Stubblefield looms large

3-08-01 BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals are trying to bring defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield back home in a move that would re-invent their front seven.

The Bengals plan to speak with agent Neil Cornrich Thursday to see if they can push through a deal for the Taylor High School product who grew up in English Woods.

If they can't, they'll try to convince Titans defensive end Kenny Holmes to make his 22.5 career sacks at home in Cincinnati during his Thursday visit to Paul Brown Stadium.

The club has been in touch with both agents, but they won't be able to get both because they still want to get three players out of five positions: center, left tackle, cornerback, and quarterback.

In other free-agent developments for the Bengals:

_While they aren't interested in Troy Aikman, his release from the Cowboys has opened the quarterback market.

Aikman has thrown out the possibility he's willing to reunite with Norv Turner in San Diego, maybe squeezing out Doug Flutie with the Chargers. Flutie's agent has been in touch with the Bengals and the club has expressed an interest. _

The Bengals set up a visit Friday for their first free-agent receiver, but they don't need to meet James McKnight. He caught 164 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys' 23-6 win over Cincinnati last Nov. 12.

_Jeff Mitchell of the Super Bowl champion Ravens visits Thursday, the top center available in free agency who shares the stage with the best pass rushing end available in Holmes.

Holmes figures to be seeking a similar deal to what Bills end Marcellus Wiley secured in San Diego last week, which is a $9 million bonus in a five-year, $40 million deal.

If that's too pricey for a team that still wants to add a few more positions, the addition of Stubblefield along with Tuesday's signing of Vikings tackle Tony Williams would still make the Bengals defensive line its deepest in memory.

At least since Stubblefield was a little kid watching the Bengals practice at training camp from the backyard of a relatives' home across from Wilmington College.

"I didn't want to do that. They looked stupid over there," Stubblefield said. "I was too young to know what was going on."

The club wouldn't be ready to release a veteran in John Copeland ($3 million salary) or Tom Barndt (about a $2 million cap hit). But they could envision putting Stubblefield, at left end with Williams and Oliver Gibson in the middle and Vaughn Booker at right end. As well as rotating Stubblefield, Williams and Gibson in the middle.

Stubblefield has been criticized at times for his play in Washington, but Bengals' scouts and coaches have been very taken with his excellent play on film. And a recent poll of eight NFL personnel people said Stubblefield and the Jets' Jason Ferguson are the top tackles on the market.

Plus, Stubblefield has an impressive, poised presence worthy of a NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (1993) and NFL Defensive Player of the Year,

Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau might not get his sackmaster (until maybe the draft), but getting Stubblefield would improve the pass rush.

"It would allow us to put three big guys who could cover the center and guards and create some problems," LeBeau said.

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"The three of them, Stubblefield, Williams and Gibson are inside players. Of the three, I would think Dana would have a good chance of (playing end) with his quickness and size. It would be a nice problem to have."

Cornrich would only say Stubblefield enjoyed his visit immensely with one of his boyhood favorites, defensive line coach Tim Krumrie, and considered it an honor to be greeted by him at the airport.

Although Cornrich emphasized last week Stubblefield wants to go to the Super Bowl a la Sam Adams, his client seemed to have a legitimate interest in finishing his career in his hometown.

"Every NFL player dreams of it," he told the Cincinnati media.

"For me to see where the Bengals have come from, what they've built, what they're trying to build. . .walk around this locker room and see what kind of people they're bringing in, see the coaches they have on staff, that answers all the questions. They're trying to build a championship team."

Stubblefield teamed with former No. 1 draft pick Dan Wilkinson in the middle of Washington's line for three seasons. There's a bit of irony there since the disgruntled Wilkinson engineered his 1998 trade to the Redskins in part by calling Cincinnati a racist city.

Stubblefield said he couldn't get a hold of "Big Daddy," to talk about his Bengals' days, but he did talk to safety Sam Shade: "Sammy said he had a good experience."

In his three seasons in Washington, Stubblefield didn't come close to the 15-sack season he had in San Francisco in '97. But when Daniel Snyder became the owner, his constant changes on and off the field made it as difficult a place to play in the league.

"You just nod your head, shake your shoulders," Stubblefield said. "I'm not there anymore. That chapter in my life is closed."

LeBeau nodded approvingly at the diplomacy.

"Good answer," LeBeau said.

The Bengals would like to get another good answer from him as soon as today.

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