Locker room watching

3-7-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

Oh yeah, Bengals' players are watching this free-agency period like no other.

Especially captains Willie Anderson and Takeo Spikes in Atlanta, where they are racing against each other to see who can get the latest news off the Internet.

"This is like it was when we came out in the draft," Spikes said. "We're always looking and checking."

For instance, Anderson let it be known if the Bengals moved him from right tackle to left tackle to make room for free-agent Leon Searcy, he'd want $2 million more. Anderson signed a six-year, $30.5 million deal back in May that put him at the top of the right tackles.

"But I would do it. I think it would be a hell of a move," said the 340-pound Anderson, who acknowledged he would have to lose 20 pounds for the switch. "But I would do it. I think it would be a hell of a move. It would really boost our line.

"I'm not being ungrateful. I know I've been blessed," Anderson said. "It's like when a company wants to transfer a good employee and he has to move his whole family to a new place. They give him a little raise."

Hearing the Bengals were on the verge of signing defensive tackle Tony Williams Tuesday, Spikes is rooting for them to snag a pass-rushing, sack-mastering defensive end.

"I'm a big Kenny Holmes fan this week," Spikes said.

So are the Bengals, who have the welcoming party out for Holmes when the Tennessee Titans defensive end arrives Wednesday night for Thursday's visit.

That could be a huge signing, since the Bengals would be taking Holmes' 22.5 career sacks in four seasons from a division power. He's also coming off a nine-sack year, which no Bengal has done since end John Copeland in 1995.

As people expected the Bengals to sign either Gus Frerotte or Jon Kitna Wednesday at quarterback and give them two potential free-agent starters with Williams in the fold, Cincinnati hopes it can attract Holmes and maybe another starter.

"I can see them trying to add a quarterback," Spikes said. "We need some spectacular play out of that position."

Williams cost about $2 million against this year's salary cap

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and the quarterback could cost between $2-3 million. Subtract the pad for protection to match a Corey Dillon contract, along with their rookie pool, and their reported $15 million room under the cap is finding uses.

They don't lack options and it shows in the people they're bringing in the next few days to visit. From highly-regarded Ravens center Jeff Mitchell on Wednesday to next Monday's appearance of the University Iowa tag team of Packers offensive lineman Ross Verba and Bears center Casey Wiegmann. Little-used Falcons center-guard Evan Pilgrim is also expected Wednesday.

Plus, Williams' signing didn't get them to cancel fellow defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield's visit for Wednesday to his hometown as they anticipate anything happening in this market when the dust clears.

All has not gone well. The Bengals took some abuse when agent Angelo Wright felt the Bengals low-balled his client, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ted Washington.

"I just don't understand it," Wright said after looking for $5.5 million per year. "They pursued him with such passion and enthusiasm and they ended up not getting close on the offer. It was like expecting caviar and ending up with Lake Erie smelt."

But not many people are getting offers in this market. There have been more analogies than signings.

"The dog hasn't barked," said Bengals President Mike Brown of the lack of free-agent activity. "This market is slower and less inflated. We count on our board at least 50 starting players who are still out there. They're good players and they've got to go somewhere."

The question is the combination of the next two signings.

Is it Holmes and Wiegmann, a backup in Chicago who came off the bench this year to impress as a starter?

If it's not Holmes, is it Verba and Wiegmann and they go for a pass rusher in the draft (Justin Smith?) instead of a left tackle. Or do they pursue one of the cornerbacks they've contacted (Denard Walker, Walt Harris, Ronde Barber)?

"I'll be checking tonight," Spikes said. "I'm just looking for good news."

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