Lewis eyes receivers, secondary

2-10-03, 8 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals are not only looking to keep linebacker Takeo Spikes in free agency by tagging him so they can remain deep at their best position on defense, but they are also looking to go on the market to add some speed at wide receiver to shore up one of their best positions on offense.

When free agency opens at the end of the month, head coach Marvin Lewis is also looking for help at fullback, the defensive line, and secondary.

With the NFL scouting combine starting a week from Tuesday, Lewis also has his eyes on the No. 1 draft pick and says the Bengals will examine Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich as closely as USC quarterback Carson Palmer.

Lewis is keeping up a whirlwind pace despite Friday's arthroscopic knee surgery. Since his appointment was so early in the morning, he decided to spend Thursday night sleeping in his office.

"I don't ever do that," Lewis said.

But these are different times. He has been spending his mornings and nights looking at a raft of tape of either his own players, college prospects, or NFL free agents.

"There are so many other things to do as a head coach in the first few weeks," Lewis said, "that the only time you can really do football is when no one else is around."

Lewis has already decided there won't be a stampede of free agents passing through Paul Brown Stadium for lunch and an offer.

"If we visit with someone, we're going to have everything in place," Lewis said Monday. "We're not going to waste people's time. We're not going to waste their time or our time. If they visit, we're bringing them here for a reason."

The Bengals are expected to make Spikes a transition free agent any day in the next 10. When asked if the Bengals can afford to put nearly $9 million into what is essentially two inside linebacker spots (middle linebacker Brian Simmons' $3.8 million per year added to the $4.8 million transition tag), Lewis said, "Possibly. It's a good thing to have two good players at the position. We want our guys to develop and we like our player. We think he has a good future. He has an option, we have options."

Spikes has been lukewarm publicly about coming back to the Bengals despite the changes Lewis has brought in his first four weeks as coach. Lewis is looking for a sign that if the Bengals tender him the $4.8 million offer for this year, Spikes will realize there's a 99.9 percent chance he's going to be here because the Bengals can match any offer, and that he'll buy into the offseason workouts instead of sitting out.

Lewis understands that the negative comments of players have been spewed in desperation, but his administration is clearly going to have a low threshold for such outbursts.

"They have been frustrated. We've got to change the frustration. It's time to mature and move on," Lewis said. "We want to have guys that want to be here. If they're not happy with that, then there are 31 other teams. There are a lot of good players to go around."

Still, Lewis said his priority is to sign their own free agents. He said he has had a "very good," talk with Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal and both sides are interested in the other. Nicolas Luchey, the other fullback, is also a free agent and Lewis has underscored that position as well as wideout, defensive line, and secondary.

Richard Katz, the agent for defensive left end Vaughn Booker, said Monday his client plans on playing out the final two years of his contract despite several injuries that took him out of 12 games the past two seasons. But the Bengals know he turns 35 in two weeks and that defensive tackle Oliver Gibson is coming back from Achilles surgery. The Bengals would like to re-sign Bernard Whittington after he made 11 starts in Booker's place last season.

Lewis wouldn't differentiate between safety and cornerback when he said the secondary is on the wish list, but Cory Hall, with 29 starts at strong or free safety the past two seasons, is headed to free agency.

So is backup guard-tackle Jamain Stephens. But the only guy gone for sure is quarterback Gus Frerotte. The Bengals have a right to match on center Rich Braham.

"There are going to be changes, but we like our players," Lewis said. "There are some guys who have got some pride, toughness and temperament, and we want to try and keep that around."

Lewis can never have enough speed around and he indicated the Bengals would like to find another burner opposite speed merchant Chad Johnson at wide receiver.

"Speed never hurts you," Lewis said. "It also aids us on defense to practice against fast guys. The more we can practice against guys who can run, the better we'll be on Sundays."

The problem is, a guy who can run comes at a huge price. The best available is probably going to be Buffalo's Peerless Price, but he'll probably take you out of the market for more pressing needs, such as a top flight defensive lineman, cornerback, and safety. And, the Bengals are coming off their first season ever with four wideouts that had at least 40 catches.

Whatever happens this time, everybody will be in on the strategy. Unlike past years, the Bengals' top assistant coaches are joining Lewis in his daily salary cap updates with executive vice president Katie Blackburn. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are also in on the sessions and Lewis says they will attend, "until it becomes intrusive to get done what they have to get done." As defensive coordinator in Baltimore and Washington, Lewis had similar access.

"It's important for them to know what and why," he said.

Lewis is less clear on the draft. He says they'll listen to trade proposals, but he won't hazard the odds on the Bengals' ability to slide down a few spots and get some extra picks in a swap before the April 26-27 draft.

He is also throwing Leftwich into the mix.

"Byron was a good player down there for them for a few years," Lewis said. "Some of the things that got him in question were his injuries, so we need to do a lot of work on him, the same as we do on Carson and other guys who could be the first pick."

Those other guys could be defensive tackles Jimmy Kennedy of Penn State and William Joseph of Miami, and Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman.

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