New cuts arouse interest

2-26-02, 6:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With NFL teams still looking to dump millions of dollars in the next 48 hours to get under the salary cap by Friday, the Bengals are revising their free-agent list hourly as the fresh cuts keep coming across the wire.

With observers expecting the Bengals to make a run at a free-agent quarterback they hope can put their playoff defense over the top, the club put the just-released Chris Chandler on their list of options at some point in the free-agent process, which begins Friday.

Bengals President Mike Brown also said Tuesday he has had no trade talks with another club, reiterating his reluctance at giving up a draft pick or another player in a deal. That throws cold water on published reports that have the Bengals as one of the suitors for Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

The oft-injured Chandler, 36, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards in his 14th NFL season last year, was let go by the Falcons so they could absorb his $5.1 million cap hit this year while also giving the job to No. 1 pick Michael Vick.

Asked if Chandler was too old for consideration, Brown thought his experience and his productivity the last few seasons were plusses.

"What's too old?" Brown asked. "I think he's shown he can still help a team for a year or two. Look at Vinny Testaverde. He's 39 years old and he's still a solid starting quarterback in this league. This is a guy who is another an option, a guy who is a consideration."

Brown wouldn't reveal the Bengals' strategy for when free-agency opens. Although virtually every published report has them making a run at the top quarterback on the market in Trent Dilfer, the Bengals can't comment on Dilfer until he becomes a free-agent on Friday.

Brown has indicated trying to sign a quarterback is something the team has put in the mix, but not the only thing.

"That might not be the way we end up going," Brown said. "There's a lot of roads to go if we don't find it with that one. There are other positions. With this system, it's hard to pull off a trade because of the size of the cap numbers (Bledsoe is a $5 million hit this year) and why give up something when you might not have to?"

The expanding list could help them keep their own free agents as the added players figures to bring down prices. But all indications are the team's only free-agent starter, cornerback Artrell Hawkins, and defensive end Reinard Wilson are going on the market.

Wilson's agent, David Levine, had in-depth discussions with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn Tuesday morning, but

he's still prepared to bring Wilson to the NFL scouting combine this weekend to finally find out if his client's career nine-sack season is worth $5 million, or $3 million, or whatever. The lower it goes, the Bengals have a better shot at re-signing him as the rush specialist they have envisioned him instead of as a three-down player.

Yet the discussions with Blackburn, which began after Levine struck an extension for linebacker Steve Foley back in October, have been fruitful enough that the Bengals won't be far away.

"Katie respects the fact that we want to see what's out there," Levine said. "She didn't give us an offer, but we're so much on the same page that I still know her number and I think she knows my number and I won't discuss numbers publicly. If we don't find that one team, she let us know they want him back and I would think we'd start talking right away. I would think we're going to know what the interest is by Tuesday and by then we'll probably know if we're talking heavily to the Bengals again."

Chandler, who led the Falcons to an improbable Super Bowl berth after a career-best 3,154-yard passing season in 1998, had his second most productive season this past year with 2,847 yards in making all but two starts. With 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, Chandler finished fifth in NFC passing with an 84.1 rating that put him behind Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb.

What the Bengals no doubt find interesting about Chandler (and probably so with Dilfer) is his high average yard per gain of 7.8. That was second in the NFL to Warner's 8.85, and more than two yards better than Jon Kitna's AFC-low 5.54 in Cincinnati last season.

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