No. 1 talks ongoing

6-21-02, 5:00 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Levi Jones contract talks haven't become hugely specific yet, but just the fact they are taking place at all gives both sides optimism the Bengals' first-round draft pick will be in training camp on time.

With the first practice at Georgetown College five weeks from Friday, Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and agent Ken Zuckerman have already discussed some parameters even though only two first-round picks in the NFL are signed.

"The discussions are still real preliminary, but we're moving in the right direction by outlining some things," Zuckerman said Friday. "We're trying to get one issue done each week in pushing on."

The next step in the Darnay Scott saga probably won't occur until next week, when Bengals vice president Paul Brown returns from scouting the World Bowl that ends the NFL Europe season. On Tuesday, Rocky Arceneaux, Scott's agent, told bengals.com his client is willing to

talk about re-structuring his contract and not necessarily a pay cut from the $3 million he is due this year in salary and Sept. 1 roster bonus. Asked if he would call the Bengals, Arceneaux said, "We've already got a contract."

The Bengals still don't have a contract with Scott's possible successor, former Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook, and both sides are keeping their options open with the club mulling some extensions on their own roster and Westbrook looking for more from another team. It's believed Cincinnati has offered Westbrook a two-year deal that averages more than a $750,000 minimum and less than Derrick Alexander's $1.7 million, while including a signing bonus and probably incentives for the 2003 season.

Blackburn and Zuckerman are hesitant to comment on the Jets' recent signing of their first-round pick until they closely examine Alabama-Birmingham defensive end Bryan Thomas' deal for the 22nd pick in the draft. Thomas and the No. 1 pick, Houston quarterback David Carr, are the only first-rounders in the fold.

ESPN.com reports Thomas gets $6.696 million over five years with a guaranteed $4 million total between the signing bonus and an option bonus due next spring.

The deal does contain some of the bells and whistles from last year that the Bengals found distasteful when they struggled to sign No. 1 pick Justin Smith during his 51-day holdout. The five-year deal instead of a longer term and the option bonus instead of a lump sum showed up in the Thomas deal, but the club doesn't expect there to be the obstacles with the 10th pick in the draft that were there with the fourth pick.

"Now it is chartered waters for them," Zuckerman said of the Smith deal. "If you've been there before, it's easier to go down that path. I'm sure we'll have similar things (that were in the Smith deal) and things that aren't similar. The thing with the Jets' deal is that it just gives us more information and more comfort with a floor and a ceiling and that's good for both sides."

Although the rookie pool is the same as last year, Thomas reportedly got an eight percent hike in total compensation over the No. 22 pick in 2001. Blackburn needs to see how that came down in bonus and salaries.

"If you give the first guy an increase, you're going to have to take a lot more away from two through seven (draft picks) somehow," Blackburn said. "But with the increase in minimum salaries, I'm not sure until looking at the deal how it is structured."

Thomas' option bonus is guaranteed, another element that the Bengals didn't like from last year's discussions. Last year's No. 10 pick, Green Bay's Jamal Reynolds, got a $6 million bonus in which $2 million is a club option before this season and isn't guaranteed.

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