Welcome to Camp Urgency

7-26-02, 6:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

GEORGETOWN, Ky. _ Katie Blackburn worked through the night and Levi Jones flew through the night to give the Bengals what looked to be a new and promising day.

"For the first time I can remember in a long time," said Bengals President Mike Brown Thursday night, "we've got everybody on the field for the first day of practice. We're not fighting internally, we're fighting the opponent.

"We were lucky," Brown said, "that both players knew how important it is to be here. I commend them because I think that was a big factor, too."

Brown's "The Future is Now," theme carried the first day of training camp when two surprising deals ended negotiations that had dragged until check-in time here at Georgetown College to give the Bengals two players they think can contribute almost immediately.

Thursday morning, second-round pick Lamont Thompson, the free safety from Washington State, agreed to a four-year deal and got on a plane from California. Then a few hours later, Jones, the left tackle from Arizona State drafted in the first round, agreed to a five-year deal and jumped on a plane from Arizona. For the first time since 1994, when the training camp quarterback was David Klingler and the site was Wilmington College, both the Bengals' first- and second-round picks arrived in camp on time.

Thompson lines up for Friday's first practice with the first group. Jones is still No. 2 behind Richmond Webb, but when he left Blackburn's dorm room here after signing his contract shortly after midnight Friday, even the rookie could sense the urgency.

Back home, Jones has been getting up for the last two weeks at 5 a.m. to work out on Georgetown time. He hears a clock ticking here, too.

"Both sides interest in getting me into camp on time put it over the top," said Jones of the talks between Blackburn and his agent. "This is a big year. Last year should have been a big year. They had the ninth best defense in the (league) and one of the best running backs in the league and one of the best offensive lines. (Brown) is looking to get something for his investments. It's in our hands and I can say that now. 'We,' because now I am on the team after signing."

He signed after Blackburn and Beverly Hills-based agent Ken Zuckerman talked until 1 in the morning (Jones' East Coast time) Thursday and then kept it up after a seven-hour break. Blackburn was short on specifics and sleep, but long on euphoria Thursday night.

"It's definitely a positive, no ifs and or buts about it," Blackburn said. "Both sides knew that getting him here was important to his success this year."

It's believed that the Bengals agreed to two key points to get the deal done now and not three weeks

from now. The Bengals established incentives based on him being a full-time starter each year, which are easy to reach play-time milestones for the left tackle of the future. Plus, they all but guaranteed in language that a cash-option bonus would be paid, with most of it being paid now and the rest after the season. Those are elements that last year's No. 10 pick, Green Bay's Jamal Reynolds, didn't have in his deal, but the Bengals still apparently agreed to them.

The numbers, which are believed to be about $11 million for total value, and nearly $7 million in the first year, were pretty much set in stone off last year's deal with the No. 10 pick. But unlike many of the deals that had been done in the first round this year, the total value didn't decrease from last year while still getting a slight raise in bonus. That was thanks to some of the bells and whistles the Bengals have disdained in the past.

Zuckerman pulled the trigger on the deal even though the guts of it was negotiated without picks 4 through 19 being signed. Usually, teams and agents wait to have a couple of deals close to them come in before making the jump. But here was Jones getting up at 5 a.m. and Blackburn talking until 1 a.m. and the future is now.

""We compromised on some things," Brown said. "I wish the system didn't pay rookies so much without playing a down, but this is the way it is. We think these two guys are going to be important for us and we're glad they're here."

Zuckerman: "They worked hard at it. We worked hard at it. It was a very fair deal and I said all along I would sign a deal no matter who else was done if I felt comfortable."

The Thompson signing came out of the blue, given the tension between agent Mike Sullivan and the club after Thompson sat out the May camps because of a disagreement over injury protection. As late as Wednesday night, the Bengals were concerned that the Thompson negotiations would become a siege and a potential rookie starter would see his first year wasted.

But two other deals in the second round helped Bengals vice president Paul Brown get an agreement for Thompson, the 41st pick in the draft. Lions defensive end Kalimba Edwards, the 35th pick, got a $1.7 million bonus, as did the player picked before Thompson at No. 40, Jacksonville tackle Mike Pearson. But Pearson got a straight four-year deal. Brown had to jack their bonus for Thompson to what ESPN.com reported as $1.6 million, but he didn't have to worry about a cash-option bonus and could also do a straight four-year deal with minimum salaries to give Thompson what he wanted.

"Huge," is what some Bengals defensive coaches were saying when word filtered through camp about the deal Thursday. They planned to put Thompson with the first group Friday and slide incumbent free safety Cory Hall to strong safety.

The coaches have been raving about Thompson's work in individual drills since he started going on the field in June. The instincts and ball skills that produced 24 interceptions were in evidence with diving catches and closing speed.

"It doesn't mean anything right now who is working with the first group out there," said defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "He'll be out there with those guys, but we'll rotate guys through and Cory will get some snaps there, too. This is going to be an earned job. We won't give it to him. We have to see who is hitting and tackling and we'll have a better feel for that a week from Saturday."

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander said pretty much the same thing about Jones, a player backed up by the 35-year-old Webb and 37-year-old John Jackson.

"He's the left tackle of the future," Alexander said. "But he'll have to earn it. I don't want to make him feel like the job was given to him. When that will be, time will tell."

Jones will get time with the first group, but he's clearly thinking about only surviving his first NFL camp. As he signed the 10 addendums in his contract, he asked Blackburn what he missed at Thursday night's opening meetings.

"I'm not worried about starting," Jones said. "I have techniques to get down and I've still got a Pro Bowler in front of me. I just have to play and not worry about anything else. I knew and my agent knew there is no way a left tackle can miss training camp and get into the rotation."

There was only one down moment on the brightest Opening Day in years. Wide receiver Danny Farmer was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list with a hamstring injury and trainer Paul Sparling doesn't expect him to be ready until the third pre-season game on Aug. 24.

The Bengals have high hopes for Farmer after he ended his second season last year with five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in the last two games that included the last-minute tying touchdown against Pittsburgh. But he's had trouble staying healthy every year. He missed two games last year with an ankle injury that knocked him out of two games. He also missed some time as a rookie with an ankle problem.

Defensive tackle Mario Monds, who tore up his knee at a NFL Europe training camp in March and needed reconstructive surgery, was also placed on a PUP list and isn't expected back until October at the earliest.

As expected, cornerback Artrell Hawkins (knee), quarterback Akili Smith (hamstring), cornerback Rodney Heath (hamstring) and defensive end Reinard Wilson (shoulder) cleared medically.

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