Question marks punctuate offseason

2-13-04, 6 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Linebacker Adrian Ross says he came back into town this week just to let the Bengals know his reconstructed knee is doing fine about 40 days after surgery.

But who can blame him if he also wanted to get a hint of what the team has planned for him this season? Join the club. Head coach Marvin Lewis isn't saying much about anything these days, from Corey Dillon to quarterbacks, to linebackers, to the new field.

But one thing is certain after ESPN.com published its salary cap survey this week that shows the Bengals only $8.15 million under. The Bengals have always been hesitant to confirm such numbers because they see them as "uneducated," figures that don't take into account how they are secretly building their team for the next season.

But even if the $8.15 million number isn't accurate, it at least indicates if the Bengals sign a mid-level free agent, they may have to counter by letting at least one, or possibly others, go to make room. Because out of that $8 million also comes the offers to restricted free agents and the estimated $3 million in draft picks.

Lewis has never said the club's cap situation precludes signing a mega free agent, but it's believed that on March 3, it's the tightest they've ever been at the start of free agency since the unfettered system began 10 years ago. Throw into the mix ESPN.com's report on Friday that the Redskins have given free-agent Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey permission to seek a trade and contract with the other 31 teams, and that makes it quite interesting because Bailey is a Lewis favorite from his one season as the Redskins defensive coordinator.

Talk about a mega deal. Bailey has already turned down a nine-year, $55 million contract. You could pay him, but you might have to cut five starters in the process. Lewis had no comment late Friday afternoon on whether the Bengals plan to talk to Bailey's agent.

And, as of Monday afternoon, there was no indication the three sides had talked at all. With the Redskins apparently seeking at least a first-round pick and a second-round pick for Bailey, the Bengals would need to trade a lot more than Dillon to get him, not to mention fitting him into the cap.

At least one veteran running back doesn't see himself replacing Dillon in Cincinnati if there is a trade. The agent for Charlie Garner, Brian Levy, said Monday that even if Dillon is gone, the club already has Rudi Johnson and that it wouldn't be a fit for a guy seeking 20 to 25 touches a game. If Dillon is traded the Bengals would probably end up seeking Johnson's backup on the second day of the draft, or from lower-priced free agents.

Waiting to see what shoes drop where are guys like Ross, going into his seventh season rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament he received on a throw-away play in the last moments of the next-to-last game against the Rams. He has heard the talk of switching middle linebacker Kevin Hardy to Ross' spot on the left outside, but defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier knows he can't do that until he finds a middle linebacker.

"It's still a possibility, but certain things have to happen in order for that to happen," said Frazier of the move being impacted by free agency and the

draft. "If you look at our roster, it would be foolish to do anything otherwise if we didn't (have a true middle backer.)"

Ross is the kid raising his hand in the front row. He thinks middle backer is his best position, and he believes he'll come back an even better player after his rehab and that he'll be back when they say he'll be back and that's the first day of training camp.

"I see myself in the middle," Ross said. "Just because I know football. My knowledge of reading plays. You have to recognize formations and you have to read plays and that's what I think I do. I just think I can create a physical presence for punishing people. So when you try to come with the running game, I'll be physical right back at you.

"I think Kevin is the same kind of guy," Ross said. "A real knowledgeable, versatile guy who has good football sense. And you're talking about a guy who has been a Pro Bowl outside linebacker."

The Bengals are wondering if switching Hardy back to his natural outside spot is going to help them in the running game, where they finished 25th in the league in his first year in the middle. But Frazier is hesitant about switching Ross after a solid year he had 62 tackles, ninth on the defense.

"He was a bright spot last year on defense. He did a good job on the outside," Frazier said. "Especially toward the end of the season. He has experience. We think he can improve. He played well for us as an outside backer. He's got to worry about getting the knee right and not worry about the position."

Ross is encouraged this week, his first he has been able to walk since the surgery five weeks ago. He was on crutches about a week longer than usual because the California surgeon who did the surgery also repaired his torn lateral meniscus cartilage in a fairly new procedure that should boost his comeback.

"I came off the crutches waking right away, so that showed you my quads are still firing," Ross said. "I could only bend the knee at 90 degrees and in two days I had it at 120. I'm going to come back a better player. That's the type of guy I am. The work you do in rehab is basically a workout and you put the knee through everything imaginable. And in the process, you're going all out."

Ross, who turns 29 Thursday, thinks he has a solid training base from last season, the first year he says he truly didn't get tired in games and bounced back easier during the week. He said he didn't concentrate so much on strength and focused more on his weak points, such as flexibility and speed repetitions. He went from 250 to 255 pounds to 240 to 243 pounds last season in Lewis' desire to make everyone faster.

"I know I'm nowhere. I know you can't count on me," Ross said. "I say I'm going to be back by the first day of training camp, but there could be a setback, or I could be back sooner. But that's typical Adrian Ross. I'm never in the picture going into training camp."

True. Last year, he was supposed to be too stiff and slow for Lewis' scheme, but instead of getting cut, he outplayed the starter and Steve Foley got cut, and Ross ended up making 12 starts. It's been the same deal since he came out of Colorado State as a free agent. All he does is produce despite the lack of fanfare.

Of course, Ross better produce this year, too, because he counts $1 million against the cap heading into the last year of his contract. Frazier thinks he will.

"He's wrong. We are counting on him," Frazier said. "We need him to get back. The guy's a good player. We'll see how he comes back from the injury, but guys come back from that all the time."

Frazier, 44, played in the era when guys didn't come back from it. In fact, Frazier, a cornerback, never took another snap in the NFL after tearing his ACL in January of 1986 in helping the Bears to the Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. The 18-year gap in the wonders of medical science is staggering.

"We were talking about what he's going through and I can remember some of it, but it's nowhere near what it is today," Frazier said. "They've learned so much. He was telling me that his range of motion is 120 degrees. Mine is 115 right now. I don't think I ever got it back to 120."

That's because Frazier was in a cast for six weeks after the surgery and he just couldn't fight through all the scar tissue built up from having a straight leg all that time. Ross can be on the field at the end of March doing drills and jogging less than three months after surgery. Frazier couldn't get on the field for five months.

Ross, never in a cast, was immediately put on a machine in which he constantly put his leg in motion right after the surgery. Much of the procedure done nowadays is by arthroscopy. In Frazier's day, they had to open up the joint.

"I never got my speed back because of that range of motion," Frazier said. "And playing cornerback, if you can't run, you can't play. It's different at linebacker, but I think he will come back better. They say that knee becomes stronger than the other one."

Its one thing they agree on.

"I'll be a better player," Ross said.

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