3-3-04, 11:50 p.m.
3-4-04, 3:05 p.m. Updated:
3-4-04, 4:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals made it a double announcement Thursday when they introduced their first free-agent signings in middle linebacker Nate Webster and safety Kim Herring.
Each has a Super Bowl ring and both look to be starters for a defense that finished 28th in the NFL and is keyed on improving a run defense that finished tied for 25th.
In Webster, 26, they hope to be administering an attitude adjustment with a fast, feisty, take-no-prisoners player that has spent all four seasons in a complementary role for Tampa Bay's renowned unit that won the Super Bowl for the Bucs a year ago.
Herring, 28, won his Super Bowl ring under Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in Baltimore before he moved on to play the last three seasons in St. Louis. The 6-0, 200-pound Herring, a product of Solon, Ohio, missed all of last season with a broken forearm. He made 31 starts in 2001 and 2002 for the Rams and had a total of 130 tackles and four interceptions while also making a start in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. That matched the start he made for the Ravens in their win over the Giants to end the 2000 season.
The Bengals' own starting free safety, Mark Roman, is scheduled to visit Green Bay this weekend. The Bengals have expressed interest in Jets strong safety Sam Garnes, but haven't set up a visit with him yet.
Webster signed a five-year deal and the former third-round pick looks to be Cincinnati's Opening Day middle linebacker with the expected move of Kevin Hardy from the middle to his original position as a strong-side backer.
Webster fits what Lewis is trying to add to the defense. He is smallish at 5-11, 230 pounds, but he's an intense, speedy player who is a special teams ace and is well known for being in the middle of whatever transpires on the field.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden once said Webster had "that look," just walking through the Bucs' facility that made him think he was about to hit the soda machine.
"You can take away my craziness, but I've known since high school that I have a knack for the ball," Webster told a Florida newspaper during this past training camp. "I can read plays and get downhill. I'm in the frame of mind that the ball is my food."
The Webster agreement highlighted the first day of free agency in which the Bengals' negotiators dined on defense. They set up visits with a host of starting cornerbacks, including Eagles' five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent.
On Thursday, the Bengals continued to test the waters of the interior offensive line with news that right guard Mike Goff is visiting the Cardinals Thursday and Friday, according to The Arizona Repubic. The Cardinals are in the market because they are moving Leonard Davis from right guard to left guard. The agent for Eagles guard Bobbie Williams said the Bengals have been in contact about setting up a visit in the next week. The agent for Falcons center Bob Hallen also said the Bengals have expressed interest.
Both of the Bengals' starting safeties are on the market with strong safety Rogers Beckett dipping into the pool after changing agents.
Lewis won't confirm visits until they have been completed and reported to the NFL, but Vincent's agent said her client is headed to Cincinnati Thursday. Pat Dye, the agent for Raiders defensive tackle Rod Coleman, said the Bengals called him and they were trying to work out a visit that may come next week.
But the Bengals also made several calls to interior offensive linemen, and they will trade visits with the Giants. Chris Bober, 27, a transplanted tackle who made 16 starts at center in New York this past season, is expected in Cincinnati Thursday and Friday, said Bober's agent, Robb Nelson. Rich Braham, who has made 115 starts for the Bengals at guard and center, is headed to New York Friday.
Vincent, visiting Buffalo today and expected in Cincinnati Thursday according to agent Linda Bodley, also has strong ties to the Bengals through defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, his position coach in Philadelphia. That could also mean there is interest in the man who played opposite Vincent with the Eagles in Bobby Taylor.
Also headed to PBS possibly at some point in the next few days are cornerbacks Fernando Bryant of the Jaguars and Reggie Howard of the NFC champion Panthers, a source outside the Bengals said.
It can't be confirmed if the club made contact with the upper-tier corner market in Antoine Winfield, Ahmed Plummer, and Shawn Springs. It probably did, but indications around the league are Springs and Winfield are going to be gone quickly in mega-money deals that the Bengals may be shying away from in order to sign a group of players.
In fact, Springs apparently is headed to Washington for about $5 million per year. Winfield is in heavy negotiations with the Jets (the word is more than $10 million in signing bonus), and he also may visit Minnesota.
