On guard

7-30-03, 6:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Carson Palmer got his truck back, the Bengals got their projected starting left guard, and Eric Steinbach fittingly began his NFL career in a game of give and take during technique drills at Tuesday afternoon's practice here at Georgetown College.

After getting word in Cincinnati from agent Jack Bechta at about 2:15 p.m., Steinbach hopped into the truck he borrowed from Palmer, got caught in traffic, and ended up in the last 45 minutes of practice after signing his four-year contract and leaving third-rounder Kelley Washington as the only unsigned player.

Steinbach, the first Bengals' starter born in the 1980s (April 4, 1980), deferred left guard to Rich Braham, the player who has been with the Bengals since Nov. 18, 1994, the longest tenure on the team, and Steinbach didn't expect to hop into the lineup after missing three and a half practices.

"I was a little fast. Not nervous, jut a little antsy with my footwork and hands," said Steinbach after the workout in shorts and helmets. "Once I get the feel of the way tempo is going, I'll be able to slow down with techniques. I got caught in traffic, out of my control, but I'm glad I got 45 minutes of good work in."

That half-full outlook is one of the reasons the Bengals covet Steinbach, a 6-6, 297-pound athletic wonder who used to play tight end and defensive end. After a college career in which Iowa head coach Kirk Firentz, a former NFL offensive line coach, groomed him to be a first-round pick, he unexpectedly fell into Bengal hands with the first pick in the second round at No. 33 back in April's draft.

The draft kept yielding surprises three months later. With their $5.2 million rookie pool dwindling (47 percent of it went to first-rounder Carson Palmer even before Steinbach was picked), Bengals vice president Paul Brown hit a snag with Bechta an hour before Steinbach was supposed to be here Sunday. Although picks Nos. 34-36 signed five-year deals with escalators, the Bengals still couldn't get to the signing bonus Steinbach wanted and Brown listened when Bechta suggested a four-year deal.

That marks a tremendous compromise on the club's part, because, as Bechta said, "That's huge. That gives a player pretty much a shot at three contracts, where if you take a five-year deal, that's another year out of free agency and you may be more inclined to sign an extension with your team. Nothing against the Bengals, but that's an attractive option for any player on any team."

But Steinbach essentially traded the fifth year for a slight risk. In order to fit some kind of guaranteed money ahead of No. 34 Boss Bailey's $2.2 million signing bonus from the Lions, there needed to be some pool relief. Bechta indicated Steinbach's number is about $2.25 million with only $1.8 million of it in up-front money because of pool restrictions. He gets the difference if he plays in 35 percent of the plays and one of three things happens in any of his four seasons: The Bengals win three games, or they allow fewer sacks than the previous season, or they score more points than the previous season.

If the team reaches one of the goals and he doesn't hit his play time, Bechta said it rolls over into the next year and he has to play 45 percent. But as Steinbach said, his goal is to be the starter, and they didn't give him $1.8 million to sit.

"I know Marvin Lewis is worth at least two wins," Bechta said. "And they were (No. 27) in scoring last year and No. 23 in sacks (allowed), so the numbers look to be easy to improve on."

Those incentives are worth slightly less than $500,000, which Bechta says doesn't count against this year's cap and allowed the Bengals to ease him into the pool.

"The Bengals always kept the talks moving in the right direction,"' Bechta said. "They wanted their player in camp and they gave him a four-year deal to do it, so it was a good deal for both sides."

Lewis, who knows Firentz from their Ravens' connections, can't wait to line up the guy.

"He's a very athletic player," Lewis said. "He's a big man and has a great desire to be a great ballplayer. He loves the game, (has a) great temperament."

Steinbach not only got some cash out of the deal, but he was able to tool around in Palmer's truck.

"I took care of it," he said. "No dents."

**

FIRST CUT:** The Bengals wasted no time making their first cut of camp Wednesday morning after four practices when they released rookie tackle Garry Johnson, a free agent out of Arkansas State.

**

NEXT?** The speculation is that third-rounder Kelley Washington, the Tennessee wide receiver who is the last of the holdouts, is going to sign as soon as Wednesday simply because of the rookie pool situation.

