Updated: 6:25 p.m.
By the time the Bengals signed off on his contract Saturday afternoon, new Bengals left guard Travelle Wharton had a downtown dinner in Cincinnati with wife Kashema, huddled with offensive line coach Paul Alexander, talked on the phone with center Kyle Cook, and planned a trip back here as a couple next week to meet the staff.
If it sounds like Wharton is at home, he is. For a good part of his youth he spent every other summer traveling to Cincinnati from South Carolina for a family reunion, a product of the World War II migration to the north.
"Half of my grandmother's side moved to Cincinnati in the '40s. Her sister lived up on Reading Road," Wharton said. "I'm not sure where, but I'm sure when this hits the paper tomorrow I'll hear from them. I've got a lot of family here. A lot of cousins. That's why it's so unique to be here in Cincinnati."
Oh yeah. He can be sure it will hit the papers.
Even though nearly half the teams in the NFL hadn't signed a free agent by the time Wharton agreed to a three-year deal Friday, the Bengals' status as the team with the most room under the salary cap brought them the most scrutiny.
The Bengals may have more to announce Sunday. They are talking to the cornerbacks they brought in Thursday and Friday and The New York Daily News is reporting Bengals safety Reggie Nelson is mulling offers from Cincinnati, the Jets, and a mystery team. Agent Hadley Engelhard said his client plans to make the call by Sunday morning.
NFL.com said Saturday night that Texans cornerback Jason Allen signed a two-year, $8.2 million deal, but the club didn't confirm it.
The Wharton signing certainly hit some Web sites. Profootballfocus.com called it a good way to start as an upgrade for the Bengals depth chart. Wharton, heading into his eighth season, has already played a lot of quality NFL snaps.
Rankings from profootballfocus put Wharton in the top half of guards (38th out of 77) for 2011 and Livings at No. 56 after Wharton played 95.6 percent of the snaps. Livings, who started 42 games in the last three seasons, took a five-year, $19 million deal on Friday to start in Dallas.
"On top of having the ability to provide emergency cover at LT, Wharton is a clear and quick upgrade on former Bengal Nate Livings, who jumped ship to Dallas yesterday," the site said. "Wharton had his struggles in pass protection (yielding 30 pressures last year) but is a clear upgrade on Livings as a run blocker."
Just like Livings, Wharton is offensive line coach Paul Alexander's kind of guy. Big. Tough. Committed. Lunch bucket. The 6-4, 312-pound Wharton started 99 games on the left side of the Panthers line, primarily at guard. He played the entire 2005 and 2007 seasons and parts of '09 and last year at left tackle.
With backup tackle Anthony Collins also a free agent, Wharton has the experience to move in there behind Andrew Whitworth if needed and, among other things, that's what had Alexander breathing easier Saturday.
"We liked him coming out (third round in 2004) and we knew he was a great guy who likes to work and football is important," Alexander said. "He hits us perfectly, really. He's a solid player and he secures us a backup at left tackle in case something happens to Whit."
Wharton missed the 2006 season when he tore his ACL in the opener and came back to play '07 at left tackle for a club that had eight 100-yard rushing games with four quarterbacks.
Heading into next month's draft the Bengals have a pair of new guards in Wharton and backup right guard Clint Boling, a second-year player moving into the top spot with Bobbie Williams's free agency and Mike McGlynn's departure to the Colts.
The Bengals could revisit the 35-year-old Williams at a later date, but he's recovering from ankle surgery. For the time being they are looking for 2010 fifth-rounder Otis Hudson to make some contributions as at least a backup and the draftnicks expect the Bengals to take one at some point in the draft.
Wharton, who turns 31 in May, has been a part of solid running games in Carolina. The Panthers finished third in NFL rushing three of the last four years and when they finished 13th in 2010 Wharton missed seven games with turf toe.
The Panthers gave him a big deal in '08 and when he was set to make nearly $6 million this year, Carolina released him.
"He's been a tremendous player for us and he is a class act," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said when Wharton was let go. "It got to the point where in the big picture we decided it was a move we needed to make."
The Bengals are hoping Wharton can help upgrade a running game that finished 19th last year and 27th in 2010 and has struggled on short yardage and in the red zone. The last time the Cincinnati running backs combined for at least 10 rushing touchdowns in a season was 2007.
"I like that part of it; I like to get after people in the running game," Wharton said. "It's a young team that's playing well and winning. You can see it on the rise. Last year was a prime example and I wanted to be a part of something special. I felt like coming here I was going to be with a good group of guys that's winning."
After talking with Alexander and head coach Marvin Lewis, he said "the vibe and the enthusiasm rubbed off." And Wharton is quite aware that he's going from the rookie quarterback named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in Carolina's Cam Newton to the rookie quarterback who led his team to the playoffs in Cincinnati's Andy Dalton.
"It's exciting. He's young and he's been in here and winning," Wharton said. "He's been doing great things and it's my job to protect him so he can continue to do great things."
He also knows the offensive line is a big part of life in the AFC North.
"Going against bigger guys in this division and the teams in this division, you've got to bring your A game every week," he said. "The rivalries in this division seem to very intense with every team. I'm going to love being a part of that."
Wharton and his wife have been a part of the Carolinas their whole lives. He grew up in Hillcrest, S.C. before playing at the University of South Carolina. Kashema grew up three hours away in St. Stephen, about 25 minutes from Summerville, home of Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green.
And that's where the Whartons have raised their three daughters—6, 3, 1—but they are ready. Kashema calls it "a family decision," and so she accompanied her husband on his trip that took him from the Rams to the Bengals.
"You get established in a spot, but my wife and I are embracing the move," Wharton said. "We're looking forward to moving up here and becoming a part of this team and this community."
One part of Wharton's family already settled here and it looks like he already fits in with the locker room culture that began to flourish in Cincinnati last year.
"I just come to work. I just like to have fun with the guys, the people in the building. I'm not very loud. I'm laid back. I just enjoy playing football and that's what I came here to do," he said.
After reaching a deal with Wharton that reports put at $10 million with what is believed to be a cap count for 2012 at about $3.7 million, the Bengals are hoping they get others to play here. Defensive end Kendall Langford, the Dolphins defensive tackle who visited Cincinnati on Thursday, agreed to a four-year, $24 million deal in St. Louis on Saturday with half of it guaranteed. With Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, left end Carlos Dunlap and right end Michael Johnson up next, the Bengals apparently aren't going to hit the $6 million per year mark for a tackle in the rotation.
Profootballfocus.com graded the losses of Bengals defensive linemen Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker as "indifference," and gave the Cowboys a minus for signing Livings.