Midnight madness

Five questions before the NFL rings in free agency at midnight Friday:

1. WILL THE BENGALS KEEP T.J. HOUSHMANDZADEH?


Houshmandzadeh
They're not out of it and the sides are talking, but there is no midnight deal looming like there was with him four years ago.

Quarterback Carson Palmer has turned into Tom Daschle without the limos and is lobbying Houshmandzadeh hard. He called Houshmandzadeh on Thursday while he was working out.

"He just said, 'Don't forget us,' and I told him the same thing I'm telling you," Houshmandzadeh said Thursday night. "If they're fair, we'll make history. If not, we can still hang out and be friends."

Houshmandzadeh said he wants to be on a team by Saturday night.

"I don't want it to go into Sunday," he said.

He said the Bengals and agent Kennard McGuire have talked and there is a sense that both sides would like to reach a resolution that keeps him in Cincinnati.

But the Bengals have a thing about age (he turns 32 in September) and Houshmandzadeh has a thing about how good he is among NFL receivers (in the top five for catches the last five seasons) and while there may be a legit argument on both sides there is also a gap.

"They'll see when I play five more years," Houshmandzadeh said again Thursday.

But the debate isn't only at the negotiating table.

Pete Prisco of CBSSportsline.com refused to put any free agent 30 or older in his top 10, and he rated Houshmandzadeh 15th overall.

"The top 10 is filled with players who fit the target age of 26," Prisco writes. "Some are a little older, some younger but they're all in their prime. Spend money on those players. That's how you get value." But on most boards, Houshmandzadeh is the top receiver available

And, like Houshmandzadeh says, "I read the Internet. I see all the bad stuff, but ESPN has me rated No. 2 out of all the free agents. Right behind Albert Haynesworth. And they're the top dog."

2. WHAT DO THE BENGALS NEED TO DO IN FREE AGENCY?

Fill, fill, and fill again. They need several players on offense, not just one or two.

So they may be leery about putting a big number - say $7-8 million per year on one player a la Houshmandzadeh.

The salary cap has gone up from $123 to $127 million. Before the hike, published reports had the Bengals at about $28 million under.

Yet it's not known how the Bengals have budgeted it. All we know is that number doesn't include the estimated $5 million for draft picks, the $5.48 million tendered in offers, and a pad for injuries. Last year the glut on injured reserve reached about $4 million.

Also in the mix are new salary cap accounting rules that don't allow any dead money or incentives to be funneled into future years because there is no cap in 2010. For instance, No. 1 pick Keith Rivers was expected to hit his play-time incentive of $3 million in 2008. But now he's expected to hit it this year and it can't be rolled into 2010.

Blame Hines Ward.

Whether all this makes the Bengals tight or soft against the cap remains to be seen in how they respond in the market. Head coach Marvin Lewis has said they are going to pursue running back Cedric Benson, safety Chris Crocker and right tackle Stacy Andrews. What he didn't say is if they can afford all four, plus Houshmandzadeh.

And, if they lose him, you think they would need to get a veteran wideout. A batch just hit the market with Drew Bennett, D.J. Hackett, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Laveranues Coles. That may make younger guys like Tennessee's Brandon Jones and Chicago's Brandon Lloyd more accessible.

3. WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH STACY ANDREWS?

The same as it has been since the Bengals started talking to the guy before the 2006 season.

No deal.


Andrews
Last week, Lewis sure sounded like the Bengals thought they were close to a deal. Then nothing. Not usually a good sign, and the speculation has always been that a reunion was sought on the Philadelphia offensive line with brother Shawn Andrews or that the Jets have coveted him since they hosted him for a visit in restricted free agency.

But the New Jersey visit was two years and one Jets head coach ago and Stacy chose to have his reconstructive knee surgery performed by Bengals doctor Angelo Colosimo and his rehab run by Bengals director of rehab Nick Cosgray. He says he wants to come back and that he's comfortable in Cincinnati, where he has been yeoman in the community.

A mystery the Bengals hope gets resolved in their favor soon with a big factor perhaps on how the play-time incentives are handled.

By the way, Prisco rates Andrews sixth overall on his list because he's "ascending" at age 27.

4. WILL THE BENGALS GET IN ON SOME OF THE PURGED PLAYERS?

They seem more focused on keeping their own free agents but, for instance, if they lose Andrews they may go into the market for a Mike Goff-type veteran guard to ease left guard Andrew Whitworth's move to left tackle if they indeed decide to move left tackle Anthony Collins to right.

That probably makes more sense than pursuing a veteran center with some young ones they like already on the roster.

If anything, this past week has shown why the Bengals have been cautious throwing down big money early that first weekend on free agents.

They've only done it twice and when they did it in '03, two of the three played their contracts out in John Thornton and Tory James. They did it last year by signing right end Antwan Odom for their biggest deal ever in free agency at $30 million over five years.

That's not to say they couldn't do it more, but there is always more evidence of bad early deals than good early ones.

Remember in '07 when the Bills came out and signed guard Derrick Dockery to a seven-year, $49 million deal with $18.5 million guaranteed? Buffalo cut him Thursday and according to ProFootballTalk.com that accelerated $5.3 million into the cap. Or last week, when the Broncos lopped nose tackle Dewayne Robertson and his $16 million cap figure a year after they signed him to a big deal following a trade the Bengals decided not to make because of his knees?

Or, why teams don't pump up contracts with big money in the out years. Former Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison was scheduled to make $9 million this year, $10 million next year and $11.4 million in 2011, and the Colts had to jettison him.

5. SAY IT'S SO CED, CROCKER?

Cedric Benson agent Eugene Parker may be a tough negotiator, but at least he told the Bengals straight out early that he was taking his guy to market. What that brings him is anyone's guess.


Benson
Prisco rates only two running backs in his top 50 (Fred Taylor and Derrick Ward) and Michael Lombardi rates Benson third in his two-down backs behind Maurice Morris and Correll Buckhalter, not putting him in the three-down category with Ward, Darren Sproles, Lamont Jordan and Jason Wright.

Lombardi says he's not convinced because he claims Benson got "junk yards" in '08.

But the Bengals like Benson's age (25), his commitment, and how hard he played. Ask Steelers safety Troy Polamalu if his concussion at the end of Benson's 15-yard run was garbage.

Whether they sign Benson or not, the Bengals know they have to draft a back.

Crocker brought enough stability, leadership, and physical presence that they were hoping to keep him off the market. (He also doled out a concussion to an NFL Network celebrity in Santonio Holmes.)

But it hasn't happened. Crocker was on the street as of late October, but that was before he put on some nice film in the last eight games. The one thing going for the Bengals is that Mike Zimmer is the defensive coordinator, the guy that recommended they sign him and the reason Crocker opted to stay in Cincinnati that week and not sign elsewhere.

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