in Buffalo Wednesday, his No. 51 now on a blue backdrop. After making a visit to Children's Hospital, he met the press and didn't dwell on his five years with the Bengals.

"I really don't even want to talk about Cincinnati too much," Spikes said. "It's a new day and I'm a Buffalo Bill now. That's all in the past. I can tell you this though, I had a great time in Cincinnati, I had a great five years regardless of what the record shows. I do not regret anytime spent in Cincinnati."

As for the reunion with former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, now the Bills assistant head coach: "I know he's one of the creators of the defense where you are able to put a blitz package together and play a zone while dropping big guys like Pat Williams. He's going to bring a lot of enthusiasm to the defense. He's going to make it fun. The offense is not going to know where we're coming from."

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