Smith, Bengals keep talking

7-19-01, 1:00 a.m.

Updated: 7-19-01, 11:35 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The dialogue between the Bengals and the agent for first-round pick Justin Smith has been steady, slow and civil. What happens now that Smith is the club's lone unsigned draft choice with training camp a day away remains to be seen.

What is certain is that Jim Steiner and Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn didn't make much progress at all Wednesday and Thursday in an attempt to shoehorn Smith seven-year money in a six-year deal. Also certain is that not much progress was made Wednesday because the Bengals wrapped up deals for three of the seven picks, yet couldn't make the golden announcement.

"Right now, maybe it looks like he won't be signed by camp, but I wouldn't say that either because we've got all day Thursday and all day Friday," said Blackburn, mindful of Friday's 6 p.m. report time at Georgetown College.

Neither side is commenting publicly on the specifics of the impasse, but it's pretty clear that the same problem dogging the Smith negotiations is the same problem that had every team but Atlanta going into training camp week with no signed first-rounder.

The Bengals weren't alone as teams cringed when the Falcons responded to a six-year ceiling on contracts by signing overall No. 1 pick Michael Vick to a package that basically defers his signing bonus into future years. The Bengals have said they prefer to give the money to Smith all at once in order to adhere to the concept of the rookie pool.

But because the bonus can only be pro-rated over six years, the numbers suggest Smith could get less than Peter Warrick's $8.4 million bonus of last year that was pro-rated over seven years even though the Bengals picked both in the fourth spot of the draft.

Steiner acknowledged Thursday that "there has to be some kind of creativity," to get an increase over last year. Smith said earlier this week he was looking for just a little more than Warrick, but

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it's unclear if he would be satisfied with less bonus and more overall money. Steiner isn't revealing if he wants the Vick structure, but all signs point there when he indicated there has to be compromise on some issues pertaining to problems posed by the six-year ceiling.

Yet Steiner remains upbeat about the negotiations with the Bengals, praising Blackburn for her ability to do many different types of deals for first-rounders. It began with voidable years for Dan Wilkinson and Ki-Jana Carter in 1994 and 1995, respectively, before moving into a forest of escalator clauses for Akili Smith and Peter Warrick the past two years.

"They've done it all," Steiner said late Tuesday night. "They've shown that ability, so we look forward to talking and keeping the conversations going."

The Bengals feel they made a major compromise earlier Wednesday when they signed second-rounder Chad Johnson to a $3.1 million deal when they agreed to pro-rate his $1.4 million bonus over four years instead of five years.

"They really wanted to get him in," said Johnson agent Jerome Stanley. "They didn't ask for a voidable year, so we were happy about that. The team did a good job getting it done."

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