Return of Reinard

3-27-02, 5:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals completed their first foray into free agency Thursday when they agreed to terms with Reinard Wilson in a deal that returns the club's sack leader for three more years.

David Levine, Wilson's Miami-based agent, confirmed the deal moments after completing talks late Thursday afternoon with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn. Their trio of signings in the last 10 days or so have all but wiped out a trade for a mega salary, even though some reports still have the Bengals pursuing Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

Wilson, a defensive end who plays primarily on passing downs, had visited Indianapolis and negotiated

with Chicago before coming back to the team that drafted him in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft. He's expected to sign the contract next week.

Their three free-agent deals figure to count about $3.5 million against the salary cap for this year. They signed one starting cornerback in the Colts' Jeff Burris, re-signed the other in Artrell Hawkins, and re-signed Wilson's nine sacks.

The Bengals probably have less than $2 million to spend now for free agents and have indicated they will re-group after the April 20-21 draft.

Wilson, 28, struggled his first four seasons in the NFL despite coming out of the draft as Florida State's all-time sack leader. The Bengals switched him from defensive end to outside linebacker at his first minicamp and ended up putting him back to right end before the 2000 season.

The arrival of another defensive end, Justin Smith with the fourth pick in the 2001 draft, seemed to revive Wilson' career. Wilson started the first five games of the season ahead of Smith because of the rookie's holdout, but when they were paired together as rush ends in the nickel package, the results were huge. After 15 sacks in his first four seasons, Wilson responded with nine, while Smith added 8.5.

Defensive coordinator Mark Duffner strongly pushed management to get the deal done and Levine felt this week was the time to do it.

"The Bengals saw the market and they were the team that ended up paying the market with the best structure," Levine said. "We like the way it was structured and the fact it was for three years and he'll only be 31 at the end of the contract."

No terms were divulged, but it's believed the deal is similar to the deals signed by Hawkins and Burris that are in the $4.5-$5.1 million range for three years.

Other defensive ends such as Kenny Mixon and Renaldo Wynn received $3 million plus just to sign, but Wilson was fighting he fact he was seen primarily as a third-down player and not a run stopper.

"It was the kind of year where the left ends and the run players were getting more than pass rushers," Levine said. "This is good for Reinard. The structure is good, Duffner wanted him back, and the Bengals were the team that drafted him."

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