Two in the fold

7-10-01, 8:30 p.m.

Updated: 7-11-01, 2:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals agreed to terms with their second draft pick in as many days Wednesday when sixth-round pick Riall Johnson secured a three-year deal believed to be in the $970,000 range.

As the 168th pick in the draft, Johnson, a linebacker from Stanford, figures to get about a $74,000 signing bonus. The sides wouldn't divulge terms, but agent Ray Anderson said his client got slotted with the $73,000 given the 170th pick and the $77,000 secured at 167.

Now the Bengals can only hope the signing of their first-round draft pick will be as easy as the fifth-round deal that got done Tuesday.

It certainly won't be done as quickly.

Victor Leyva, an Arizona State offensive lineman who can potentially play all five spots, became the first Bengals' draft pick to sign when he agreed on a three-year deal for what is believed to be a little more than $1 million.

The Bengals and the agent for first-round pick Justin Smith could have their first in-depth discussions Wednesday.

Like past years, the battle lines seem already drawn. The Bengals want to do a straight deal with a big signing bonus in the first year instead of guaranteeing in some form money in future years.

Agent Jim Steiner has indicated he thinks there could be an element of guaranteed money, but he has held off on elaborating until he studies the Michael Vick contract's more closely.

Steiner said Tuesday there was no imminent news, but he already indicated last week he's unconcerned that Vick is the only first-round pick signed.

"I think that's just the nature of it," Steiner said. "You don't get going until you really have to and training camps don't start until the third week in July. I'm confident we can work with the Bengals."

Of course, one of the reasons it is slow is because

that lone first-rounder signed a deal the clubs detest. The Bengals included. Because of the extension of the collective bargaining agreement this year, there's a limit to six-year contracts.

That limits the pro-ration on the signing bonus, so the Falcons responded by spreading Vick's overall No. 1 choice signing bonus into guaranteed money in future years.

"That blows out the rookie pool," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "That means Vick is still going to get his money, but some veteran isn't. That's not how the rookie pool was meant to operate and we want to use it the way it was intended to be used."

Katie Blackburn, the Bengals executive vice president doing the deal, says she is open-minded about structure heading into the negotiations. Which gives Steiner a lift because dating to Dan Wilkinson's then-record deal in 1994, Blackburn has been bold about using non-conventional methods.

Brown agrees with Blackburn and Steiner that the process is usually slow: "For the last several years, it's been the norm that one half of the first-rounders aren't into camp on time. I think there has to be a better way. I think the system has sand in the gears. I think teams have figured out not to expend their energy early."

Like Steiner, Blackburn isn't concerned Smith isn't in the fold yet. Even though Peter Warrick, like Smith the fourth pick, was done the first week in June.

There were different dynamics at work there. Warrick had already changed agents once since the draft, so there was urgency. And one of his new representatives, the Cincinnati-based Jim Gould, is Blackburn's Indian Hill neighbor.

"This will get done in good time. I think we'll have most of our guys in camp on time," Blackburn said.

Leyva, his agent Ken Zuckerman, and Bengals scout Duke Tobin helped the cause by getting Tuesday's deal done. Neither side would divulge numbers, but it's believed Leyva got about the same $125,000 signing bonus that the player behind him (Atlanta receiver Vinny Sutherland) received.

"Duke really did a nice job. He was very up front and aggressive," Zuckerman said. "The Bengals proved they wanted to do the right thing."

Sutherland's deal is a perfect example of the effect the Vick deal had on the other Atlanta rookies. The diversion of the bonus allowed the Falcons to go out of the 7-9 percent raise off last year and get into the 10 percent area. Teams like the Bengals who want to do a straight deal can't do that, but apparently Leyva got close to a 10-percent jump off last year's 135th pick.

"We don't go by what other teams do," Tobin said. "We do what's best for us."

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