Spikes in middle of Bengals' plans

3-5-03, 3:45 p.m. Updated:
3-6-03, 5:35 a.m. Updated:
3-6-03, 11 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Even though Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes may be on an extended stay in Buffalo until Friday, it's not a given the Bills are going to make an offer.

"Let's see how the visit goes," said Bills President Tom Donahoe Thursday morning. "He's here now and staying on through Friday is probably going to be optional and might depend on how it's going. There is the physical to go through and sitting down with our coaches to get through. We obviously value him. We think he can play all of our (linebacker) spots."

In the Bills' corner also looks to be former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, who drafted Spikes in 1998. Donahoe has indicated to local media the Bills expect an answer from LeBeau early next week and they are optimistic he'll accept their offer to assist the defense.

Meanwhile, the Bengals are making plans to keep him, but they are also devising more insurance policies than the Joint Chiefs if they lose him. There are signs they are determined to keep their leading tackler and emotional leader by matching a big offer and putting him in the middle of defensive guru Marvin Lewis' new system in Cincinnati.

"I think we can help him be a better player. I see his upside being in there, being a better player," said Lewis of possibly moving Spikes from the right side to the middle. "I want the guy who can hit the guy in the face playing the middle. The guy who feels comfortable hitting the guy in the face."

Lewis is also talking about re-structuring contracts if need be to combat the Bills' offer, but Donahoe indicated Thursday he isn't about to do anything gross with the deal in an effort to deter the Bengals from matching. He says there won't be a "poison pill," element that makes the deal unmatchable.

"We're going to be responsible. We don't do business like that," Donahoe said. "The league has cracked down on that the last couple of years."

Still, there are also signs that point to the Bengals guarding against the unmatchable by seeking out all kinds of linebackers. That's what they did Wednesday when they hosted Kevin Hardy of the Cowboys and Mike Peterson of the Colts as possible replacements.

Welcome to an intriguing showdown pitting Lewis against Donahoe, one of his mentors from their days in Pittsburgh with the Steelers and the guy who interviewed him for the Buffalo head coaching job two years ago. Both have about the same amount of money under the salary cap, which

figures to be about $8 million. At the start of free agency on Feb. 28 and before the signing of defensive lineman Carl Powell (figure an $850,000 cap hit), ESPN.com reported the Bengals with $8.6 million to spend under the cap.

But that doesn't include the $4.5 million or so the Bengals have to spend on draft picks.

Lewis isn't worried.

"Cap wise, we have the ability to re-structure some contracts and do some things and still maintain Takeo's services regardless of what happens in Buffalo," Lewis said. "We can still keep all options open. Hopefully, something will come to a head. Maybe it doesn't. We have to keep evaluating prospective players."

Lewis said the Bengals have enough cap room to sign a player now and then wait on the Bills, but only if the deal makes sense for two to three years down the road, which is what he wants every deal to be. So they could still sign a John Thornton or a Denard Walker while Spikes hangs in Buffalo.

Donahoe said he doesn't have to trade their franchise free-agent, wide receiver Peerless Price, before signing Spikes to an offer sheet. A Spikes deal would tighten the Bills' cap significantly and give leverage to a team looking for Price, but Donahoe said he didn't put the tag on him just to trade him. But the Bills want that No. 1 pick back they gave up for Drew Bledsoe.

The Price for Spikes? The conventional wisdom is that it will be a deal somewhere between Keith Brooking's in Atlanta and Shawn Barber's in Kansas City. Brooking got $10.6 million to sign on a deal that averaged about $6 million and Barber got $5.5 million on a $4.2 average.

A bonus in the $7.5 million range at close to $5 million per year?

"We'll see where it goes from there," is all Donahoe would say about Spikes' visit.

Meanwhile, Lewis, who made his rep coaching the Steelers linebackers before drafting the next Hall of Fame middle backer in Ray Lewis, is high on the guys who visited Wednesday. With middle linebacker Brian Simmons' ability to move to right outside linebacker, Lewis can look at variety of players.

Hardy turns 30 the week of training camp, but he's nearly two years removed from a micro knee fracture and Lewis knows he's the same age as Pro Bowl defenders such as Simeon Rice and Ray Lewis, taken after Hardy went No. 2 in the 1996 draft.

Marvin Lewis also thinks Hardy can play the middle at 6-4, 250. In his Pro Bowl days in Jacksonville, Hardy led the Jaguars in tackles as both a strong- and weak-side backer.

Plus, Lewis isn't looking for a conventional middle backer. He's just looking for a guy that can play, which is why he doesn't buttonhole the 6-1, 234-pound Peterson as a pure right outside backer on the weak side.

"We want the guy who has hips to play linebacker," Lewis said. "That's what that middle linebacker needs to have. That's what Ray (Lewis) had when I evaluated him. It's about hips and separation. It's about fitting guys in with what they can do with their athletic ability."

Lewis and Simmons are confident enough in Simmons'' athletic ability to make a seamless move to the outside. The 6-3, 250-pound Simmons has always been one of the fastest players on the team and he's always thought his natural position was outside.

"Maybe some people see me as a middle backer and wonder if I can play outside," said Simmons, who played outside at North Carolina. "But I see myself as an outside guy who can also play the middle. That's what I do. I like it, but I really don't know what it's going to mean until we learn the defense. And I'm hoping Takeo comes back."

Peterson had a monster year for the Colts with 173 tackles and three interceptions and is viewed as one of the top players on the market. He may be out of their price range as he continues a national tour that has already included Buffalo, St. Louis and Detroit, but then, Spikes would figure to get a higher offer than Peterson.

Hardy appears to have bounced back from a micro fracture in his knee that wiped out the last seven games of his six-year career in Jacksonville in 2001. With the Cowboys, he had 114 tackles, two sacks and forced three fumbles last year.

According to "The Dallas Morning News." Hardy told the newspaper that Lewis has talked to him about playing the middle.

Hardy isn't a true middle backer (he did some rushing off the edge on third down for Dallas), but then, neither is the speedy Simmons.

Simmons didn't have many sacks at North Carolina because his Tar Heels relied on their NFL front four. But he became a first-round pick because of his work in space.

"I like it out there. In the slot. Covering guys," Simmons said. "That's kind of what I do in our dime package. Cover, close, run. I think what they're doing in free agency is common sense. If you lose a guy, you have to replace him and they may be thinking if they can get a (weak-side) guy, I can still play the middle. If they get a middle guy, I can play the outside. It sounds like they're looking for the best guy."

Lewis still wants that guy to be Spikes. If he can't have him and he's looking for versatility and value, his man could be Hardy. The Cowboys chose not to exercise a $4 million option this year, but the Bengals must have mentioned a similar parameter because he took the trip after some quick talks on Tuesday.

Simmons, like Lewis, wants Spikes back. They have been synonyms since they were drafted four slots apart in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft and have played next to each other ever since.

"It would be strange because every time I've stepped out there, he's been out there," Simmons said. "I'd have to get used to it. I hope he's back. Every side of the ball, whether it's offense, defense, or special teams, needs a (emotional) guy like that. He's a leader. A lot of guys talk the talk. But he's the kind of guy that does both. He talks it, and he walks the walk."

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