Pittsburgh 'Steeling' Hawkins?

3-14-02, 6:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With two weeks, Trent Dilfer, and Elvis Grbac gone in free agency, the populace is itching for the Bengals to make any kind of deal.

A quarterback. A cornerback. A kicker. Any kind of deal.

But on Thursday, after Colts tight end Ken Dilger left Paul Brown Stadium without an offer, Bears cornerback Walt Harris closed a deal with the Colts, and their starting right cornerback received an offer from AFC North rival Pittsburgh, the Bengals' strategy crystallized.

"We're going to be patient. The market is different this year. There just isn't that flurry of deals there used to be even though that's what football fans want," said Jim Lippincott, Bengals director of pro/college personnel. "The theme is patience. And our philosophy has always been take care of your own if they take care of you. We've still got two guys out there we'd like to get back."

Hawkins, who has started 48 games in an oft-rocky four-year Bengals' career, told Steelers.com he got an offer Thursday during his visit with the club and hopes to make a decision by Sunday. Defensive end Reinard Wilson, the Bengals sack leader with nine, returned from Indianapolis Wednesday, but agent David Levine wouldn't say if he got an offer from the Colts or Vikings. Word is that Minnesota is out of the Wilson hunt.

"Let's face it. About only seven teams have been active in free agency, so the Bengals aren't the only team not doing anything," Levine said. "I think they will get players at a reasonable price later in the process, however, they won't be getting the guys they have necessarily targeted."

With an average crop of free-agents staring at them and about $4.5 million to spend in free agency, the Bengals seem hesitant at dropping $3 million per year on a player they think can do about the same thing for $1.5 to $2 million. The lower number also allows them to fill more needs and maybe get both of their players back.

Levy, Harris' agent, said Thursday he was working on a deal with another team and, "it's not the Bengals. There's no money there." With corners like Eric Warfield and Aaron Beasley getting $3 to 4 million to sign, some agents have been arguing there is a market not all that slow if the team wants it to be fast. Late Thursday night, ESPN.com reported that Harris signed with Indianapolis at $15 million over five years with a $3.5 million bonus. That could help the Bengals in their pursuit of Jeff Burris, the Colts corner Indy wouldn't have minded re-signing.

There is money in Cincinnati if the price is right. Which is what Hawkins is trying to find. He left Pittsburgh for Oakland and an interview with the Raiders Friday. After also visiting Seattle and New England, Hawkins said he wants to take a day to sort out his options in the hopes of making a decision by Sunday.

"We're still actually negotiating (with the Bengals)," Hawkins told Steelers.com. "The door isn't closed on Cincinnati just yet. Right now what I'm doing is going out and seeing what's out there. Seeing what's good for me and my career."

Hawkins isn't concerned he would be the third cornerback behind Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington on a defense that finished the season ranked first in the NFL. He said he had a "good feel," for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, a disciple of Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau who runs pretty much the same scheme.

"Even though I would technically be a three, there's still a lot of opportunity. It might not come overnight, but I still see there being a chance to really do something special." Hawkins said. "

"The (Pittsburgh) defense had a total of 900 snaps,"

seeing what's out there. Seeing what's good for me and my career."

Hawkins isn't concerned he would be the third cornerback behind Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington on a defense that finished the season ranked first in the NFL. He said he had a "good feel," for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, a disciple of Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau who runs pretty much the same scheme.

"Even though I would technically be a three, there's still a lot of opportunity. It might not come overnight, but I still see there being a chance to really do something special." Hawkins said. "

"The (Pittsburgh) defense had a total of 900 snaps," Hawkins said. "The nickel and dime packages combined were between 370 and 390 snaps. With injures to either one of the starters, you could boost that to another 140 snaps if you start a few games. You're talking about playing half of defensive snaps. It's not like you would get buried to the bench."

Duke Tobin, Bengals director of pro/college personnel doing the Hawkins' deal, wouldn't get into specifics of the negotiations. But even if the Bengals sign another cornerback who has started (the Colts' Jeff Burris?) and draft one in the first round, they still want Hawkins back for his experience and character.

Their initial offers to Harris, Chiefs kicker Todd Peterson and Jaguars defensive end Renaldo Wynn have been characterized by at least one of their agents as low, but the Bengals also know they're going to fill a need with the 10th pick in next month's draft.

With the draft featuring a strong field of tight ends, the position doesn't appear to be on the frontburner. But they have high regard for Dilger, who has 261 catches and 18 touchdowns in seven seasons with the Colts.

Dilger, who drove to PBS from Indianapolis Thursday, said he enjoyed his visit and called the organization "first class." But he also had the sense the Bengals have other irons in the fire and the timing isn't all that good.

"I don't think they want to move as fast as I have to move," Dilger said. "I know they've got some other positions they're looking at and that's fine because in free agency you've only got so much money. But I've got some teams waiting on me and I'd like to do something by early next week."

Although Dilger said he hasn't received an offer from Cincinnati, he said the Bengals are in the mix with the Patriots, Seahawks, Lions, and Buccaneers.

The Bengals host Chargers tight end Freddie Jones Friday as they try to flesh out the corner market. They've got a visit with Burris tentatively scheduled for next week and another player may have entered the mix Thursday when the Bucs cut six-year veteran Donnie Abraham, a guy the Bengals admire.

Levine, who says the Bengals are still in the mix for Wilson, doesn't think this market is altogether different than other years. He sees the $3.5 million per year deals signed by defensive linemen Kenny Mixon and Kenard Lang, as well as a $1.8 million per year deal signed by journeyman Steve White, as evidence the market is moving if some teams want it to.

"What is different is that there aren't as many deals with $5 million signing bonuses," Levine said. "But there have been plenty for $2 million or more and I consider that significant money."

The Bengals appear to think this is a case where less is going to mean more. Whether that includes Hawkins is another story. According to ESPN.com, the Steelers have less than $500,000 under the salary cap. But late word Thursday is the Vikings are interested in him and they've got $14 million to spend under the cap. That could be the real threat, because the Vikings could offer him the money, along with a starting job. Minnesota has also targeted Tampa Bay's Brian Kelly and Arizona's Corey Chavous as corner candidates.

"All it takes to make a market for a player is one team," Levine said. "If a team pays it, then that's what that guy is worth."

Hawkins, a Johnstown, Pa., product, said going back home to Pittsburgh isn't really a factor. After playing at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati also has a good hold on him.

But the lure of Steeler success is something else after they appeared in the AFC title game.

"All of that has something to do with it," Hawkins said. "You can't not think about the fact that they have everyone on defense coming back next year. You have an offense that really came alive in the middle of last year, and they're all back. Everyone wants to win a Super Bowl ring, whether you're starting or not."

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