Safety first stop?

3-2-04, 4:15 p.m. Updated:
3-2-04, 9:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals' plunge into free agency for defense that begins Wednesday may have been eased by two recently released safeties.

Kim Herring, a Super Bowl safety for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' record-setting Baltimore defense, got cut loose by the Rams on Monday. The Jets also let go Sam Garnes, a University of Cincinnati product the Bengals have long admired.

The Bengals still would like to re-sign their own starting safeties that go on the market Wednesday in Rogers Beckett and Mark Roman, but they apparently won't give them contracts that are going to preclude the pursuit of a cornerback such as the Bills' Antoine Winfield, the 49ers' Ahmed Plummer, the Seahawks' Shawn Springs, and the Eagles' Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor.

League sources said Tuesday night that Winfield may be off the market quickly with an upper-tier deal. The Bengals may not be in that bidding because indications are they trying to get more players than one mega free agent to bolster the defense.

They also have may have some interest on offense, where backup quarterback Jon Kitna said Tuesday he would like to start elsewhere in the league if a team came to the Bengals looking for trade. He said he isn't lobbying for a trade or release and said his first option is reaching a contract extension with the Bengals. But he made it clear that he would rather play elsewhere than sit in Cincinnati by saying in a San Diego newspaper and on a San Diego radio station Tuesday that the Chargers would be his No. 1 choice.

But Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith said he won't initiate trade talks for Kitna. That will have to come from Cincinnati, but all indications are the Bengals want to keep Kitna for now.

"I'm not going to demand a trade or anything else and go around saying, 'Please release me'," Kitna said. "All I'm saying is I still think I can start for a team in this league for five, six years. I'm only 31 and my play is improving. I think I've got a lot of good years left. If a team was interested in me, I hope (the Bengals) would accommodate me, but if not, I'm prepared to help Carson (Palmer) and I'll be the highest paid assistant coach in the NFL."

The 6-foot, 200-pound Herring, 28, is a good, tough hitter who is the kind of locker-room guy Lewis covets as a player on teams that went to an AFC and NFC title game. Plus, he could probably play strong or free safety. The Bengals had interest in the 6-3, 225-pound Garnes, 29, last season before he Jets signed him to play a run-stopping strong safety.

"I won't comment on if the team has contacted us because the Bengals are the resource for that," said Herring agent Neil Cornrich from his Cleveland-area office. "But on Kim's part, many of his greatest moments in the National Football League have come while playing for Coach Lewis. Kim believes he's one of the finest coaches in the game, and would consider it an honor to be united. But it remains to be seen because there is significant interest in Kim."

Herring got on the field just one time last year and it turned out to be the opening kickoff of preseason. He broke his forearm and never returned with the Rams cutting him before he reached a $500,000 clause on March 10.

Also figuring into the Kitna situation is the free-agent status of veteran quarterback Shane Matthews, Kitna's No. 2 at the end of last season. Matthews' agent, Steve Mandell, said Tuesday he thinks both sides would like to come to terms with each other and it's a matter of sitting down to hammer out the particulars.

"But things in the league are changing every day, not only with the Bengals, but all teams," Mandell said. "Kitna could be released, traded, stay, and it all has an effect. Shane certainly has a good relationship with everybody there."

The return of Matthews, 33, who has a record of 11-11 as a starter, could open the door for the Bengals to jettison Kitna's $3.3 million salary in 2004, but so far the team looks committed to pay him in full for mentoring Palmer. And the coaching staff has high regard for his past deeds.

Kitna told the San Diego Union-Tribune in Tuesday's editions that he would love to continue starting in the NFL and his first choice would be doing it in San Diego, where the Chargers look to be ready to hunt for a veteran quarterback not Doug Flutie or Drew Brees. Kitna cited the Chargers' "best backfield in football" with running back LaDainian Tomlinson and former Bengals fullback Lorenzo Neal, and it's the home of Chargers safety Miles McPherson's ministry.

But while Kitna said he deserves to keep starting, he also said Tuesday that he's content to stay in Cincinnati, "if that's where God wants me. I'm not looking to make noise about getting out."

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