BY GEOFF HOBSON
The agent for Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon says his client is headed toward free agency.
But after reaching an impasse in the last few weeks, David Levine said Tuesday his side won't rule out a deal with the Bengals before Dillon goes on the market March 2.
"They could still increase their offer," Levine said. "We haven't closed the door. They could still change their mind."
Bengals President Mike Brown said the Bengals have made Dillon, "a strong offer," but are prepared to allocate a big number under their 2001 salary cap to allow them to match another team's offer and keep Dillon.
"If we can't sign Corey, we will reserve sufficient cap room to meet what other teams might do," Brown said. "We have made a strong offer and believe me, it's a lot of money."
If Dillon is unsigned when free agency starts March 2, the Bengals can get the right to match any offer by tendering him a one-year contract expected to be in the $4 million range.
That should be near the average of the NFL's top 10 paid running backs from this past season and would make Dillon a transition free agent.
With Dillon coming off his fourth straight 1,100-yard season, his second straight Pro Bowl season, a Bengals'-record 1,435 yards, and an NFL-record 278 yards against Denver Oct. 22, he has made a strong case to join the elite NFL backs making between $5 to $7 million per year and taking home at least $10 million in signing bonus.
But both sides continue not to talk about specific figures.
"There's no hard feelings," said Levine of the negotiations. "At this point we're moving toward free agency. We all know the Bengals have the right to match, so we'll see what happens."
Brown won't comment on figures in varied published reports that have put the Bengals' room under the 2001 salary cap in about the $15 million range.
But he did say the club has room to aggressively pursue needs in free agency.
"We may appear to have a lot of cap room when we really don't have a lot," Brown said. "We have allocated plans that may or may not be successful. If successful, it uses the room. If it isn't successful, then it doesn't, and we move on to the next situation."
The Bengals' 2001 cap figure doesn't include
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the budget number for Dillon's salary cap cost for 01.
It also doesn't include their rookie pool number for the fourth pick in the draft, which last year was in the $4 million range.
And it also doesn't take into account tender offers to restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents, as well as the efforts to re-sign other potential free agents before March 2.
The Bengals had some room left over this year and used it to extend defensive tackle Oliver Gibson four more years with one year left in his original deal.
Now the Bengals finish 2000 with less cap room than three playoff teams.
It also helped that Levine did Gibson's deal, and there was still talk about the Dillon contract even as the Gibson deal was worked on.
Brown said the Bengals approached, "at least a half dozen guys," to extend their deals, "and one guy signed.
"We didn't get a lot of them signed," Brown said. "It's no different than what happens with most teams.
"It's impossible to predict," Brown said. "There's a lot of ways to go about it and we will have a plan to get there. We plan to sign some guys here. We'll have room to do something. We'll have a fall-back plan. We will do it step by step. Usually what happens, no one knows how it will unfold."
Gibson knew the Bengals would probably talk about extending when talks with Dillon, center Rich Braham, left guard Matt O'Dwyer, and left tackle John Jackson didn't go anywhere.
Gibson, Levine and the Bengals wouldn't divulge details. But Gibson said the contract puts him among the top 20 paid NFL defensive tackles.
That figures to be about $3 million per year, which means he probably got a signing bonus in the $4 million range.
"No comment," Gibson said.
But Gibson was here the morning after Christmas, with fellow defensive lineman Jevon Langford surfacing on the stair machine at Paul Brown Stadium at about 9 a.m.
"I want to lose about 15 to 20 pounds for next year," Gibson said. "The problem I have is I get tired. I go all out, and then I've got to come out for a play. Playing at about 290 should help me."
The reason Gibson gets tired is because he goes all out all the time in becoming one of the defense's most productive players in earning a raise from his $1.2 million average.
Although he tied outside linebacker Steve Foley and strong safety Cory Hall for the club sack lead with four, Gibson figures he should be getting more pressure on the passer because of the chance he's been given to play on passing downs.
Asked why he would re-up with the Bengals despite back-to-back 4-12 seasons, Gibson said: "I like the coaches. I like the stadium. I like being the part of something that's getting started. When I walked into Notre Dame and the Steelers, I walked into perfect situations. I think we're building something here."