INDIANAPOLIS _ The Bengals have already targeted a list of quarterbacks in free agency composed of primarily backups in price and expectations once the bidding starts next month. One to add to the list is probably former Jet Jay Fiedler.
But as the NFL gathered here for the league's annual scouting combine amid intense labor talks, the speculation is on the 2007 free agency period as much as the one set to start March 3. The agent for Bengals left tackle Levi Jones expressed confidence a deal will be in place in time for his client to be a free agent after the upcoming season.
The bulk of the Bengals' first group of scouts and coaches arrived here Wednesday with an interview list of more defensive than offensive players. But wide receiver Tab Perry figures he'll have to wait until free agency and the draft to find out which side of the ball he'll be on.
CLOCK TICKS: No one knows Bengals backup quarterback Jon Kitna better than offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. And no one knows his system better than Kitna. But he's not sure if Kitna is going to end up back with the team.
Bratkowski was a prime mover in Kitna signing with the Bengals in 2001 free agency from Seattle, where Bratkowski brought him into the league a decade ago. There is a sense with Carson Palmer's status for early in the season unclear because of reconstructive knee surgery that Kitna's best chance to start could possibly be in Cincinnati.
"I would like to think unless he's going to a place that guarantees him the chance to start that he'll be back," Bratkowski said. "Jon doesn't want to drag out the process. He wants to put out feelers so that he gets a good feeling in the first 10 days of the level of interest. The problem is that we can't afford to sit around and wait and start to lose the players we've targeted. It's a tricky situation and I hope there's a lot of great communication."
Apparently the majority of the communication between the Bengals and Kitna hasn't gone much beyond his desire to find a starting job elsewhere or a commensurate salary to keep him out of free agency. So they have their list ready if they need to replace Kitna, a guy that Bratkowski says "is perceived to be our No. 2 guy who would play if Carson can't," and they aren't looking for big names looking to be No. 1 quarterbacks
"There's a possibility that he may have to start early in the season," Bratkowski said, "but the guy is going to have to come in knowing that Carson is the guy and that his role is going to be as a backup. That's the kind of guy we're looking for and have targeted."
There has been all sorts of speculation that some big-name No. 1 quarterbacks such as Drew Brees, Chad Pennington, Steve McNair, Brian Griese, and Aaron Brooks are going to be released at some point in March. Even a guy like former Redskins starter Patrick Ramsey. But it's doubtful any of them would be content to sit behind Palmer at this stage of their careers and, just as importantly, take backup money.
So the Bengals' list is probably still looking like guys like Anthony Wright, Jamie Martin, Sage Rosenfels, and Damon Huard. Ironically, Huard was once in a Bengals training camp with Fiedler, the former Dolphin cut by the Jets Wednesday and a guy that is probably being discussed.
Bratkowski says not only does the list of possible new available quarterbacks fail, for the most part, to fit into the specs of the backup role, but the timetable also is dicey.
"We can't wait into mid-March," he said. "The guy we get is going to have to play catch up with the guys we already have who have been in the system since I got here (in 2001). If it's not Jon, obviously that is going to be slowed."
If it's not Kitna, the Bengals need to get the Next Veteran Backup enough work with the playbook so he's competent enough for the voluntary camps set for the last three weeks in May and the first week in June to be followed by the June 15-17 mandatory minicamp.
LEVI, BENGALS WAIT:** Officials from the NFL and NFL Players Association huddled here Wednesday, but there was no word on the end to the CBA stalemate. Like most clubs, the Bengals are waiting to see what the salary cap number is for 2006 and if 2007 is going to be an uncapped year before making moves. That will happen if there is no CBA extension by March 3, although NFLPA boss Gene Upshaw has said the drop dead date is more like this coming weekend.
The two Bengals most affected by the talks make up Palmer's blindside, left tackle Levi Jones and left guard Eric Steinbach. If there is no deal, they don't become free agents after this season because if there is no cap a player must have at least six years of service before becoming a free agent.
But Ken Zuckerman, Jones' agent, said Wednesday from California that his client hasn't even started to think about playing 2007 as a restricted player.
"From what I'm hearing and what I've been told, it's going to get done and it's going to get done in time so that Levi will be a free agent after this season," Zuckerman said. "We've had no contact from the Bengals. I'm sure they're waiting on if he's going to be a free agent or not. As for how he'd feel if he has to play another year (with his rookie deal), we haven't even gone there.
"There are enough poison pills for both (teams and players) to have the incentive to get it done. I'm not sure there is any kind of a magic date," Zuckerman said. "Once it does get done, I'm sure we and the Bengals will get together to see how each side wants to proceed."
KEEPING TABS: Bengals wide receiver Tab Perry has no plans to watch the April 29-30 draft, but he gets the sense it's going to seriously impact his career. He says he has heard from some of his coaches there is a move afoot to switch him to strong safety.
It's believed that talk is now on hold with No. 3 receiver Chris Henry facing gun charges in Florida and backups Kelley Washington and Kevin Walter facing restricted free agency. They should have a definitive feel for all three situations come the first on-field day of May 16. For his part, Perry is open.
"I figure they will definitely do something for sure after they see what they draft and what happens in free agency," Perry said. "If they draft a safety, I doubt they'll do it. But if it means I'll play a lot, I'm ready. I don't mind hitting. I'll come up and hit you. I think tackling is easier than having to make a tackle on special teams after running 50, 60 yards."
The 6-3, 220-pound Perry, a standout safety in high school before going to UCLA as a receiver, made 16 tackles (two off the team lead) and forced a fumble on special teams. If they do switch him, he says he wouldn't mind seeing his deal extended.
"I'd like to know I'm going to be there awhile," he said.
Defensive players are believed to be getting the bulk of the looks from the Bengals. It's believed the majority of the 60 formal interviews they are conducting this week are on that side of the ball. Tight ends are going to get the most looks on offense.
Bratkowski says the club isn't looking for a specific type of tight end. They want a guy that blocks, but it sure sounds like they also want a guy that is a vertical threat in the passing game.
"We're looking for a guy that brings something to our offense that we don't have," Bratkowski said. "Whatever that might be. We're looking for a guy that takes pressure off the weapons we already have with our wide receivers and Rudi (Johnson) and Chris Perry at running back."
Since the Bengals aren't expected to re-sign Matt Schobel, that indicates a pass catcher. In the last three years, he has led the tight ends with 63 catches.
SLANTS AND SCREENS:** As befitting a playoff coach, the Bengals' Marvin Lewis meets the combine's national media horde Friday here at the convention center. And that's saying something. The NFL never turns away media, but they turned down 70 requests while credentialing 234 people. This at an event where 10 years ago there was no media room for about the 30 or so stragglers that showed up to cover it and reporters were known to write their stories while sitting on potted plants in hotel lobbies. . .
Lewis is taking part here in his first meeting as a non-voting member of the NFL Competition Committee. One of the tasks was reviewing end-zone celebrations, of which Lewis is quite familiar.