Slim pickings

6-4-01, 7:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The players don't have to be here this month. The coaches are on break for much of June. And the NFL's waiver wire isn't exactly overflowing with provocative post-June 1 cuts.

But the wheels continue to quietly whir at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals' front office seeks other available players as well as cornerbacks who get cut this month and later to gain salary cap relief next year.

Part of the reason the Bengals have yawned at the names so far is because they have some veteran depth for the first time in years at most positions. If they could get a 10-sack defensive end, a shutdown cornerback, or 90.5-rated quarterback, they would try. But then, it wouldn't be June. It would be April and the draft, instead.

"At this point, you're just not going to find real quality starters," said scout Duke Tobin as he waited for Monday afternoon's NFL transactions.

"The position we'll continue to monitor most is corner. If there were a position on our team that we would have a chance at finding someone that has a chance to start, that would be it. But I think we're in better shape than a lot of teams there because we have young maybes and they have old never-weres."

Indications are the Bengals have little interest in the Cowboys' Phillippi Sparks and the Chiefs' Carlton Gray, cornerbacks reportedly told by their teams they will be released.

Both players have turned down the Bengals in free agency past, so the club doesn't seem enthused about chasing them again. Sparks, 32, is mulling retirement and reportedly doesn't want to play for less than the $1 million the Cowboys were going to pay him. Gray, a Cincinnati prep product who turns 30 in three weeks, is expressing an interest in finishing his career in his hometown despite spurning the club twice before.

If the Bengals are going to pursue a thirtysomething corner, it will most likely be former Pro Bowler Eric Davis, a 33-year-old coming off a

five-year stretch in Carolina in which he intercepted five passes every year. Former Raven and Charger DeRon Jenkins is just 27, but the Bengals have soured on his one-year proposals.

Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of college/pro personnel, knows much of this month tends to be

slow. His team's most recent biggest post-June 1 signings haven't happened until summer.

In 1998, quarterback Neil O'Donnell signed July 7 after being on the market for two weeks. In 1999, left guard Matt O'Dwyer signed June 22 after being free since February. Last year, left tackle John Jackson signed the first week of training camp on July 23 after the Chargers released him just after June 1.

"There are a lot of reasons why some of these guys don't come loose right away or why they are out there so near camp," Lippincott said. "Teams are still trying to re-negotiate with other players to make room (under the salary cap), or they wait until they need the room to sign draft picks right before camp."

The Bengals are also looking to claim off waivers players who have less than four seasons experience. Since only three teams are ahead of them in the claiming process, they figure they'll get a chance at some intriguing young players making minimum salary.

For instance, it has been reported the Steelers are giving up on free safety Scott Shields, a second-round draft pick in 1999. The Bengals have 10 days to claim such players once they hit the league's waiver wire, so they won't comment if there is any interest.

The Bengals would have to assume a player's salary if they win the waiver claim.

Arizona defensive end Andre Wadsworth, the third pick in the 1998 draft, is now an unrestricted free agent after the Cardinals chose not to tender him a new deal. But the Bengals are wary of how long Jan. 3 surgical procedures on both knees will shelve him for this season.

The Bengals didn't tender an offer by last Friday to defensive end Michael Bankston, tight end Steve Bush, and linebacker Billy Granville. Which means the Bengals won't have exclusive negotiating rights to them after July 15.

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