Over the top

1-7-01, 7:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' passing game in the last two weeks ended up in the same place where the club stands on the NFL salary cap.

Over the top.

When Justin Smith and Peter Warrick hit their statistical milestones in the season finale Sunday in Tennessee, the Bengals went nearly $1 million over the 2001 salary cap, according to numbers culled from national publications and web sites.

The Bengals have to absorb that hit this coming year, as well as make room for the salary increases in the 2002 season for Smith, Warrick and quarterback Jon Kitna. Because he played in more than 80 percent of this season's snaps, Kitna gets a $1 million raise in 2002.

When Smith got his 8.5th sack (worth $2 million) and Warrick caught his 70th pass of the season against the Titans (worth $500,000), each got a $500,000 boost in salary for each remaining year of their contracts.

It's been a long year since the Bengals finished last season heading into the offseason with what was reported as the most room under the NFL's salary cap. Critics lambasted the club for having so much space, but it went fast.

About $4 million went to draft picks. About another $4.5 million went to securing two-time Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon for five years. Then came their biggest free-agent deals in wrapping up Kitna and defensive tackle Tony Williams in the first week of free agency.

Then came free-agent deals later in the spring for two more starters in

left tackle Richmond Webb and fullback Lorenzo Neal. Then came contract extensions for linebackers Adrian Ross and Steve Foley.

Then Smith and Warrick did their things and now the Bengals are here a year later with less room but with big names to try and sign.

First up are defensive end Reinard Wilson and cornerback Artrell Hawkins. But in the wings are the cornerstones of the NFL's ninth best defense in linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons. Their contracts are up after next season, but their agents said Monday they would like extensions before next season.

Plus, the Bengals would like to look at some veteran free agents on the market. With the Bengals thinking cornerback with the 10th pick in April's draft, the most logical free-agent priority would be tight end.

"We spoke with the Bengals earlier this season, but they had no cap room," said Hadley Engelhard, Spikes' agent. "We'll continue to talk with them throughout the offseason and hope to have an extension prior to training camp. Takeo wants to come back. He's been there for four years, he likes it and it looks like the team is getting turned around."

Jerrold Colton, Simmons' agent, is hoping there's not a replay of the 1997 season. That's when Colton represented quarterback Boomer Esiason and the Bengals didn't go to him for an extension near the end of the season. When "Monday Night Football," called three weeks after the season, Esiason retired to the TV booth.

"I'm very anxious for the phone to ring," Colton said. "I hope they don't wait too long. Brian feels very good about the kind of season he had and very much wants to remain with the Cincinnati Bengals. He likes being part of a defense that he has grown up with."

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