3-8-03, 7:20 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
New Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton knows the heat is on. Suddenly, he's a Main Street name with a Wall Street bank account.
And, it's not because Bengals President Mike Brown thought Thornton deserved $5 million up front for just 35 NFL starts. Or that Katie Blackburn thought Thornton's $3.7 million average or so was cheaper than matching Takeo Spikes' offer in Buffalo even though he's never had six sacks in a season. Or that Troy Blackburn thought his $2 million or so salary cap count this year was doable.
No, Thornton got $22.5 million over six years for one reason and it's because Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis thought the 26-year-old former Titan is on the verge of breaking out.
"I know a lot of people haven't heard about me and they're looking at that big money now and wondering," Thornton said Saturday. "But I'm going to be heard when we go to training camp. I went around the league and there were teams that wanted me, so maybe I'm ready for other people to find out who I am. I know I don't have a big name, but I've always been surrounded by big-name players. If you look at the tape, I do my job and do it as hard as I can."
Who he is is a 6-2, 300-pound tackle who can also play end and, along with former Dallas linebacker Kevin Hardy, spelled what is believed to be the end of Spikes in Cincinnati. The Spikes' camp is sensing the Bengals will make a call on Buffalo's offer sheet as soon as Monday, and no one expects the Bengals to match.
Also on the radar is Atlanta tight end Reggie Kelly, who received an offer from the Bengals Friday. Both sides continued to talk Sunday as the Bengals tried to land their best blocking tight end in years and a player viewed around the league as a starter. Agent Jimmy Sexton reiterated several teams are also in the mix for a 25-year-old guy many thought got buried in Atlanta this season with just 14 catches.
The Bengals are also hunting for a fullback in free agency. ESPN.com reported this weekend that Nicolas Luchey agreed to terms with the Packers, leaving the Bengals without a fullback that has one carry in the NFL. The available list is headed by New England's Marc Edwards, Seattle's Mack Strong, and Philadelphia's Cecil Martin. Edwards, a Cincinnati prep product, said Sunday that his agent hasn't been contacted by the Bengals beyond last week's preliminary call in the first few days of free agency. Luchey had no comment on his plans Saturday. The Packers are expected to make the announcement Monday.
While Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson threw a barbecue in Spikes' honor Saturday night, count Thornton as one who doesn't think the Bengals will match. Or that they should.
"Takeo's made it pretty clear he doesn't want to be here and Marvin has made it
clear he only wants players who want to be with the program," Thornton said. "You can't have that kind of dissension on a team. It's only fair to let Takeo get a fresh start in Buffalo and for Coach Lewis to get a fresh start here."
Thornton isn't clueless on the scuttlebutt around league on the Bengals ("I've heard it all") and he played against it and lived it when the Titans were in the AFC Central.
In Thornton's first NFL game in 1999, the Titans erased a nine-point Bengals' lead in the game's final six minutes. Last year, Thornton fell on top of Bengals running back Corey Dillon with 1:08 left in the game when Dillon needed a yard to tie the game on fourth down but tripped over slip-sliding left guard Matt O'Dwyer.
"Our coaches were as scared of the Bengals as any team we faced because of the problems they gave us and how hard they played," Thornton said. "The thing that was said was, 'Don't worry. Something will happen and they'll find a way to lose.'
"But with Marvin coming in," Thornton said, "and the way the facilities are, I'm convinced that they're on the right track. There's talent here, it just has to be mentally right and I think Marvin is the kind of guy that can do that. Look at the coaches who joined him and the winning programs they left. Look at Marvin. If he waited a few weeks, he could have had the job in San Francisco or Detroit. But he chose Cincinnati. If a guy like him can do that, so can I."
And Lewis gave him the big sell. It just started after Thornton left Paul Brown Stadium on Tuesday night to visit New England and Arizona. Lewis must have memorized his cell phone number, because every few hours or so, Lewis was ringing.
"I talked to him three, four times a day," Thornton said. "He'd say, 'How are we doing? Where are we at?' He wanted me to play here and you could tell."
With Oliver Gibson not expected to participate in any drills until the first day of training camp as he recovers from Achilles' surgery, Thornton is expected to start at tackle with Tony Williams.
"I don't know if I'm starting or not, but I'm going to camp to play the best I can," Thronton said. "I'm sure we're going to be rotating through there, a lot like we did in Tennessee."
With the addition of Thornton and another defensive tackle/end in Carl Powell, it's assumed that 35-year-old left end Vaughn Booker is going to get cut, saving the Bengals about $800,000 on the salary cap.
But it's not a done deal yet. Booker said he spoke with Lewis last week and that the coach said he'd like to see Booker at least go to training camp.
But Booker, who has two years left on his deal, said he's still mulling retirement. He's got a problem with a nerve in his back and he's waiting to get that resolved before letting Lewis know if he's coming back.
"I've got to see how I feel," Booker said. "It's kind of exciting to have a new coach and he's making some definite changes. He said I could help in some of the packages, so we'll see what happens."