2-27-2001 BY GEOFF HOBSON
Free agency started early for the Bengals Tuesday when they arranged for Pro Bowl defensive lineman Ted Washington to visit Paul Brown Stadium next Monday.
Angelo Wright, Washington's agent, confirmed the visit on Tuesday, just five days after the Bills cut his client for salary cap reasons.
"We haven't talked money yet, but the Bengals sound pretty interested," Wright said. "It's set up where he's coming in there to talk to everybody, including (head coach) Dick LeBeau, and it just sounds like they are going to go after him. He's got an open mind and I've told him they've got some good linebackers over there. He liked the sounds of that."
The 6-5, 350-pound Washington is also visiting Seattle this Thursday as the Seahawks try to continue to fill the hole Sam Adams left when he joined the Super Bowl champion Ravens last year via free agency.
Washington, a University of Louisville product who turns 33 in April, has been called Buffao's best free-agent signing ever as one of the NFL's more immovable objects.
Since joining the Bills in 1995, Buffalo has finished in the NFL's top ten in defense the past five years and in the top six against the run the last three seasons.
This year the Bills were ranked third overall and sixth against the run as Washington went to his third Pro Bowl while retaining his reputation as one of the most active players the Bills have ever had in the community.
But Washington's $7.66 million cap figure for this season was deemed unmanageable by new Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe because he hardly plays on passing downs.
Last year, Washington agreed to take a $1 million pay cut for cap purposes, but he rejected the idea this season. The Bills could have saved $1.6 million against the cap if they cut him next year (he counts $5.3 million for '01), but Donahoe said the solution isn't to keep pushing money into future years.
The Bills will clearly miss Washington. He's a durable, tough, big man who has made 85 straight starts and played much of '99 with a pulled rib muscle.
HEATH SIGNS ON: Cornerback Rodney Heath has agreed in principle to a three-year deal that is believed to be the richest multi-year contract the Bengals have ever given a player to whom they have exclusive negotiating rights.
David Levine, Heath's agent, said Monday he expects to finalize the pact Tuesday after the club returns from the NFL scouting combine.
The deal culminates a remarkable journey for Heath that began with the Minnesota Monsters of indoor football fame and ends with what figures to be average salaries near the $700,000 per year range and a six-figure bonus.
Heath and the club wouldn't discuss the terms, but they are clearly heady numbers for Cincinnati's own Western Hills High School product who didn't get drafted after finishing his career at the University of Minnesota following the 1996 season.
"Never," said Heath, when asked if he had ever seen such numbers on one check.
Levine also wouldn't divulge the deal, but said it makes Heath the highest paid Bengals cornerback for this season except for Tom Carter. Carter, benched late in the season in favor of rookie Robert Bean, is scheduled to make $2.4 million this year.
Since Heath went into this season as a two-year exclusive rights free agent, he figured the Bengals would pay him the $389,000 one-year tender.
"To tell you the truth, I was surprised, but I'm grateful," Heath said. "It shows what they thought of me and that I'm in their plans."
After sending the Bengals a tape, Heath, 26, wangled a two-year deal and came off the street as a free agent in 1999 to lead the team in interceptions with three. The 5-10, 175-pound Heath started 10 games at right cornerback in 2000 when new head coach Dick LeBeau made his first major move by benching Artrell Hawkins.
Heath, who compensates for his lack of size with brains and grit, missed the last two games with a shoulder injury. But he's fine now and is spending lunch hours with Hawkins and new cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle going over technique.
"Now what I'm trying to do is get more consistency and make sure my body is ready for 20 games," Heath said. "I've got to get more interceptions. The big thing is getting the respect of your teammates. Once you can do that, you can go out there and feel confident playing."
Heath had no interceptions last year, but he still has three of the team's 21 over the past two seasons.
The Bengals feel Heath's size makes him more of a nickel back and hope they get good enough play from their bigger rookies so they can start Bean and Mark Roman. But Heath is a leading candidate to start.
"Every year it's the same," he said. "You go into training camp to win a job."
Levine said it should make things easier on Heath's coaches and teammates now that he's got a bump from last season's $275,000 salary.
"It pays him for performing and that gets you respect from coaches and players," Levine said. "You have to give the Bengals credit. They reached out and paid a guy good money for good play."