Lewis stays course

3-2-03, 11:55 p.m.

Updated: 3-3-03, 2:05 p.m.

Updated: 3-3-03, 6:50 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals took two hits in free agency Monday, losing incumbent starting free safety Cory Hall to the Falcons and potential starting outside linebacker Shawn Barber to the Chiefs.

But Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, indicating the new regime had no plans for Hall, shrugged it off and prepared to host a raft of free agents this week that he thinks can fit his payroll and scheme. The Bengals are still negotiating with big-money Raiders defensive tackle Sam Adams, but they are looking at players in a variety of price ranges and positions.

"We're going to stay our direction," said Lewis, emphasizing he won't panic and start doing deals. "It's getting players that we value at the right level. We're in good shape. We have to make sure these deals are good deals two or three years from now, not just tomorrow."

Lewis hosts an old friend from Baltimore, receiver/returner Jermaine Lewis, Monday night. Also expected in the next day or two, according to agent Harold Lewis, is Titans defensive tackle John Thornton. An internet report out of Denver has Colts defensive end Brad Scioli also on his way. Also expected Tuesday night is Broncos cornerback Denard Walker.

The Bengals keep looking for defense. According to the agents for Barry Gardner and Keith Newman, the Bengals have placed calls, but haven't lined up visits. Rick Smith, the agent for Raiders cornerback Tory James, said they did the same with his client. Dick Davis, the agent for Packers cornerback Tyrone Williams, said his client could visit the Bengals soon.

Lewis indicated Monday the Bengals could replace Hall with one of two rookies drafted last year in Marquand Manuel or Lamont Thompson, or go get a guy in free agency, or move one of their cornerbacks to safety if they sign another corner.

Marvin Lewis hosted his first free-agent visit Sunday night and Monday with Patriots receiver Donald Hayes. Smith, who is also his agent, said he'll take another trip before talking about a contract. Marvin Lewis said negotiations for Jermaine Lewis won't open until Tuesday, but that the team could sign both Lewis and Hayes.

Meanwhile, their own free agents were on tours. Hall agreed to a five-year deal in Atlanta Monday after dining with 10 Falcons' staffers

Sunday night. Agent Peter Schaffer confirmed the deal that ESPN.com reported as five years, $12 million. Fullback Nicolas Luchey boarded a plane to Green Bay Sunday night following his visit with the Browns in Cleveland. Linebacker Takeo Spikes denied a report out of the agent community that he is headed to Buffalo Monday.

One player not visiting Cincinnati is Barber. "The St. Louis Post-Dispatch," reported in Monday's editions that Barber had cancelled his trip to the Rams after taking what is believed to be a seven-year, $30 million deal in Kansas City.

"I can honestly tell you that if Marvin Lewis wasn't the coach, I wouldn't have had Cincinnati on my list," said Luchey as the four-year Bengals veteran cooled his heels in the Minneapolis airport Sunday night. "That's why I'm going back tomorrow night to sit down and talk with the new coaches."

But the biggest guy on the Bengals' list literally and figuratively doesn't need to come to town. The agent for Sam Adams said the Bengals received his proposal Sunday, but Angelo Wright said that management is waiting to huddle with Lewis Monday before making the next move. There was no word on progress Monday night.

A deal with Adams could end Spikes' career in Cincinnati. The Bengals would have to decide if they can afford both and still get through free agency in pursuit of a cornerback, safety, and a guard/center.

That would be tough given that the transition tag on Spikes costs $4.8 million and defensive linemen are getting some big numbers in this market. Cletidus Hunt got $6 million to stay in Green Bay and Daryl Gardner is supposedly on the verge of getting $5 million from the Broncos. Even Montae Reagor, who has started just one game for the Broncos, got a big number with a $2 million bonus from the Colts.

The Bills are not only looking at Spikes, but also Adams. And he probably won't visit Buffalo, either, because he already spent time with Bills defensive line coach Tim Krumrie when he held the same job in Cincinnati last July and hosted Adams on his visit to Paul Brown Stadium.

Luchey is coming to PBS for a visit even though he's played his entire career with the Bengals. And he's coming only because Lewis is the coach and the old starting fullback, Lorenzo Neal, is in San Diego.

"I wasn't coming back if Lorenzo was coming back," Luchey said. "I just feel like it's my time to have the job at this point in my career. I'm done being held back. I know it was tough to get all those guys in there with Corey, Zo, and Brandon."

Luchey is feeling out all three teams with the expectation of being the starter and had to admit that he had a great visit in Cleveland with his old head coach at the University of Miami, Butch Davis.

"I can't sit here and lie to you," Luchey said. "I know most of the coaching staff already and it's a place where I would be very comfortable with Coach Davis."

Luchey's career has been slowed by one reconstructed knee and several nagging injuries. He has been knocked for being overweight, but Lewis likes his versatility that allows him to be a move tight end as well as a fullback that can run, catch and block. Plus, the last tape on him is the fourth quarter he dominated against the Saints with 12 carries and two touchdowns.

"I can tell from the jump that Coach Lewis is changing things," Luchey said. "When I talked to him, he was very encouraging. We'll see what happens. I need to win now. I just feel like I'm still young enough that now is the time."

Spikes wouldn't comment on his own situation Sunday, but he said he couldn't understand the Bengals letting Neal get away.

"It's another thing that makes you shake your head," Spikes said. "You can't put a number on his professionalism. That's priceless."

But the Chargers had a price. Neal said he got in the neighborhood of a seven-figure signing bonus and indicated the Bengals offered only a quarter of that. The Bengals may have been close with their average in the low $900,000s, but the upfront money separated it.

Maybe not ironically, Luchey appears to be the next priority at fullback for the Bengals. It was his knee injury that forced them on the market to sign Neal in May of 2001. The Bengals have made calls to the agents for the Raiders' Jon Ritchie and the Patriots' Marc Edwards, but no visits have been set up.

Edwards, out of the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, is an intriguing notion. But he said Sunday night that the Bengals simply touched base with his agent Friday and haven't mentioned a visit or the depth of their interest.

Hall seems to have plenty of interest. The man who has started 29 games at both safety spots the past two seasons for the Bengals has also been to Houston and is headed to Pittsburgh and New Orleans after Atlanta.

Asked if he's still interested in the Bengals, agent Peter Schaffer said, "They have to make an offer. We talked Friday and I'm sure we'll talk Monday, but they have to make an offer. There is a lot of interest around the league. It's like a guy in the league told me today. No matter how bad it got last year, Cory played the first snap of the game like it was the last and the last snap like it was the first."

Lewis' effort to get a deal with players before they leave Cincinnati for another city gets tested this week. Jermaine Lewis has already visited Miami, but PBS is the first stop for Walker. Agent John Hamilton said his client has an open mind about making it the last stop before a contract.

"One of the reasons for the visit is to see if the scheme fits and the coaches are on the same page," Hamilton said. "Obviously, it would be a big plus playing for Marvin and they have a good relationship."

Hamilton knows it goes back a long way. When Lewis coached at Pittsburgh in the early '90s, he recruited Walker with a few visits to Garland, Texas, before Walker went to USC and then transferred to LSU.

"Denard has a lot of respect for Marvin," Hamilton said.

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