2-28-03, 1:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
As the clock struck midnight for Friday and NFL free agency, Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal felt good enough to gamble and go on the market.
Meanwhile, elite run stopper Sam Adams feels good enough about Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis that if asked, he is considering making another stand in Cincinnati after being unable to reach a deal with the club on the eve of the last training camp.
Players who have worked for Lewis in Baltimore and Washington for his top five defenses figure to be the ones to watch in free agency. Lewis couldn't be reached about Adams' availability Thursday night, but it makes sense. Adams was an anchor at tackle for Lewis' record-breaking defense in Baltimore three years ago before ending up a salary cap casualty on the AFC champion Raiders last year.
Neal and the Bengals tried to cobble together a deal Thursday that would keep him in Cincinnati as the deadline neared, but Thursday night Neal said he felt he could do better on the open market.
"Marv and I had a great conversation and I really think he's going to do well there whether I'm there or not," Neal said late Thursday. "But
they came to me during the season, and they came to me now, and I just think they're gambling and if I'm a betting man, I think they're going to lose.
"I'm not coming down on anybody. I'm grateful for the chance the Bengals have given me," said Neal, off the first Pro Bowl of his 10-year career. "But don't try to pay me like I'm just a guy. I'm not just a guy. I'm the best. I don't think it should have got to this point. Here you've got a good guy who plays hard, is one of the strongest guys you've got, and is one of the hardest workers you've got. I wish it could have happened, but it didn't."
After he got back from the Pro Bowl earlier this month, Neal said he thought he has played worthy of the $1-1.3 million per year class of fullback. He indicated Thursday that the club's offer in salary and signing bonus for 2003 is slightly more than $900,000.
"I talked to Marv and he said, 'Let's get it done,'" Neal said. "But we couldn't get it together. We'll see what happens. They have been great to me. I tip my hat to (offensive coordinator) Bob Bratkowski for the way he's used me."
If it sounds like Neal is on his way out, it sounds like Adams is on his way in for at least a visit. Angelo Wright, Adams' agent, said the Raiders cut his client not unexpectedly Thursday in a bid to get down from being $30 million over the cap.
"Knowing how he feels about Marvin, I would think Cincinnati is going to be a consideration," Wright said. "He's a guy who knows what Marvin wants and he played well for him and he enjoyed playing for him."
If the Bengals do go after Adams, who'll be 30 next season, things are different now than when the Bengals courted him back in July. First, Lewis is the coach. Second, there is more urgency to sign a defensive tackle because starter Oliver Gibson is coming off Achilles' surgery. Third, Wright is his agent this time.
"I've got a feeling that with Marvin there, if Sam gets on the plane for a visit, the parameters are going to be very clear," Wright said.
Adams isn't the only former Lewis defensive lineman on the market who may draw interest from the Bengals. Another possibility could be Carl Powell, who has played for Lewis in both places and could be the left end the Bengals seek. Powell reportedly rejected a three-year contract with a signing bonus of about $450,000 from the Redskins earlier this week.
The Bengals have targeted defensive linemen, interior offensive linemen, cornerbacks, and safeties as needs in free agency. Some other names they may investigate Friday are Browns center Dave Wohlabaugh, Saints cornerback Sammy Knight, and Chargers safety Rodney Harrison.
ESPN.com reported last week the Bengals had about $9 million free under the salary cap, but it was unclear if that included the $4.8 million transition tag offer to linebacker Takeo Spikes. It didn't include the $4.5 million they figure to use on their draft picks.