Looking for old friends

2-28-03, 6:05 p.m. Updated:
2-28-03, 6:30 p.m. Updated:
3-1-03, 4:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Free agency opened Friday for the Bengals in the Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia corridor as Marvin Lewis scoured the NFL for his kind of player.

Lewis commandeered the phone early Friday morning already talking to potential players, and by late afternoon he said he had spoken with every free agent on the day's list.

The Bengals may have lost Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal to the Chargers, but there were signs that Lewis had Cincinnati in the hunt with agents and players that might not have given the team a second look in years past.

The Bengals went deep into the night trying to reunite Lewis with Carl Powell, a defensive lineman Lewis coached in Washington last year and Baltimore before that, and a player Lewis thinks might be able to be the starting left end in place of Vaughn Booker.

But Powell's agent said late Friday that there was still no deal after all-day talks. Powell knows Lewis so well that a recruiting visit isn't necessary, but Lewis said Friday he wants players to come here to see the Paul Brown Stadium facilities.

The big difference this year is that Lewis said the team will attempt to make PBS the last stop for each visitor. If he's here, Lewis said, it must mean he is good enough to sign and there's no reason to let him continue his travels.

The club also spoke Friday with defensive tackles Sam Adams of the Raiders and Daryl Gardener of the Redskins, along with outside linebacker Shawn Barber of the Eagles. And, reports out of Philadelphia had backup guard Doug Brzezinski also taking a visit to Cincinnati next week. They are also interested in Raiders guard Mo Collins.

The interest in the 6-2, 237-pound Barber, a speedy weak-side linebacker who had 100 tackles for NFC East champion Philadelphia this past season, shows the Bengals are preparing for the possibility of replacing right outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, their transition free agent. Lewis indicated if they sign Barber, the tag could come off and free up Spikes to move, but that was looking too far down the road Friday.

Various media outlets reported Friday that Barber was on his way to visit Kansas City and St. Louis before hitting Cleveland and Cincinnati, and, possibly Buffalo.

Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said Friday his club has interest in Spikes, but the transition tag that gives the Bengals the right to match any offer is making them move slowly. They have a visit set next week with Colts linebacker Mike Peterson.

"We may have Takeo up here at some point to visit," Donahoe said. "We think he's excellent against the run, he's a playmaker, he's a good athlete, and he's a leader."

Spikes and his agent couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Another Bengals defensive starter, free safety Cory Hall, got a lot of play. He reportedly flew to Houston for a visit Friday, then plans to travel to Atlanta, and then Pittsburgh.

Lewis had Gardener in Washington last season, but he is supposedly on the verge of signing with Denver. Barber was with Lewis in Washington for only two months last offseason before signing with the Eagles. But Barber also knows defensive coordinator Leslie Frazer, the Eagles secondary coach.

"I saw Marvin at the Senior Bowl and he told me that it's a new day in Cincinnati and that seems to be the case," said Brian Mackler, Barber's New York-based agent. "I think Shawn is Marvin's kind of player. He plays with a high degree of intensity and intelligence. He also knows Coach Frazier and he already picked up the Philadelphia defense quickly."

Sticking with being familiar, Frazier also knows of Brzezinski, a four-year player who started at left guard his rookie season and has been a key backup for the Eagles on the offensive line. The 6-4, 305-pounder isn't a finesse player (Eagles coach Andy Reid once said he was "a rolling ball of butcher knives"), but he's a superb run blocker. When starter John Welbourn broke his leg in the second game of the season, the Eagles went 4-1 with Brzezinski in there.

The 6-2, 272-pound Powell, 29, is a Lewis project after Lewis took him off the street as a free agent and signed him in Baltimore in 2000. Then Lewis took Powell with him to Washington last year, where Powell started down the stretch because of injuries. He has spent his career as a backup, but Lewis thinks he might be ready to start.

"Carl owes everything to Coach Lewis," said his agent, Jerrold Colton. "He's got the big motor and he can play all four spots. Plus he played for (Bengals linebackers coach) Ricky Hunley last year, so he's very comfortable with the staff and has high regard for them."

Lewis said the emphasis isn't on getting players they know, but it's a factor.

"It helps initially because we can overcome any stigma that way;" Lewis said. "I want to make sure we don't overreact and we don't underreact. We only have so many chips. We don't want to put down too many right away. Right now, some of these guys' demands are pretty high. We have to pick and choose where it goes."

It's believed the Bengals have about $4 to 5 million to spend in free agency. ESPN.com reports the club has about $9 million free under the salary cap, but that doesn't include the estimated $4.5 million to sign their draft picks.

They are probably going to have to drop big money on Gardener or Adams. Adams and Lewis go back to the Ravens' Super Bowl title two years ago and Lewis has never had a problem with Adams' alleged inconsistent motor.

"I've never had that problem with Sam," Lewis said. "So it makes you wonder. Is that Sam's problem ,or is that their problem? The guy's a heck of a player."

Adams also won't need a visit because he saw the place last year. But Lewis still might extend the invitation, and not just to end the trip with a news conference introducing Adams as a Bengal.

"It's a great selling point just to have players walk through the door even if we do know them," Lewis said.

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