Miami Heat

4-8-04, 7:25 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Nate Webster, the Bengals' new starting middle linebacker, figures he grew up not five minutes from Chad Johnson in Miami's Liberty City. And, really, nothing has changed. Except, back then, Johnson talked smack to just his own guys on the junior varsity.

The way Webster remembers the Bengals' future Pro Bowl wide receiver, Johnson was on the Northwestern High School JVs while Webster played on the varsity's state champions. After the JV season was over, Webster remembers Johnson kept hanging around.

"I know the old Chad," Webster said. "Even when he wasn't playing football, he was always around it. He was always around the practices, and the coaches, a little guy always running around. He'd get us water, anything. He'd talk smack, but it was only to the kids playing with him. He respected the guys on the varsity.

"He just loved being around it," Webster said. "He couldn't get enough. Y'all know this Chad who loves playing football. I saw him when he was coming up. This is a dream come true for him, a little kid like that."

Johnson grew up and transferred to Miami Beach High School, and when Webster made it to the NFL with the Buccaneers he was surprised on one Draft Day when he saw that little kid that had always been bouncing around was taken in the second round.

"I'm not real surprised what he's done," Webster said. "Knowing where we're from and what's in the water. Fast and making something happen."

Another of Webster's Miami buddies, former University of Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp, has made a cottage industry lately out of bashing the Bengals for the way they handled his contract negotiations last month before he signed with the Raiders. All Webster knows is his friend was quite serious about signing in Cincinnati.

"I heard it got crazy at the end," Webster said. "I was talking to him and telling him I hope he'd make the right decision and come and join us, and he was telling me we'd make a good team when we got together again."

But Webster didn't get the sense that Sapp is upset with the Bengals.

"Warren isn't like that," he said. "I called him up and cussed him out and he just told me, 'The next time you see me, bust me in the mouth.' A guy has to do what he has to do."

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SLANTS AND SCREENS:** The restricted free agents are starting to come in, but don't look for running back Rudi Johnson's contract in the immediate future.

Backup guard-tackle Victor Leyva signed his $628,000, one-year tender Tuesday and tight end Tony Stewart expects to sign his in the next few days as next week's deadline for teams to sign restricted free agents approaches. But asked if Johnson is going to sign his by next month's voluntary minicamp, agent Peter Schaffer said the subject hasn't come up.

"We haven't crossed that bridge. Not even thinking about it," Schaffer said. "Rudi is frustrated. The Bengals told him at the beginning of the offseason that their top priority was re-signing him and we haven't received anything from them." . . .

Wide receiver Peter Warrick says he's not sure if he'll be ready for the May 12 minicamp as he rehabs from some post-season arthroscopic knee surgery that cleaned up the original injury when he missed the next-to-last game against the Rams.

"That was my problem. I came back too soon to play (in the finale against the Browns)," Warrick said. "There's no need for me to rush back now. I'm just going to take my time and make sure it's right." . . .

Warrick isn't running routes with the receivers, but he did stand still and take some passes from quarterback Carson Palmer earlier this week. Palmer, who took about two months off from throwing, said, "I feel a little rusty, but rested and it's only April. That's pretty normal." . . .

Palmer has been able to throw to all of his tight ends, his Pro Bowl receiver in Chad Johnson, and his newest receiver in free-agent pickup Patrick Johnson. . .Palmer is going to have to move his wideouts to the practice fields in the next week because the Paul Brown Stadium grass is about to get ripped up in order to install FieldTurf. . .

Two old high school foes from Cincinnati's Fort Valley Ancient Conference showed up Wednesday for a pre-draft workout at Paul Brown Stadium. But former Winton Woods running back Brandon Miree and Turpin offensive lineman Jon Schaal have been teammates ever since. First, at the University of Pittsburgh and now as Richard Katz clients.

Katz, the Cincinnati-based agent who engineered cornerback Antoine Winfield's mega deal in Minnesota last month, also showed up with one of Cincinnati's prep coaching legends in former Winton Woods coach Lou Cynkar.

Both have high hopes for the 6-0, 228-pound Miree, who rebounded from missing seven games his senior year with 100-yard games in Pitt's final two games. He wants to show people he's faster than they think and he hopes Wednesday's 40-yard dash in the 4.55-second range on grass should help him get noticed somewhere in the middle rounds. The 6-4, 305-pound Schall started double-digit games at both guard and center for the Panthers and he's hoping that versatility gets him at least a free-agent tryout.

Miree got a kick working out for Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson. He remembers being a fourth-grader and listening to Anderson speak at Kemper Heights Elementary. . .

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