BY GEOFF HOBSON
Quarterback Scott Mitchell won't rule out returning to the Bengals. But after throwing to Cincinnati wide receiver Ron Dugans Wednesday at an Orlando, Fla., high school, Mitchell couldn't help calling him, "a former teammate."
Dick LeBeau phoned Mitchell Tuesday night and said despite last week's signing of Jon Kitna, the head coach indicated he would still welcome Mitchell with Kitna and Akili Smith.
"Under the circumstances, I just think that would be extremely difficult," said Mitchell, who is still stunned the Bengals opted for Kitna.
"I'm not saying, 'never.' But with two other guys there, what opportunity would there be? I just don't know how fair it would be."
Another LeBeau phone call had more results when he reached out to former Steelers Pro Bowl inside linebacker Levon Kirkland and secured a visit from his ex-player for Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium.
That's an intriguing one because if Kirkland, 32, came to town, he'd be the middle linebacker flanked by Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, and left outside linebacker Steve Foley would probably get a shot at defensive end.
"Levon said no matter the situation, or what teams were involved, the process wouldn't be over until he visited Dick LeBeau because Coach LeBeau called him," said Mason Ashe, Kirkland's agent who knows the bond from LeBeau's stint as defensive coordinator for the Super Bowl Steelers in the mid-90s.
"That's how much respect he has for him," Ashe said. "He loves Coach LeBeau. What he thinks about the Bengals we'll find out tomorrow. They're two separate entities."
On Wednesday, the Bengals' negotiations with four of their last free-agent visitors apparently yielded no deals. But they continue to talk with Cardinals defensive end Simeon Rice, Packers left tackle Ross Verba, Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, and Cowboys receiver James McKnight.
Reports say the Vikings cut left tackle Todd Steussie Wednesday and the Bengals have indicated interest.
The club is dueling with McKnight's hometown Miami Dolphins for his services and appears to be hitting behind Tampa Bay in the derby for Rice. The talks for a one-year deal between the Bucs and Rice are virtually on hold because Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay is holed up at the NFL's Competition Committee meetings.
Mitchell is still shaking his head because after leading the Bengals to a 2-2 finish this past season the Bengals indicated they wanted him back. The move to Kitna also perplexed him because, "What's he done that I haven't?"
The Bengals admired Mitchell's grit in playing in those last four games with a sprained knee in miserable weather. But they also thought they could do better than a passing rating that barely hit 50.
But if Mitchell is leaving, he's leaving with the same class and professionalism he displayed when he became the starter Nov. 13 after Smith's benching.
"I'm not unhappy about where I am right now," Mitchell said as he looks for a job. "There's a lot of good situations out there. It's just that I was very comfortable in Cincinnati. I liked it there, I really like playing for Dick. I liked the town. Shoot, I even liked you guys (in the media). It was just disappointing."
Mitchell wouldn't comment on visits, but Dallas figures to be a possibility with the departure of Troy Aikman. He nearly signed there last year to back up Aikman because of the presence of offensive coordinator Jack Reilly, Mitchell's coach in college at Utah.
But Mitchell couldn't have been any more surprised than Kirkland when he found out last week that the Steelers cut him after nine seasons he didn't miss a game.
"He's still in shock," Ashe said. "They told us it was to maneuver under the salary cap, but here's a guy who re-dedicated himself two years ago with a personal trainer, lost 20 pounds, and knows what the work ethic has to be for an older player."
There are some concerns about Kirkland's play last season, but none voiced by LeBeau ("He always seems to be a factor with his size and movement,"), and at least one league personnel guy.
"I thought he played well. You couldn't say there was a dropoff," the man said. "And he's always been a great leader. I thought he was a big reason why they turned it around late last season."
Ashe also said Kirkland is going to play mad. And the Bengals do play Pittsburgh twice a year.
"He's hot. He's going to be playing with a fire," Ashe said. "I see the same fire in him that Junior Seau had the year after he didn't make the Pro Bowl and he was tearing off helmets."
The Bengals re-scheduled cornerback Walt Harris' visit Wednesday for next week.