Westbrook talks stir

6-24-02, 6:55 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Michael Westbrook negotiations kicked up a notch Monday when agent Steve Zucker made his first counter-proposal in the two-week old talks that now appear to have a bit more urgency for both sides.

Zucker wouldn't say if director of pro/college personnel Duke Tobin came back with another offer, but he was encouraged by Monday's dialogue and reiterated Westbrook's desire to negotiate just with the Bengals until it can be resolved one way or the other.

"We're still apart, but just the fact that we're talking and talked a few times today is, I would think, positive," Zucker said from Chicago. "My instructions from Michael are to see what I can get done with Cincinnati because he really wants to be there."

The status of Westbrook, a tall, speedy wide receiver heading into his eighth season, figures to not only impact the career of Bengals veteran receiver Darnay Scott, but also the talks with linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons about contract extensions.

"These signings are all part of a pie," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "There are only so many pieces of the pie right now and we have a pie of a certain size. With the people seated at the table, the pie isn't enough to feed them all. So we're only going to be able to feed some of them and that's what we're trying to work though."

Speculation is the Bengals are trying to reduce Scott's $3 million slice of

the action for this season and get it more in line with the money being paid 30-year-old receivers with similar production, such as Derrick Alexander at $1.7 million per year. Bengals vice president Paul Brown had no comment Monday on his talks with Scott agent Rocky Arceneaux, but Arceneaux indicated to bengals.com last week that his client wasn't talking a pay cut, but a re-structuring.

Yet the Bengals have watched highly accomplished players at other positions also take a cut in the past few weeks. Just this past weekend, Packer Pro Bowl safety Leroy Butler, 33, scheduled to make $2.5 million this year, agreed to take $750,000 for 2002. It's the second straight season in which Butler has agreed to reduce his salary by $1 million or more. The $750,000 salary is the league minimum for a player of Butler's tenure, according to ESPN.com, which also said the restructuring will permit Butler to earn back $750,000 of the compensation forfeited by reaching certain predetermined playing time incentives.

The Bengals, who figure to have about $1.5 to 2 million to spend beyond their rookie pool according to national reports, would no doubt divert those savings to the Spikes and Simmons sweepstakes. It's believed the Bengals offer to Westbrook is somewhere between the $750,000 minimum and Alexander's $1.7 million per year, which includes bonus and incentives.

"We put an offer out there that we think is a fair one and it appears to be more than any other offer out there," Brown said. "We have high regard for Michael Westbrook. We liked what we saw when he came in here. I can understand why he wishes the offer was larger, but we think it is a good offer."

Brown would like to settle the receiver issue and extend Spikes and Simmons all in the month before training camp starts July 25.

But. . .

"It's possible we can do all of that, but there's also a possibility we can't get anyone signed," Brown said. "More likely than not, it's going to fall somewhere in the middle."

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