7-3-02, 7:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For a team looking to extend the contracts of their young leaders on one of the NFL's fastest rising defenses, wide receiver Darnay Scott's $3 million salary cap hit at age 30 on a struggling offense may very well not compute.
Michael Westbrook shares the same position and birthday (July 7, 1972) as Scott, but his $1.5 million average on the three-year deal he took from the Bengals Tuesday sets him apart as the club tries to make room for Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons.
On Wednesday, Scott reacted with what seemed to be a shrug when asked if he would negotiate down his salary, which is surely the only thing that will keep him a Bengal.
"I don't get into that business end of it. I'm just sitting back chilling, waiting for them to do something," Scott said in a phone conversation. "I've said all long I love playing in Cincinnati. But if not, fine, I'll play elsewhere. I can still play and I want to play."
Scott asked, "They have to do something soon, don't they?" but the Bengals could decide to keep both him and Westbrook.
That's extremely doubtful. What is expected to happen next week after the Fourth of July holiday is Scott's release and more intense talks with Todd France and Jerrold Colton, the agents for Spikes and Simmons, respectively, as they head into the final season of their rookie deals.
Although they pick up about an extra $1.5 million in a Westbrook-Scott trade, the Bengals still have to grapple with fitting two major hits at the same position under the same cap. Troy Blackburn, the Bengals director of business development, thinks they can do both, "but not if we pay both guys like Ray Lewis.
"We think Brian and Takeo are fine young players and we want them with us because they are both so important to us," Blackburn said. "We
can fit them both, but we can't fit the two highest-paid linebackers in the league."
The Steelers kept both their star outside backers this offseason when they gave nine-year vet Jason Gildon a five-year deal with a $4.6 million average and four-year man Joey Porter a six-year package averaging $3.75 million. But they had to make a choice and bit the bullet on inside backer Earl Holmes in allowing him to go to Cleveland.
They kept Gildon and Porter because they are the key sack men in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, different roles compared to what Simmons plays as the middle backer and Spikes as the right inside backer in Cincinnati.
Still, the thinking around the club seems to be that the 25-year-old Porter is a good comparison to the 25- year-old Spikes and 26-year-old Simmons.
A lot of the debate will no doubt center on comparisons and how different roles impact players. Porter is coming off two seasons with nearly 20 sacks, while Spikes and Simmons have a combined 26.5 sacks in their careers. But Porter has nowhere near the tackles of Spikes and Simmons and they've been in the league a year longer.
France doesn't want to get into comparisons just yet, emphasizing his talks with the Bengals have been very preliminary.
"We're trying to get on the same page first without drawing any comparisons because that just seems to get people mad," France said. "The key is dialogue and to keep talking and we both want to do that. They've been busy with the holiday and summer and so have we and we all understand that. We're going to talk to each other next week."
Throw in the fact many inside the Bengals see Westbrook as faster, bigger, and healthier than Scott, and all indications are Scott is to be released some time after the July Fourth holiday. And maybe as soon as next week.
Rocky Arceneaux, Scott's agent, left word with his office Wednesday that he won't discuss the situation until after the Fourth. Published reports have indicated Scott's people were hoping for a Westbrook signing to spur his release.
But on Wednesday, Scott was non-committal when asked about ending his eight-year career in Cincinnati. The club is peeved at his two-month absence because they haven't been able to check the sore left shin that shelved him for minicamp.
"I don't know anything about Westbrook or what they're doing there," Scott said. "My leg is fine. I'm working out. I feel good. The doctor said it was just a thing that I tried to do too much too soon on it, but now it's fine."
Asked why he didn't come to Cincinnati to get the shin examined, Scott said, "I'll be there when I have to be there. Yeah, when camp starts. If they take a look at me there and don't think I can play, then I guess they could decide to cut me."
With or without Scott, Bengals wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian sees a wide-open training camp.
He also sees Westbrook adjusting to the Bengals' offense quickly because he worked with the numbered passing tree for five years in Washington under Norv Turner. During Westbrook's June 10 workout, Mooshagian easily talked him through some of the routes.
If Scott is gone and Westbrook delivers as expected at Georgetown College, Mooshagian sees Westbrook starting at split receiver with Peter Warrick having the inside track at flanker in the two-receiver set. But that could also change.
"I think what it means is that there is going to be one heck of a training camp competition," Mooshagian said. "You could have different guys in the two-receiver set and different guys in three- and four-receiver sets. I think they're all going to play. The battle is where and for how much time."
With Scott not at the four May camps, Mooshagian rotated the other five receivers in different spots. With the arrival of Westbrook, he said the competition is most likely going to come down to productivity in camp and pre-season games and draft position will probably go out the window.
He does think that Westbrook's draft position, whose No. 4 spot in 1995 matches Warrick's in 2000, will have an impact in the meeting room.
"His work ethic and his conditioning off the field and his habits are going to help our younger guys," Mooshagian said. "He's a fourth pick in the draft who's had a lot of ups and downs and he's figured out what he needs to do. He's got a fresh start and I think that will be an inspiration."