By GEOFF HOBSON
Rookie wide receiver Peter Warrick leaned over to agent Norm Nixon during today's Spinney Field news conference and whispered, "Man, I'm ready to play now."
Warrick, the Bengals' No. 1 draft pick from Florida State, better be. The bulk of his $42 million contract that he signed Sunday is derived from reaching statistical milestones. But the first one he figures to reach _ playing 45 percent of the downs as the starter replacing Carl Pickens_ voids the last year of the deal and makes it a six-year, $35 million contract.
"So it's really a five-year deal," said Jim Gould, Nixon's agent. "They'll sit down at the end of the fifth year and negotiate. (The voidable year) wasn't a major, major stumbling block. We got that done Friday night. But once we agreed to that, that triggered other things that (the Bengals) didn't want to do, like the structure of the escalators and the timing of payments."
Warrick's timing for the coaches and quarterback Akili Smith is impeccable, now that he'll be in training camp from the first day on July 21. Smith couldn't contain his glee today from San Diego, where he's tallying up the proceeds from his charity golf tournament, and said his team has a shot at going 8-8.
"You can't believe how happy I am," said Smith, who missed 27 practices because of last year's holdout. "I was telling my family that I hoped he didn't go through what I went through last year. I understand what happened with me. They knew Jeff Blake was going to be the quarterback and they had time. But they need to replace Carl Pickens and we had to get Pete right away. I'm going to keep on commending (Bengals President) Mike Brown. He keeps showing the commitment. He keeps getting it done."
After facing the cameras, Warrick received a gift from wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian -- a tape and a few sheets of paper.
"By the time you watch this video and study this," Mooshagian assured him, "when you come back (on June 12) you'll be where everybody else is."
Mooshagian says the Bengals now have time to perfect special plays for Warrick, where the club can take advantage of his after-the-catch elusiveness.
The Bengals love that Warrick signed early, and now their daydreaming about three wide- receiver sets gets a little more realistic. But the Bengals are emphasizing to Warrick that he needs to complete his community service in Tallahassee, Fla., stemming from last season's well-publicized petty theft charge. And Nixon believes his client will get it done before camp because the punishment has stared to sink in.
"He was up there saying, 'Man I'm ready to play now. I hate I have to go back and deal with this,' " Nixon said of the news conference. "Now he understands. He could have gotten it done and he didn't, and now he sees how it's inhibiting him from doing something he wants to do and something he really needs to do. I think out of all adversity stems positive things. Now he'll be more focused and understanding his actions."
After leaving Cincinnati today, Warrick vowed to work three or four days this week before returning next Monday for seven practices in the next two weeks. Then he says he'll finish it off before July 21.
Warrick wouldn't bite when asked how many catches a season will guarantee his $42 million. When reporters threw out numbers from 60 to 80 catches a year, Warrick said, "The price is right. . .I felt like it was a great contract. (The escalators) are reachable."
The Bengals and Warrick worked off the framework from last year's deal for the fourth pick signed by running back Edgerrin James in Indianapolis. Warrick figures to get about $10-11 million in guaranteed money through a $8-9 million signing bonus and reporting bonuses. One tier of escalator kicks off when he has catches for at least 801 yards. He starts getting into the big end of the money when he hits 1,101 yards and upward.
At Florida State, the 5-10, 196-pound Warrick racked up 3,517 yards in 43 games and gained a reputation as a playmaker by averaging 17 yards per catch. Bengals coach Bruce Coslet compares his playmaking to former Bengals receiver Eddie Brown ("But Eddie was able to twist his body in weird ways,") and said, "It's more quickness than speed."
"I think I can get deep. It's all about technique, strategy and speed," said Warrick, when asked about the nuances of running NFL routes. "That's why I wanted to stay one more year in college."
Warrick is excited about all the talk of three wide-receiver alignments with himself in the slot, Darnay Scott at flanker, and Warrick's Florida State teammate, Ron Dugans, at split end. After all, it was Warrick who urged the Bengals take Dugans in the second round when he walked into the offices on Draft Day. They took him in the third.
"He's my homey," Warrick said. "It would be great. . . Ron, me, the great Darnay. It would be great for all of us to go out there and make plays with Akili (Smith)."
But at every turn, coach Bruce Coslet has been cautious about relying on three wides.
"It depends how teams play us," Coslet said. "If we need a lead blocker in the backfield, we might not do as much of it. When we go three wides, it does limit what you can do in the running game because you don't have an extra tight end in the game, you don't have the lead blocker. You can run draw plays and screen passes, stuff like that, for your running game."
What quarterback wouldn't like the idea of three receivers?
"But I think we can do anything," Smith said. "Whatever the coaches want us to do, I think we've got the speed and the talent to do it."
Mooshagian admitted Warrick's early signing makes a steady diet of three wides more realistic, but he was just as cautious as Coslet.
"It won't change Darnay as much as it will the two rookies (Warrick and Dugans)," Mooshagian said. "Those guys have to each learn two spots. We as coaches have to guard against overloading them and what that (overload) button is going to be."
But it's a nice problem to have since Warrick is going to be here. Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn said the key to the club's quickest first-round signing in six years was that both sides were agreeable to work off the James deal. It also helped that Warrick, like James, is a skill player. When quarterback Akili Smith held out for three weeks last year, a major issue the Bengals objected to was voiding the contract after three years, and the deal fell together when the Bengals agreed to void the last year of Smith's deal. But Smith has more incentives tied to team performance than Warrick.
The Bengals didn't want a voidable year in the Warrick deal, but they compromised.
"It wasn't quite as simple as Edgerrin's deal. It's a little more complex," Blackburn said. "There's a lot of money built into the escalators and we had to work on the language. But we hope he does well and makes those escalators because that means he's playing well.''