Westbrook interests Bengals

6-7-02, 4:00 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With Darnay Scott's status still murky, the Bengals are making "exploratory," moves in the suddenly rich free-agent market of wide receivers.

After Monday's Paul Brown Stadium workout by Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook, the interest level rose enough that the Bengals made plans to contact his agent. That came after a weekend they also made contact with the agents for Antonio Freeman, Keenan McCardell and Derrick Alexander.

Alexander agreed to terms with the Vikings late Friday with ESPN.com reporting a three-year, $5.1 million deal and hours later McCardell went to Tampa Bay for a reported four-year, $10 million contract that included a $2 million bonus.

Westbrook ran one 40-yard dash and caught about 10 passes from rookie quarterback Gavin Hoffman, enough to catch the Bengals' eye.

"We'll talk to them and see what is in the cards," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "He had a good workout. and I thought he showed well."

The Jaguars have also expressed interest, but after the workout Westbrook said he is serious about the Bengals, that Cincinnati is the only team he is looking at curently,and one of the reasons is because, "that's down near the water somewhere and this is up near my family (in Detroit). It's a better fit for me."

Duke Tobin, the club's director of pro/college personnel, said the Bengals are merely, "gathering information," for down the road. At the bend is Scott, their speed receiver they haven't seen since he went home with a sore shin a month ago. Scott, who turns 30 next month, costs $3.9 million against the salary cap in the last year of his contract with a scheduled $3 million in salary and roster bonus and the speculation is the Bengals want him back if he'll re-negotiate his deal.

The Bengals insist Scott is still in their plans, but they no doubt hope Scott notes that two veteran receivers with similar age and experience are now working on deals much less than his.

"Darnay is now a member of our team and a valuable member of our team," Tobin said. "We want him healthy and ready to play. Hopefully, all those things will happen."

But that's an IF because the Bengals can't seem to get any answers on Scott at the moment. So, Plan B is the interesting crew on the market and Westbrook has shown interest in the Bengals.

The 6-3, 221-pound Westbrook is the prototype of the big NFL receiver they haven't had since the ugly divorce with Carl Pickens after the 1999 season. Ironically, Westbrook has the same agent that won Pickens two lucrative deals with the Bengals in Steve Zucker. Zucker also got the deal done last year that put Richmond Webb at left tackle.

Zucker said Friday that Westbrook turned down an offer to return to Washington and he thinks his client is better off with a change of scenery. Cincinnati is attractive enough to Westbrook that he has put a visit to the Jaguars on hold.

"From what I hear from Richmond, it's a different place than when Carl was there," Zucker said. "Just from the type of people they've

brought in through free agency and the draft. The commitment and from what I hear, they all love the coach.

"He thinks it would be a good spot for him and I do, too," Zucker said. "I think it's a team that's been turned around and looks like it's on its way. Jacksonville could always get back in the picture and there are two other teams showing interest. But he wants to see what happens here."

Zucker says his client has never been known to be out of shape, is fit enough to be a black belt in karate, and says Westbrook is claiming he's as fast as ever. If Westbrook flashes the speed Monday that Tobin remembers, it could get interesting quickly.

"When I was at Colorado, Michael was a superior athlete," said Tobin, a quarterback in Boulder while Westbrook was en-route to becoming the school's all-time leading receiver.

"He's got great size and hands and back then, he really could run," Tobin said. "We want to see at what stage of his career he is at. I've got high regard for his play-making abilities. This the best position out there on the market and we feel it deserves a look."

Westbrook, who turns 30 the same day as Scott (July 7), had one year in which he was the playmaker the Redskins envisioned when they took him with the fourth pick in the 1995 draft. In 1999, he led the NFL with 18.3 yards per catch and added a career-high 65 catches, 1,191 yards, and nine touchdowns. Then he tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament in the second week of 2000 and missed the rest of the year.

Last year, he caught 57 balls for 664 yards for an 11.6 average with four touchdowns. In seven seasons, Westbrook has 277 catches, 4,260 yards, a 15.3 average, and 24 touchdowns. In seven seasons, Scott has 386 catches, 5,975 yards, 15.5 average, and 36 touchdowns.

The Bengals aren't saying what they'll do with Scott if they sign another veteran receiver. National reports have them with about $2 million to spare beyond their rookie pool. Although it is doubtful the Bengals would go to training camp with Scott and another veteran receiver, Brown wouldn't say how a veteran signing would affect a corps of Scott, Peter Warrick, Chad Johnson, Danny Farmer, Ron Dugans and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

"There are some established veteran receivers on the free-agent market and we're curious about them," Brown said. "We're going to bring in one or two of them to talk with us and maybe work out. It could be after we work them out and talk to them that they would be a good fit. I don't know how it would impact others, but we're not going to carry more than six receivers probably."

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