Lewis to tackle issues

2-27-04, 4:25 p.m.

Updated: 2-17-04, 7:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

When NFL free agency opens Wednesday, all eyes are going to be on Marvin Lewis and how the second-year coach is going to handle the Bengals' tightest salary cap ever at his point in the season since unfettered free agency began 10 years ago.

That is one of the topics Lewis is no doubt going to address at an 11 a.m. Monday morning news conference at Paul Brown Stadium that is to cover "a variety," of topics about the 2004 season. Other subjects may or may not include an announcement of the club's starting quarterback, and with all signs pointing to Carson Palmer, that is going to be the news of the day whenever that day is.

But Lewis has plenty to talk about even without a quarterback announcement. Heck, he could spend the whole session on running back Corey Dillon with the trading period also starting Wednesday. But after indicating last week that the Bengals have both shopped Dillon (he no commented when asked if they had called other teams about him) and left open the possibility that Dillon could return (he confirmed no teams had called them), he probably won't say much beyond Dillon has a contract for two more years.

Dillon's name has apparently not yet struck an interest with the Broncos in place of the soon-to-be traded Clinton Portis, and most likely not with the Ravens in place of the legally-troubled Lewis. It's hard to see Dillon getting moved to the Bengals' biggest division rival of the moment.

One guy not on the trading block is quarterback Jon Kitna, even though his $3.3 million salary is a tough fit with Palmer's No. 1 triggers. Yet Kitna's agent said Friday he spoke with the team at the NFL scouting combine and said the club would like to talk about extending his contract beyond '04 in the near future. Whether or not that would include a new salary cap number for '04 remains to be seen.

"I think both sides expressed a willingness to sit down and take a look at an extension," agent Mike Moye said.

But a big topic Monday is going to be free agency and how the Bengals are going to upgrade on defense on reasonably priced players with the tight cap. Before Wednesday, the Bengals are expected to make a total of about $5.5 million in one-year offers to seven restricted free

agents. When this year's cap got jacked to $80 million last week, the Bengals had about $10 million to spend. But that number changes March 1 when only the top 51 players count. Plus, they still have to come up with about $3 million for draft picks.

The speculation on the tenders includes a $1.8 million offer to running back Rudi Johnson, the club's leading rusher and projected successor to Dillon. The other six are probably going to get the lowest tender ($630,000 range), meaning that if they lose kicker Shayne Graham, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, defensive back Kevin Kaesviharn, tight end Tony Stewart, linebacker Riall Johnson, or guard Victor Leyva, the compensation is a draft pick corresponding to the round they were drafted. Johnson's tender virtually takes him off the market because compensation is a first- and a third-round pick.

Last week at the combine, Lewis pretty much assured that the Bengals weren't going to be major players in free agency right away, although he admitted it was frustrating last year when the team watched those first frenzied days on the sidelines.

But Lewis emphasized it's going to take some time because that free agents have to match what the Bengals are doing schematically as well as economically, and that they can't sign a guy just because no one else wanted him and he fills a need.

"I think that's important to us,' Lewis said. "Just like last year. I don't think we're going to outbid anybody for a player and if we do, I don't think he's the right guy anyway. We want to get a guy who wants to help us win a championship in Cincinnati.

"Let's not keep going down the same road and lock ourselves in (by saying) we have to have that position filled and take a lesser player," Lewis said. "You can't go, 'he's gone, he's gone, he's gone, we're stuck with that guy.' Don't take that guy. (Get a better player even if it's another position)."

The Bengals have four starters headed to unrestricted free agency in center Rich Braham, right guard Mike Goff, and safeties Rogers Becket and Mark Roman, and Lewis made it clear if they are shopping, so are the Bengals.

Here are the players who have been designated franchise free agents so far at the positions that may interest the Bengals: cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Chris McAlister, and Charles Woodson, safety Donovin Darius, defensive end Darren Howard, and linebacker Julian Peterson.

But the deepest and best position in this free-agent class is at cornerback, where the Bengals are expected to take a run at mid-priced guys such as Cincinnati native Ahmed Plummer, fellow former Buckeye Shawn Springs, and maybe even the Eagles' Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor because of their ties to defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

They've talked about moving middle linebacker Kevin Hardy to the outside, which might put them in the market for a middle backer. The Broncos just took the best one off the market in Al Wilson. They saw plenty of Seattle's Randall Godfrey when he was in Tennessee, and the Redskins' Kevin Mitchell did play for Marvin Lewis in '02.

Another spot could be defensive tackle after the club finished tied for 25th against the run, but there's not a long list. The Raiders' Rod Coleman is an impressive guy, but he's small, and is known more as a pass rusher than a tackle and that doesn't seem to be what they're seeking.

If they can't keep their own safeties, there are some people out there like Deon Grant of the NFC champion Panthers and former corner Antuan Edwards of the Packers who are nice athletes. They could rob Mike Logan from the Steelers, who had good numbers this year after they tweaked his role.

The Bengals figure to end up with Braham again at some point, but they may look at veterans like Bob Hallen and Chris Bober. They'll need an older guy because they'll probably draft a center this year after not getting one last year. The Dolphins just cut Tim Ruddy, but he's about a year younger than Braham and supposedly wondering about retirement.

It will be interesting where teams value Goff in a field of some good, young guards like Jeno James of Carolina, Kelvin Garmon of San Diego, Cosey Coleman of Tampa Bay, Bobbie Williams of Philadelphia, and Chris Villarrial of Chicago.

It's hard to get a grip on how the Bengals' own free agents are viewed around the league. For instance, "The War Room," picks Roman as the safety on the rise: "A former cornerback, Roman plays big and has good coverage instincts and ability." But Roman isn't listed on Pete Prisco's Top 48 Free Agents on CBSsportsline.com.

Prisco lists Braham at No. 43, one ahead of Bober, but "The War Room," says he's a player "On the decline," even though he's "a leader and still an ox of a run blocker." The Bengals like the leader part and hope Braham comes back, but like Beckett, Roman and Goff, they want it to be at their price, and like Lewis said last week, "You have to see," about the market.

Goff is ranked No. 36 on Prisco's list, behind the No. 14 Villarrial, and the No. 20 James, and not far from the highly-regarded No. 29 Adam Timmerman.

But no one knows how teams feel about them until the phones start ringing Wednesday.

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