Talks for top picks progress

7-12-01, 6:30 p.m.

Updated: 7-13-01, 11:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals enjoyed progress in negotiations with their first two draft picks Friday as deals for Justin Smith and Chad Johnson cranked up over the phone and in person.

With training camp a week away, Paul Brown Stadium buzzed on what is usually a slow summer Friday. In order to make room for Thursday's signing of veteran free-agent defensive lineman Bernard Whittington, the Bengals released rookie Dave Puloka, a free-agent linebacker from Holy Cross.

But one rookie who looks more and more like he's going to report on time to Georgetown College is Johnson, the second-round wide receiver out of Oregon State.

Bengals vice president Paul Brown was upbeat following his second face-to-face negotiation with agent Jerome Stanley Friday, this time in Stanley's Los Angeles about a month after they met in Cincinnati.

"We made progress. It was a good session," Brown said. "It was definitely worth the trip."

Brown is hopeful a deal for fourth-rounder Rudi Johnson will be finalized in the next few days with the players sandwiching Johnson at the 100th pick are already signed.

Signs that talks for Smith, the NFL Draft's fourth pick, have intensified emerged Friday. Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn said she planned to talk to agent Jim

Steiner over the weekend and Steiner sent word through his office that he won't be commenting daily on the talks.

"We've talked, but I don't want to discuss details and we're going to keep talking," Blackburn said.

After years of offering the same money to free agents who then go elsewhere, the Bengals hope the two-year agreement with Whittington signals a new trend.

Whittington, who has spent all of his seven NFL seasons with the Colts, had the same deal on the table in Chicago. ESPN reported it as $1.35 million for two years with $125,000 to sign. But even though Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache was his long-time position coach in Indy, Whittington opted for Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau and defensive line coach Tim Krumrie.

He becomes the third veteran free-agent defensive linemen to join the fold this offseason (Vikings' Tony Williams and Steelers' Kevin Henry) as all indications point to a legitimate eight-man rotation on the four-man line in an effort to revive last season's worst AFC sack attack.

"Nothing against the Bears because I think they have a chance to contend," Whittington said. "I just think Cincinnati was a better situation for me. I like the direction of the Bengals. I've been around teams that have gone from 3-13 to 13-3 and I think this team can do that.

"I got a chance to walk around the facility and it's beautiful," Whittington said. "The coaches were very energetic, upbeat. I enjoyed them. They've played the game. Plus, I think I'm going to get the opportunity to play there."

With 79 starts in 105 career games, Whittington, who turns 30 next month, isn't the big-name, big-bucks player that signs in the first two weeks of free agency.

But with eight days left before training camp, the Bengals feel he is the kind of solid person and player who help teams with versatility and experience.

"The Bengals had to match dollar for dollar," said David Levine, Whittington's agent. "And they got their man. That's what it came down to."

Bengals scout Duke Tobin, who negotiated the deal with Levine, worked with the Colts when Whittington was there and pushed the seven-year man from Indiana.

"He has played tackle and end extensively," Tobin said. "Plus, he's the kind of guy you want representing you. A great character guy. A blue-collar player who will guy you an honest day's work."

The Bengals' bid for Tampa Bay defensive end Chidi Ahanatou stalled Thursday when he postponed trips to Cincinnati and Buffalo for personal reasons and doesn't appear to be an option at this point.

The 6-5 Whittington, underlisted at 280 pounds, checked in Tuesday at 297 and has been told he'll be seen primarily as a tackle as he joins the derby with Tom Barndt and Glen Steele to see who rotates with Williams and Oliver Gibson in the middle of the line.

But they also can put him at end, which makes for an intriguing roster battle with Henry and fellow veteran ends John Copeland, Vaughn Booker, Jevon Langford and Reinard Wilson.

Figure that Gibson, Williams, and first-rounder Justin Smith, an end, are locks to be one of the eight linemen. So more than one veteran is on the bubble. Whittington is probably close to a lock with that $125,000 bonus.

"I don't want to sound like I'm tooting my own horn or I'm arrogant," Whittington said. "But I've been in the league for seven years, so I must be able to play. I know how to play. I'm grateful to the Bengals for showing the confidence they have in me."

Whittinton brings some durability to a line that last season struggled with injury save Gibson. He has played at least 13 games every season and at least 15 in the past five years. Last year a groin pull kept him out of one game while he started 12.

"I think you can put me anywhere," Whittington said. "I never played tackle until I got to the NFL. I was an end for my first couple of years. But I ended up playing both in the playoff game against Tennessee (after the 1999 season).

Whittington seems comfortable with a team that reminds him of the emerging Colts.

"People say things (about the Bengals)," Whittington said. "But you know how you go some place and it just feels right? They're making some moves. Look what they did getting that big left tackle (Richmond Webb)."

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