Updated: 9 p.m.
Stacy Andrews heard the talk. But in the end, he never thought the Bengals would make him their franchise free agent.
"It's amazing. A blessing when you think about where I came from," said Andrews, indicating Wednesday night that he'll sign the $7.5 million tender and get to work when offseason workouts open next month.
Which means two defensive starters are likely headed to free agency in defensive end Justin Smith and free safety Madieu Williams when the market opens Feb. 29. The bidding figures to start at $20 million up front for Smith and $10 million for Williams, quite possibly too rich for a franchise trying to shake its defensive past.
"That was kind of exciting. That would have been great. I don't think it's ever been done before, two brothers playing next to each other on the same line," he said. "But I'm ready to do what they want me to do. I want to keep learning. Keep on getting better."
The odd thing about this particular tag is that it could very well have been put on a guy that may not start Opening Day.
The tagging of Andrews, with a one-year tender representing the average of the top five offensive line salaries in 2007, is a stunning number for a player with 17 NFL starts and reflects what the Bengals think of his 350-pound athleticism.
"I don't think it guarantees a starting job; no way," Andrews said. "I have to keep getting better. I don't know what they have planned. But I'm ready for whatever."
Andrews made the money by filling in competently and well in 11 starts in place of perennial Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson last season when Anderson suffered a bone bruise in his knee.
From all indications, the franchise tag doesn't mean Anderson is gone but that the Bengals are looking to use Andrews' versatility at guard and insurance at tackle.
Ironically, Andrews said Anderson is the main reason he got the pay day.
"Really, I think if I had gone anywhere else this wouldn't have happened," Andrews said. "They would have been worried about their jobs and maybe would have showed me the wrong direction to go. But to have a great player like Willie take me under his wing ... "
As the projected 2008 starting right tackle, Anderson heartily endorsed the move.
Just last week Lewis had high praise for how left tackle Jones battled through his knee injury to secure an alternate Pro Bowl berth while expressing confidence that Anderson showed in the last two games of the season he can return to form at age 33. The Bengals look prepared to keep three high-priced offensive linemen with a combined salary cap count of about $19 million.
They are barely a year and a half removed from signing Anderson and Jones to mega long-term deals that combined counted for nearly $13 million of the Bengals salary cap in 2007.
And the Bengals were reminded how much Anderson means to them when he settled them down and they ran the ball so effectively against the Jets and Browns. With Lewis banging the drum for the running game so loudly and so early, Anderson's presence is wanted and needed.
Anderson reported Monday that the bone bruise in his knee that wiped out 11 starts is healed and that he'll be on the field for the start of May camps.
"I feel like I can go, but I know the team can't count on that," Anderson said. "You've got a young guy like Stacy that they've spent all this time developing and he can play both guard and tackle. That was one of the stories in the playoffs; guys on the line stepping in for injured guys and not missing a beat."
Andrews, 26, a fourth-round draft pick who came into the NFL as a world-class track athlete with just 70 college football snaps, received his most experience this past season.
The club has been rocked by knee injuries to both Anderson and Jones, and his six other starts have come at left guard and right guard. Andrews isn't viewed as Jones' backup on the left side, but he moves to left guard when Andrew Whitworth moves from guard to tackle.
"Stacy has been a productive young player for us," Lewis said in Monday's news release. "He has shown the flexibility to start and play well at a number of different positions on our line. This move helps us keep our core players together, and it gives us an opportunity to continue negotiating for a longer-term contract with Stacy."
Which is no surprise to agent Jim Steiner. He said last week he expected Smith to go on the market untagged.
The agent for Williams, Kenny Zuckerman, said reiterated Wednesday night the Bengals have talked with him and they'll continue to talk. But no deal looked to be imminent.
Zuckerman says he has nothing scheduled this week with the Bengals, but figures he'll sit down with the club at some point at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
"Now that the tag is on Stacy with the big compensation, teams will think it's more viable now to go after Madieu as a free agent," Zuckerman said.
The franchise tag for a safety is at $4.3 million, but Williams could be looking at $5 million per year with $10 million guaranteed if last year's early March deal for free safety Deon Grant holds up.
The Bengals, who haven't been able to reach a long-term deal with Andrews for more than a year, won't be able to strike one with him after July 15.
According to the Bengals news release:
"The franchise-player designation means that the Bengals could retain Andrews by matching any offer sheet he would sign from another team and that if the Bengals declined to match a signed offer, the team signing Andrews would be required to give the Bengals its first-round choices in the 2008 and 2009 NFL Drafts."