That time again

Updated: 4:50 p.m.

When NFL free agency has opened the last couple of years, the Bengals had already locked up their leading free agents. But with three defensive starters in end Justin Smith, free safety Madieu Williams, and linebacker Landon Johnson unsigned with less than 36 hours to go, it's just another indication the Bengals are looking at a defensive overhaul.

Talks are ongoing though. Williams' agent, Kenny Zuckerman, said he spoke to Bengals negotiator Paul Brown on Wednesday. But all indications are he's going into the market.

The Bengals are also trying to re-sign Kyle Larson, their most consistent punter since Lee Johnson.

While there are few difference-makers available when the gong rings Friday at midnight, thanks to 11 franchise tags, there are some second-tier starters in the front seven, thought to be the Bengals' biggest free-agent priority.

That should fit into the Bengals' desire to let the dust settle in the first week or so of free agency and then get at least a couple of players with about $12 million to spend in free agency. They opened the year with about $30 million, but they figure to drop $7.5 million on Stacy Andrews' franchise tag, about another $2 million on tenders for restricted free agents, another $5-6 million on draft picks in addition to $2-3 million in incentives and injury pad.

Three years ago, the Bengals took running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh off the market at the 11th hour. In 2006, the Bengals were just two months removed from a franchise renegotiation with quarterback Carson Palmer and then did another a month into free agency with wide receiver Chad Johnson.

Then before last March, the Bengals re-upped their starting offensive tackles, Levi Jones and Willie Anderson, on the eve of the 2006 season.

Which is a big reason why the Bengals are sitting on Friday at midnight with the tag around Andrews. Knee injuries to Anderson and Jones reshuffled their salary cap.

League sources were saying at last week's NFL scouting combine that the Bengals were talking like they're going to a 3-4 defense. When they do tip their hand on which players they pursue, it may provide more clues if they've decided on a 3-4 or 4-3. Last week new Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said he thought free agency might dictate what the Bengals do in the draft.

But one by one at the combine, coaches and general managers paraded into the media room to expound on the lack of talent in the pool.

"People are looking and saying, 'We're not going to spend a lot of money on other team's free agents. We don't have to compete with other teams,' " said Billy Devaney, the Rams' new personnel chief. "I think all the moves are great; teams can tie up their guys, using the franchise. Players aren't happy about it."

When asked if he saw many starters, Rod Graves, the Cardinals head of football operations, said, "Obviously there are some, but when I look at it, I don't know if it's an indication of how we have progressed, but I like more of our guys than what are on the free agent market."

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Williams

Agents for Madieu Williams and Landon Johnson have indicated the Bengals are interested in a deal if it fits into their price range, and the club figures to spend at least the first couple of days of free agency seeing who is getting what.

Also figure that the Bengals are going to stay from injured guys and old guys, or both. So that would appear to take out linebackers Roosevelt Colvin and Jonathan Vilma.

That probably also eliminates defensive tackles like Grady Jackson and Shaun Rogers. But relatively young guys like Atlanta's Tim Anderson, Cleveland's Ethan Kelley, Oakland's Tommy Kelly, Tennessee's Randy Starks and Seattle's Ellis Wyms are on the board and might be able to be 3-4 nose tackles. And remember old friend Langston Moore, the Bengals sixth-round pick in '03? He's free from Detroit.

The Bengals lost a potential 3-4 nose man when the Niners re-signed Isaac Sopoaga on Wednesday.

With Terrell Suggs and Jared Allen tagged with the franchise, the Bengals' Smith is viewed by many as the top free-agent end. And he'll get paid like a double-digit sack guy even though his career high is 8.5.

"There were non-starters that got the franchise tender this year," said the Rams' Devaney , who could have included Andrews. "That's because the pool is so small this year. There's going to be a small amount of players who are going to get ridiculous money and people are going to say, 'You've got to be kidding me?' "

Redskins exec Vinnie Cerrato agreed. That was the gag of the combine. Even Cerrato's boss, Washington owner Daniel Snyder, the King of March, claims he's going to back off.

"The price of what these guys are going to be paid is astronomical," Cerrato said. "So I don't foresee us being a big player in free agency. I don't think Dan's plane is going to be fired up ready to go.

"I would think a lot of teams probably identify maybe one or two guys they'll go after. I think a lot of the free agents will be overpaid. Then after a week or so, things will kind of settle down and get somewhat back to normal."

With defensive tackle Albert Hanynesworth franchised in Tennessee, two Titans ends are available in Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom. At 32, forget Carolina's Mike Rucker, and Renaldo Wynn and N.D. Kalu also figure to be too old.

But the Bengals will also have to decide if these guys can play in a 4-3, 3-4 or both. Clark Haggans of the Steelers and Calvin Pace of the Cardinals are 3-4 backers that are upgrades,

Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated the Bengals wouldn't pursue a running back in free agency, and the club came back from the combine impressed with the prospect class.

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