5-14-03, 8:35 p.m.
By GEOFF HOBSON
Tony Williams couldn't get to sleep Tuesday night after he found out the Bengals had signed one of his best friends in football and a fellow defensive lineman.
But he is refreshed with the addition of Duane Clemons, the third down linemen to wake up to Marvin Lewis' new day via free agency.
"We just made up some ground," said Williams, the tackle who broke into the league on Minnesota's line with Clemons. "He brings a name and he brings an attitude. I was charged up last night. We kind of grew up together going to the playoffs three straight years, and I've been telling him to come join me."
Clemons also brings the crunch in the roster. He's the 14th defensive linemen in a spot where only eight are usually kept. How tight is it? Equipment managers Rob Recker and Jeff Brickner have no numbers in the 90s to give to Clemons when he arrives next week.
"It's a madhouse around here," said tackle Oliver Gibson. "But at 2-14, what do you expect? You have to expect that."
After successfully lobbying Clemons all day Monday, Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier cautiously and vaguely sketched out his role. Basically, the seven-year end isn't being ruled out of any spot on the defensive front.
"He's a defensive lineman," said Lewis, when asked if Clemons is now competing at left end with Carl Powell and Reinard Wilson. "We'll see where he ends up."
The Bengals are happy with Justin Smith and the 15 sacks he's provided in his first two seasons at right end, and the assumption is Clemons is headed to left end. Frazier said he'll get work there, but don't look for him in one spot. The 6-5, 280-pound Clemons could even slide inside on passing downs if warranted.
"We'll explore that possibility," Frazier said. "We think he can play both ends. What it does is give us good depth at those positions and things will weed themselves out."
After four seasons in Minnesota, Clemons embarked on the most productive two seasons of his career with 14.5 sacks in Kansas City. He had just two sacks last year, but still comes here with a reputation more as a pass rusher than the run stopper that usually plays left end. His 35 career sacks are the most on the team, but they obviously feel like he can play left end.
"We wouldn't have signed a guy if we didn't think he could make football plays," Lewis said.
The Bengals though they might be able to address the left end situation in the draft, but when they couldn't, they paid a premium in May terms by giving Clemons a two-year deal of $2.18 million that can max to $3.18 million with escalators.
The Bengals believe he has the athleticism and experience to be not only an effective left end, but a versatile guy all along the line. Clemons is seen as a solid person who also brings some unique leverage dimensions, such as 36-inch long arms.
"There are some things we ask him to do that maybe some other schemes wouldn't ask him to do," Frazier said. "He's got athletic ability and good speed and he hasn't lost that over the years. We think his athletic ability will be a plus for us."
Williams vouches for his character and his versatility after playing the first three seasons of his career with him with the Vikings. When it comes to stopping the run, or rushing the passer, Williams has seen him do it.
"We went 15-1, and he played a lot," said Williams of the 1998 season. "We won 10 games. We won nine games. We went to the playoffs three times. He's played both sides. He plays hard. When he hits quarterbacks, he screws them up. He went right through Steve McNair and almost killed him. I though he broke his back."
Williams, anticipating that Clemons might be available after last season, has been lobbying his buddy for months to make the move.
"I kept telling him, 'You've got to come down here. Good things are going to come here. If you're free, come down here and play with me,'" Williams said. "I mean, this guy plays hard all the time."
There are those who are going to suggest that the Clemons' signing now puts heat on Reinard Wilson, the backup at left end who went from nine sacks in 2001 to none last year. Yes, Wilson counts $1.5 million against the salary cap, but Lewis has been adamant that he knows more than anyone at Paul Brown Stadium about Wilson (from his days of scouting Peter Boulware at Florida State) and that the coaches have to find a way to use his athleticism. And some insiders feel Wilson didn't get on the field enough last year.
But all that is to be decided because Lewis is insisting the best players will play no matter salary or draft selection.
The only clear fact is that the competition is on full boil.
"I think it's going to help everybody," Gibson said. "Just the competition. If you're off the field and there's a play for a four-yard loss, you're going to naturally want to get out there. I never want to come off the field, but you'll be fresher (with the rotation) and if that's the way it is, that's the way it is and you make it work . I think it will help."