Sign-ing of times

7-6-04, 7:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Although contract talks with draft choices league-wide are starting later than usual, agents for some of the Bengals' top picks don't expect problems getting their clients into training camp on time.

Even though some eyebrows were raised last week over the deal signed a slot behind Bengals first-rounder Chris Perry. Texans linebacker Jason Babin secured a signing bonus spread over two years, but history suggests Cincinnati may not have a problem with that since the club has done it with their last three first-rounders.

The Bengals aren't the only team that has waited until three weeks before training camp to focus on rookie deals. A total of 15 clubs, virtually half the 32-team NFL, have yet to sign a draft pick. Only 33 of the 255 picks are in the fold, and a third of them are seventh-rounders. Only five first-day picks have signed and Babin, taken No. 27, is the only first-rounder to have signed by the end of business Tuesday.

Reasons? Besides the fact training camps start a week later this year because the season does?

The Bengals may have needed the extra time because they are plotting a map that involves 11 draft picks and a $4.6 million rookie pool instead of the usual seven draft choices for about $3 million.

Plus, the club spent the post-draft period looking at some veteran free agents and a NFL source outside the Bengals said Tuesday that Cincinnati had a deal on the table with former Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener until it began to fall apart 10 days before he was to sign it last month.

That's when he began experiencing problems with the back he had surgically repaired in 2000 and 2001, the source said. Gardener came to Cincinnati for a physical in the first week of June, but the source said doctors from two different teams have advised him to retire.

The parameters of the contract apparently were set as far back as the NFL owners' meeting in late March in Palm Beach, Fla., when, the source said, Bengals President Mike Brown and other team officials met at Gardener's home.

Neil Schwartz, Gardener's agent, had no comment and wouldn't confirm his client planned to retire.

The Bengals moved on later in June to former Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon and are still talking to him.

"I don't know if there really is a reason," said agent Drew Rosenhaus of the lack of activity around the league. "That's just the way it is."

Rosenhaus, fresh of the Warren Sapp negotiations back in March, represents second-rounder Keiwan Ratliff and fourth-rounder Matthias Askew. He insisted he didn't use the Bengals in their unsuccessful bid to get Sapp, and left the negotiations impressed with how aggressively the club pursued his client.

"We haven't started work on it, but I'm looking forward to it," Rosenhaus said of his draft picks.

Andy Simms, the agent for third-rounder Landon Johnson, has talked to the team about the one-year tender for wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the re-signing of offensive lineman Alex Sulfsted. But not Johnson. And Simms doesn't see any problems after being involved in negotiations for Cincinnati fourth-rounders Curtis Keaton in 2000 and Travis Dorsch in 2002.

"It's not the kind of system you're looking to buck," Simms said of the rookie pool. "It's the kind of deal you know you can get done in a day. The Bengals have been fair to work with and I expect it will be the same. With the ability to be in minicamps and off-season workouts, both sides don't have to do a quick deal. But if the Bengals initiated something, I'd do it any time if it was right."

The rookie pool pretty much has turned the signings into a slotting process, so both sides are often content to wait and see the deals around them. But each year always seems to bring a few wrinkles and in 2004 it looks to be that teams can pro-rate singing bonuses over only six years instead of seven because of the length of the collective bargaining agreement. And, the rookie pool has increased by only about two percent over last year.

But according to ESPN.com, Babin got about a five percent increase over last season's No. 27 pick, thanks to the two-tiered bonus that gave him $2.2 million in '04 and $1.275 million in '05, plus salaries and bonuses. The ability to break up the bonus over two years is probably in response to the six-year pro-ration, allowing Babin to take home 8.5 percent more in the first year compared to what the Chiefs gave Larry Johnson last year in the No. 27 slot.

"I would imagine that might hold up a few first-round signings," Simms said. "Those two-tiered deals haven't usually been done that late in the first round."

Last year at No. 26, the 49ers gave tackle Kwame Harris a $3.6 million bonus they were able to pro-rate over seven years and void to five years. Taking notes, no doubt, are two of the most creative agents in the league in Eugene Parker and Roosevelt Barnes. Their Fort Wayne, Ind., firm, Maximum Sports Management, finished first this year in ESPN.com's Draft Derby with four first-round picks that included Perry.

But the Bengals have used that option bonus, or two-tiered bonus, in signing defensive end Justin Smith in 2001, left tackle Levi Jones in 2002, and quarterback Carson Palmer last year.

Perry was the second running back taken after the Bengals swapped the 24th pick with St. Louis and the Rams selected Oregon State running back Steven Jackson.

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