Rivals take hits

2-18-02, 10:30 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

While the Bengals watched the Texans amass the best expansion team in history, they also watched an AFC North rival and a 2002 opponent take some hits in Monday's NFL Expansion Draft.

The key word is "watched." The Bengals were one of 17 teams who didn't have a player taken during the 90-minute draft in Houston that became a dumping ground for teams with salary cap problems. The draft was the teams' one chance to get rid of players and not take a cap hit, which is absorbed by the Texans.

With all but one starter signed for the upcoming season and with about $10 million to spare under the salary cap, the Bengals had the luxury of putting together an old-fashioned expansion list that exposed only backups and an aging starter.

"It's not a bad day for us. We didn't want to lose anybody. You never want to lose anybody you have developed and had on your team," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "They may be backup players, but they're important, too. You have to have those players. Those are guys that have been here long enough to know the system and we know how they fit and where they can help us."

One of those backups who wasn't selected by Houston, 37-year-old left tackle John Jackson, helped in the season finale when Richmond Webb got hurt in the Bengals' 23-21 win at Tennessee. On Monday, Brown said the Bengals plan to exercise the club's option on Jackson by the end of this month, kicking in the second year of his two-year deal.

"I feel like I can continue to play at a high level and if it's in a back-up role, I accept it," said Jackson, the Cincinnati prep product who blanked Titans sack ace Jevon Kearse in his first action of the season. "Dick (LeBeau) and I talked before that last game and we both agreed we hadn't finished what we want to get done here."

Tight end Tony McGee, the Bengals' lone starter on the list, turns

31 in April and the Bengals probably could have stood losing his $1.8 million cap count. But they are also glad he'll back for a May 3-6 minicamp in which he has a good chance of being the only tight end with more than two NFL starts.

Also not chosen were rookie linebacker Riall Johnson, and veterans Jevon Langford, a defensive end who has been with the team since 1996, and Jamain Stephens, a tackle heading into his fourth season as a Bengal.

Meanwhile, Baltimore, the Bengals' division rival that came into the day $22.5 million over the salary cap, lost Pro Bowl returner Jermaine Lewis and Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker Jamie Sharper. Jacksonville, which comes to Paul Brown Stadium this year in its first year as a member of the AFC South, came in $28 million over the cap. The Jags not only unloaded about $18 million of it on the Texans Monday, they also lost a Pro Bowl player on the offensive line (Tony Boselli) and defensive line (Gary Walker) and a budding star in defensive tackle Seth Payne.

But Brown wasn't about to declare victory over two teams that have dominated the Bengals recently.

"As long as Jacksonville has (quarterback Mark) Brunell down there, they're a real challenge for us," Brown said. "We've never been able to defend (wide receiver Jimmy) Smith. They didn't lose their two receivers, or Brunell, or their running back (Fred Taylor). He should be back healthy. You won't see much difference from Baltimore. They lost some good players, but they've got people to replace them."

Brown watched Monday's proceedings from his PBS Stadium office with director of player personnel Pete Brown, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, and vice president Paul Brown. They kept tabs on each pick, noting salary cap counts and any pullbacks by the teams that had players selected.

It was quite different from the scene 35 years ago when the Brown family sat down to pick the first Bengals' team in the suite of a Jacksonville hotel from a list of veteran castoffs.

Many of the players available had already announced their retirements. Many had disqualifying injuries. Once when the Bengals drafted a player off the list, the AFL commissioner came into their suite and said they couldn't have the player because he was mistakenly put on the list.

"No such thing as a salary cap," said Mike Brown with a laugh. "It was a lot less organized. There wasn't much concern how it was for us. That's just the way it was. We were going to have to fend for ourselves. No one was looking for us to get a good start. The thought was it was supposed to take three, four, five years to get up and running."

The Bengals also play the Texans this season when they go to Houston for the first time since 1996, a victory over the Oilers in the dead empty Astrodome best remembered for the announcement of then interim head coach Bruce Coslet's contract extension just before kickoff.

Brown sees the Oilers' descendants as a competitive team after the Texans emerged with two starting tackles in Boselli and the Jets' Ryan Young and starting cornerbacks in the Jets' Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman. He also sees them taking a quarterback (the pundits say Fresno State's David Carr) with the first pick in the April 20-21 NFL Draft.

"They've got good players at key positions. Tackles and cornerbacks," Brown said. "That is something we've worked for years to try and stabilize, and I would tell you they may be ahead of us from the start. They still have room to go into the free-agent market and be effective. We've got them in the range of having $18 million more to spend."

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