1-23-02, 8:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ After Wednesday's meeting here on the sidelines of a Senior Bowl practice, the Bengals and defensive end Reinard Wilson are prepared for the club's sack leader to go on the free-agent market March 1.
The Bengals are debating their own needs in free agency. But after watching an intriguing group of college quarterbacks here this week, they aren't prepared to say publicly they are going to drop a lot of money on a veteran quarterback because of Akili Smith's torn hamstring.
"It's likely we're going to take a look at free agency," said David Levine, Wilson's representative. "I haven't given a number to them and they haven't given one to me, but I think we know we're on different levels. There's not that much of a difference, but enough for them not to get a deal before free agency starts."
Bengals President Mike Brown told Levine the Bengals want Wilson to return after his career season of nine sacks as a passing-down rusher. But the Bengals don't want to pay him like a three-down player who consistently has nine-sack seasons. After being taken in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft, Wilson came into his fifth season with 15 career sacks.
"They seem to think he has a chance to get a big deal," Brown said. "We're prepared to pay up to a certain price, but not a sky-high deal. Maybe it will take them to go on the free-agent market and find out it's not there and then come back to us. We told them that's fine, but we'll be making other deals and might not have enough by the time he comes back. And it might not be just at his position."
The numbers? No one will say. But Wilson could be thinking a team is going to give him $4 to 5 million per year, when the Bengals would probably have problems with $3 million per year.
With Smith coming off major hamstring surgery and not available until training camp, Brown has been indicating the Bengals will go through minicamp and voluntary camp with Jon Kitna, Scott Covington and probably a rookie draft pick at quarterback.
On Wednesday, he said they won't do both and draft a quarterback as well as pursue a veteran.
"Quarterbacks are like Queen Bees," Brown said. "You can only service one, maybe two. You just don't find out about guys if you have too many."
Brown's hopes have been raised here in a week where Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner has struggled, but other first-day Draft candidates such as Rohan Davey of LSU and Patrick Ramsey of Tulane have been impressive.
Brown, an advocate of the huge, athletic Daunte Culpepper in the months leading up to the 1999 draft that yielded Smith, may get his shot
this time around with the 6-2, 251-pound Davey. Davey may not exactly be a poor man's Culpepper because he's got a terrific arm, but he's not as fast.
"But he's an athletic guy, you can see that and his arm is very good," Brown said.
Davey, who says he's not a runner, also says he'll get down to 235 pounds for his workouts. But it's OK to be fast and big in the Culpepper-Donovan McNabb era. Brown liked the looks of East Carolina's 6-1, 240-pound David Garrard, another of the many possible late-round quarterbacks that intrigue the Bengals.
"Davey is an interesting kid,'' said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He's got a strong arm. He's a big, strong kid that has been productive and had some big games. He moves like he's a pretty good athlete. You'd probably want to take a look at him and try to make sure he's not carrying a lot of baby fat and that he's strong. But he looks athletic. What you notice is his physical presence. Size. An athletic looking body."
Davey says he's more then a physical specimen.
"I see myself as a guy who has the ability to keep plays alive," Davey said after Wednesday's practice. "My first option is not to run. I don't really mold myself after anybody. I just try to do whatever I can to win football games, whether it's running, throwing, taking a sack, throwing it away, whatever it is."
Davey admits he hears the Culpepper comparisons all the time, but, "they're right in some aspects, but I'm sure there are things in his game that are different than mine and the other way around, so we all have our strengths and weaknesses. I just love to make plays."
That's why Davey is looking forward to Sunday's game against the North.
"They get to come after you, and they grab you and when you shake them off, you let them know what time it is," he said.
Another guy who interests the Bengals is the 6-2, 234-pound Ramsey. Bratkowski knows him because his father, Zeke, a former NFL quarterback and coach, is tutoring him in New Orleans. Forget his 40-yard dash time. The number is 3.8: Ramsey's grade point average in the business school.
"My Dad had him pretty much wired," Bratkowski said. "He's got a pretty good arm. Good arm strength. Pretty accurate and he's extremely intelligent."
Zeke Bratkowski, who lives in Destin, Fla., worked with last year's No. 1 pick, Michael Vick, before he was drafted.
"I've worked with him about a week and a half and he really prepared me for this game," Ramsey said. "Everything from my drops to the atmosphere here. I think it's been great because of the exposure. As often as I can get him to New Orleans, I'll keep working with him. Or I'll go to Destin if I have to."