Plummer, a Cincinnati product from Wyoming High School who expressed interest in playing in Cincinnati last season, is apparently also in the big-money sweepstakes on visits to Detroit and New Orleans, according to sources outside the Bengals.
A survey of agents in the first hours of free agency revealed that the Bengals aren't looking to drop all their money on one position. ESPN.com had them about $10 million under the salary cap on March 1, but $5.5 million is out on offers to restricted free agents, they need about $3 million to sign their draft picks, and Webster figures to count about $2 million.
They appear to be trying to break it up across a defense that struggled with injuries and against the run late in the season, when in the final six games they allowed running backs three 100-yard games and a 95-yarder.
The 6-2, 295-pound Coleman is known as more of a pass rusher, and his 11 sacks in 2002 led all NFL defensive tackles as he helped the Raiders get to the Super Bowl. He had 5.5 this season during a year the Bengals' John Thornton finished second among AFC tackles with six. The Bengals released backup tackle Oliver Gibson on Monday, but any lineman signed this early figures to play heavily with Thornton and Tony Williams.
The 6-1, 200-pound Vincent turns 33 in June, but there are those who think he has plenty left and he has gone to the last five Pro Bowls. The Bengals may be thinking he's the perfect mentor for second-year cornerback Dennis Weathersby as a guy with 42 career interceptions.
He's also a personification of the strong locker room leadership Lewis seeks. For his extensive community involvement, Vincent is the only NFL player to ever receive in the same year the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, the NFL Players Association's Byron "Whizzer," White Humanitarian Award, and the top spot on The Sporting News' list of 100 Good Guys in Sports during 2002 and 2003.
"He's looking for a place to become involved in the community and where he can retire," Bodley said.
Which is, of course, ironic because up until 90 minutes before the 1992 NFL Draft, Vincent was supposed to start his career in Cincinnati. But the Bengals switched gears at the last instant and drafted Houston quarterback David Klingler with the sixth pick. Miami took Vincent with the next choice, but he still almost became a Bengal again four years later when his free-agent decision narrowed Cincinnati as one of his options until he chose Philadelphia.
The 5-10, 174-pound Bryant, who turns 27 later this month, is a first-round pick of the Jags from 1999 and is seen as a solid cover guy who has started 71 games since he came into the league. He had just one interception this year, but he helped the Jags to a No. 6 defensive ranking in the NFL. The 6-foot, 190-pound Howard, who turns 27 in May, played well for the league's No. 8 defense that went to the Super Bowl.
The 6-5, 310-pound Bober is seen as smart and strong, and could be viewed as a younger Braham. The obvious connection is that former Giants offensive line coach Jim McNally used to work in Cincinnati and Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander has a close relationship with the man considered "the guru," of the offensive line.
Bober is a classic "Rand McNally," find as a free agent out of Nebraska-Omaha. Bober has three other visits lined up after Cincinnati, including Kansas City.
Bengals starting right guard Mike Goff could also be headed to the Giants for a visit. The grapevine had him going to Buffalo, but the Bills signed Chicago's Chris Villarrial during Wednesday's visit.
Webster, a Florida guy through and through as a Miami native and University of Miami product, apparently didn't even have to visit to be convinced he wanted to be in the middle of Lewis' defense. Webster has made just six career starts since he was drafted in the third round in 2000, but he played behind some terrific players on the Bucs' Super Bowl defense and Gruden felt he was versatile enough to experiment with him on the outside this season.
""Everyone sees this intense wild man. But the thing that Nate has that is overlooked a lot is, he has unbelievable linebacker instincts," Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry told a Florida newspaper during the last training camp. "He can decipher and read things very well. That gets overlooked because he's such a wild man.
"Nate is wild, and crazy and tough, but that's not why he's such a good linebacker," Barry told the paper. "The reason he's so damn good is because he has such wonderful God-given instincts of a linebacker."
ESPN.com reported Webster's signing bonus at $2.5 million as part of the $11.3 million package, so it's hard to see him not starting with that kind of contract.