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2-13-04, 1:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The NFL New Year comes barging into the world March 3 and the Bengals are facing a variety of decisions that could fill a calendar.

Besides resolving the Corey Dillon situation, the biggest thing on their plate now seems to be coping with keeping attractive restricted free agents such as running back Rudi Johnson and kicker Shayne Graham, and figuring out what to offer them before free agency opens with the New Year.

Operating in the wake of the Redskins' pilfering of Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles off the restricted free agent rolls last year, they may be joining other NFL teams in mulling putting the highest tender offer possible on their biggest restricted free agent. That would have to be Johnson after he became the first back in club history to have three 150-yard games in a season.

That would put the number near the $2 million figure for Johnson in 2004 and with what appears to be one of their tightest salary-cap situations ever this early in the New Year, that makes things interesting.

Graham, who gave the Bengals their most accurate field-goal season in history last year, checked into town Thursday to accompany head coach Marvin Lewis and other teammates to the Cincinnati Veterans Administration Medical Center. He's confident a deal can be reached to keep him here.

"I really don't have any anticipation on being anywhere else," Graham said. "There have been talks and we'll see where it goes from there. It seems encouraging, but I haven't heard any official news."

What is going to be news once free agency opens that first week in March is teams' reactions to how the Redskins wrested Coles and kick returner Chad Morton from the Jets even though they were restricted free agents.

Teams have the right to match if an offer sheet is made to one of their restricted free agents. If the team decides not to match, the compensation corresponds to the team's one-year offer to the player that must be made before free agency opens.

There can be three such offers. The lowest offer corresponds to the round that player was drafted for compensation. The mid-level tender corresponds to a first-round draft pick for compensation. The highest offer corresponds to a first- and a third-round draft pick for compensation.

After the Jets decided not to match Washington's seven-year, $35 million contract for Coles that included a signing bonus of $13 million, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder admitted if the Jets had put the highest designation on Coles he wouldn't have made the offer.

Instead, New York tendered Coles a one-year deal for $1.3 million, a mid-level offer which brought only a first-round pick as compensation. For less than $500,000 more, the Jets could have put the highest designation on him and warded off the Redskins. The Jets only put a fifth-round designation on Morton, which is where he was drafted.

What Snyder did was change how teams look at restricted free agents: Young, proven players who have more experience than the draft picks for which they are traded.

"Now, the leverage might have switched to the agents, because teams are willing to step up and surrender picks for players," wrote league insider Pat Kirwan on NFL.com last week. "That makes getting these players signed much more difficult and it also means there will be more high tenders than in years past if teams have the cap space to offer high tenders."

But the Bengals don't have an enormous amount of that cap space. ESPN.com reports the Bengals have $8.15 million under the cap, but it's believed that doesn't take into account their eight unrestricted free agents, the offers for their seven restricted free agents, not to mention about $3-4 million for their draft picks.

How tight? That could spur a re-evaluation of players with high cap numbers. Of course, they're not alone. A total of 14 teams have less than $8 million under the cap, according to ESPN.com.

Yet first- and third-round compensation for Johnson would certainly numb a team like Dallas. The Cowboys are believed to have been interested in Johnson last year, but they have less than the full complement of draft picks this year. Agent Peter Schaffer said this week the Bengals have yet to make a long-term offer to Johnson.

Since Graham signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia Tech in 2000, the Bengals wouldn't get a draft pick if they lost him with the low tender. It's doubtful the Bengals would put a first-round tender on a young kicker, but they would fight to get him back and, who knows?

"I like the city. I like the area. I like the people," Graham said. "There are good people here and I like what's going on with the team. I look forward to being a part of it."

On Thursday, the Bengals signed free agent running back Herbert Goodman. The 5-11, 205-pound Goodman, out of Graceland College, is classified as a third-year NFL player after not playing in the league last year.

He played in five games for Green Bay in 2000, in seven games in 2001, and in two post-season games in '01. He has a 30-yard average on five regular-season kickoff returns. Goodman spent time on the Oakland and Indianapolis practice squads in 2002. He re-signed with Green Bay for 2003 training camp, but was waived in the Packers' final cuts.

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