A league source outside the Bengals said the club has just about $400,000 left in a slot for Washington at No. 65. The No. 66 player has a $406,167 pool number and No. 64 has $468,600, according to ESPN.com, and the Bengals don't look to be budging off the number. Agent Glenn Rosenberg said he's hoping to do something creative, but the Bengals have traditionally done straight deals from the third round on, and usually in the second round, except on rare occasions.

**

TWO SNAPS:** Here are two plays, one from each of Tuesday's practices, that show how head coach Marvin Lewis is trying to run a pro's pro operation with what kind of players he acquired during the offseason in middle linebacker Kevin Hardy and how he is handling developing young players like third-year wide receiver Chad Johnson:

In the morning practice on the first snap of a live team drill, Hardy and right guard Matt O'Dwyer got into a scuffle right away. Hardy, the former Pro Bowler with the Jaguars and free-agent from the Cowboys, objected to what he thought was holding. O'Dwyer thought he got pushed in the back at the end of the play. Hardy shrugged and said, "That's football," and said he wasn't trying to send an overall team-wide message. But there was the purpose of a seven-year pro who has been to the playoffs more than once.

"You have to set a tone, especially on the first play," Hardy said. "You can t allow a guy to get the best of you on the first play. It's going to build his confidence and his confidence is going to soar. As a defender, you want to set the tone and let the other guys know you're going to be there all day and you're just going to go at it."

In the Tuesday afternoon practice, the loquacious and bombastic Johnson was furious when he went over the middle and didn't catch a ball when he felt cornerback Tory James held the back of his jersey. He got even madder when no one said anything and he ripped his helmet off yelling while he ran back to the huddle.

Lewis sprinted in to greet him, and Johnson said he got yelled at pretty good. Did Lewis notice after that incident Johnson caught everything but a virus?

"This is the NFL. That's the way you practice," Lewis said. "You're supposed to catch the football and you're supposed to block people. You can't take your helmet off the last time I checked. It's a 15-yard penalty plain and simple. The point is to be a pro and that's how you practice."

Later in the practice, Johnson made like the Babe and called his shot. As he split to the outside, he cocked his head to a reporter and said, "Write this play down." Then he sped past cornerback Reggie Myles on a go route and took a 40-yard touchdown pass in stride from quarterback Carson Palmer. As he ran back to the huddle, the helmet didn't come off. But he turned to the sideline and asked, "Did you get that?"

INJURY UPDATE: The soreness started to set in on the second day and some players sat out. Joining tight end Matt Schobel, who said he might not be able to play in the pre-season opener because of a hamstring problem, is wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and he's not sure how long he'll be out. Lewis said linebacker Armegis Spearman has a sore shoulder and defensive lineman Ron Smith has .a slight tear of one of his bicep tendons.

**

DEION SCHOOLS HAWKINS:** After working with future Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders in Dallas, Artrell Hawkins lost his right corner job to Raiders' free-agent Tory James. But the sixth-year player has some perspective he didn't have when he got benched in the middle of the 2000 season.

"I'm taking the Jon Kitna approach of playing and starting," said Hawkins of the Bengals quarterback. If it's meant to be and God's will, I'll start. If not, hopefully I'll be the third corner. I'm a competitor. I want to play, I've never been to the playoffs, never been to a Pro Bowl and I want to compete, but that's how I feel about it. Anything can happen in the NFL. From what I understand, the best players are going to be on the field and I've got all camp to compete."

The Bengals sent Hawkins and wide receivers Peter Warrick and Chad Johnson to a camp of about 15 players featuring Sanders and former Cowboys teammate Michael Irvin. Among the corners were Pro Bowlers Champ

Bailey and Deltha O'Neal, and the emerging Phillip Buchanon.

"You get to see guys like Champ Bailey and you kind of learn by taking what you can and mix and matching what works for you. Deion's a good teacher. He's a different style of player. He revolutionized the position. There are certain things he did as a player I can't do or 90 percent of the guys in the league can't do because of his speed. But he's good. I'm not going to tell you some of the stuff he taught me. Keep it a secret."

Hawkins says there's no question Sanders is a superstar in how he carries himself and approaches the game. One of his coaching tips was, "Do this no matter what your coach says," and the time at his home was memorable.

"Huge. Amazingly big," Hawkins said. "Someone said 36,000 square feet. You look at that and you know you'll never have as much money as Deion. He's the guy you always saw on TV and followed, but then you sit down with him and see another side."

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