3-14-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON
The silent auction for Bengals Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon continues.
On Tuesday, Cincinnati spoke with the agent for Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, pursued a deal for Packers left tackle Ross Verba, and continued to attempt to get talks started with Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland.
Kirkland, 32, the former Pro Bowl inside linebacker in Pittsburgh, has a quick trip planned to Cincinnati Thursday that will be primarily taken up by a physical.
But Dillon's looming contract continues to cast a shadow over the Bengals' salary cap count, which national sources say is less than $10 million. They would like to do a deal with Dillon so they can clarify what they would have the rest of the way in free agency, but until then they have to estimate and leave a pad to match any offer.
They have no comment about Dillon except to say they want him back. Many around the NFL believe Dillon's best shot for a mega deal from a team other than the Bengals officially ended Tuesday when Cleveland signed Bears running back Curtis Enis to a one-year, minimum deal loaded with incentives.
But, as some Cleveland-area newspapers suggested, are the Browns lulling the Bengals into thinking they no longer covet Dillon? Then once Cincinnati makes a few deals that jack up their cap count, do the Browns then strike with an offer sheet the Bengals won't match?
"I just don't see that happening," said one AFC chief personnel man. "Given that (Bengals President) Mike Brown has said he'd pretty much match anything, and given how much the deal would have to be, I don't think any team would go through that process just to sign him for Cincinnati."
And it seems unlikely
a team will try to trip up the Bengals with structure instead of money in a device known as "the poison pill," that has come under some heavy scrutiny of late, along with other cap maneuverings.
"I don't see that, either," the personnel chief said. "The league has done a good job of cleaning up that type of thing."
Maybe Verba holds the Dillon key. Verba, who visited the Bengals Monday as a left tackle candidate, is high on Cleveland's list as a right tackle. He's looking at a big enough deal that both teams would suddenly get snug under the cap with Dillon and Verba.
Can the Bengals afford Dillon, Verba and a starting cornerback? At the moment, the man they would like to become their No. 1 cornerback appears to be Barber. His agent, Ethan Locke, wouldn't confirm an offer had been made by the Bengals, but said the sides talked Tuesday.
Barber and Chargers cornerback DeRon Jenkins visited Paul Brown Stadium Tuesday as the Bengals' recruit meter hit 16 since free agency started 12 days ago. Corner Walt Harris makes it 17 Wednesday with no recruiting visits scheduled beyond him.
Barber made it clear he wants to be with a winner, but said Cincinnati wouldn't be precluded because "in this league everyone is close," when it comes to talent.
He wouldn't deny that a spot with brother Tiki on the NFC champion Giants or a return to the contending Bucs is high on his agenda. The Bengals have the ability to pay him more under the cap than those two teams, but he's got loyalty to Bucs head coach Tony Dungy and he's been dreaming about playing with his brother in the NFL since he was five years old.
So how much will it take? Will it take a $3 million plus average that Jenkins got last year when he signed a three-year, $9.6 million deal in San Diego a few days after he visited a half built Paul Brown Stadium?
But last year Jenkins struggled (a foot injury and the loss of top pass rusher Raylee Johnson didn't help) and the Chargers cut him when they didn't want to take his $1 million bonus.
But the Bengals recall how well Jenkins played with the Ravens, when first-round pick Duane Starks couldn't get him out of the starting lineup. And Jenkins noticed the difference between last year's visit and this one after seeing head coach Dick LeBeau again.
"I didn't meet the head coach when I was here last year," said Jenkins, whose wife is from San Diego. "I got along well with Coach LeBeau (then the defensive coordinator) and now that he's (the head coach) that kind of sets the tone for the team. . .He's a straight shooter and he's worked with the same people I have. It's a similar system I've been in."
That would be the Ravens' defense that's coordinated by a close LeBeau associate in Marvin Lewis. If Lewis gave Jenkins his stamp of approval, that's why he's been into visit two straight years.
LeBeau got off the best line of the day when he told Barber and Jenkins, "You two guys can make sure I'm not the coordinator next year."
The Bengals did do a bit of business when they re-signed punter Daniel Pope, an exclusive rights free agent before Tuesday.