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Bengals try to gain leverage in negotiations
By Len Pasquarelli
While some league pundits question the manner in which the Cincinnati Bengals have played out the negotiations for the first overall pick in the draft, as they talk contract with three candidates for that No. 1 spot, it is difficult to rip the franchise for trying to apply a little leverage.
That said, the Bengals' contention that the contract to which they agree with the eventual first pick should be tightly modeled after the one signed in 2002 by top choice David Carr of the Houston Texans, might be a bit naÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â¯ve.
Palmer is the projected No. 1 pick, but Cincinnati has alternatives if a deal can't be struck.
The duo of executive vice president Katie Blackburn, who is the daughter of Bengals owner Mike Brown, and husband Troy Blackburn, have spent much time this week tutoring the agents with whom they are dealing on principles of the so-called "flat" rookie pool. But none of the three -- David Dunn (who represents Carson Palmer), Tom Condon (for Byron Leftwich) and David Ware (representing Terence Newman) -- is a novice. And all of them know that, while the "flat" rookie pool is restrictive, there is always a way to make the numbers look better.
None of the three agents wants to announce that his client signed the same deal Carr did a year ago. To do so would be to invite criticism and, in the back-stabbing world of the agent game, competitors would certainly use that against them in future recruiting wars. So some kind of compromise, at least if the Bengals are to strike a deal in advance of the draft, as coach Marvin Lewis is insisting they do, seems in order.
Cincinnati officials have apprised all three agents they want an expeditious resolution. But it is doubtful they will get a deal in place over the Easter weekend, and then the clock begins ticking loudly toward next Saturday at noon, when the first choice is to be announced. Translation: There remains plenty of work for the Bengals front office.
What is far easier to scrutinize than the manner in which the team has begun its negotiations, however, is the notion that Palmer is the prize they hope to land. The Southern California star was nearly benched last year, rallied to keep his job, then had a tremendous second half of the season and finished the resurrection efforts by snatching the Heisman Trophy.
But truth be told, Leftwich is the quarterback with the better and the more consistent track record, over a much longer period. It certainly appears that Leftwich and Newman, though, are along for the ride. They are not so much the "fallback" candidates as they are the stalking horses. Without them, the Bengals have little leverage in negotiations.
Then again, if Cincinnati felt Dunn was going to jump at the privilege of representing the first overall pick, and do so quickly because of his legal problems with former partner Leigh Steinberg and the fact he has filed for bankruptcy, they have so far been mistaken. Dunn hasn't delivered up Palmer yet and won't cave and accept a dubious deal. Neither will either of the agents for the two other players.
Notable is that some members of the Cincinnati coaching staff are said to prefer Leftwich over Palmer. But the Bengals team physician has cautioned officials that he feels the surgical rod in Leftwich's twice-fractured left leg should have been longer. Never mind that noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews feels the device is more than sufficient.
In the end, the Bengals probably will select Palmer, but it remains to be seen just when the end and the means are paired in an agreement.
Around the league
Even amid all the smoke surrounding the potential purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers by the Glazer family, which owns the Tampa Bay Bucs and would have to make some move with the NFL franchise to come into compliance with league cross-ownership rules, it's still a long shot that the Super Bowl champions will change hands. But adding to the foggy shroud of what might become of the Bucs, should Malcolm Glazer get the Dodgers, is this tidbit: Former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who lives in the Tampa area and has long been rumored to be interested in the Bucs, has recently started touching base with some old NFL acquaintances. Word is that DeBartolo, who doesn't have the juice himself to purchase an NFL franchise but certainly could quickly assemble an ownership group, has been polling his friends about whether he could ever be approved to return to the league. DeBartolo knows that, after the Louisiana fiasco in which he attempted to grab a piece of the casino industry and shuffled funds to former Gov. Edwin Edwards, some of the so-called "old guard" NFL owners might never endorse his return. Hey, in the long run, Eddie D. may not be seeking a comeback. But he's certainly seeking opinions from NFL people with whom he was once very close. As for Glazer and the Dodgers, well, NFL officials are keenly aware of his interest in one sport's most high-profile franchises. But those same officials contend that Glazer has not even hinted to them that he is prepared to sell his football team.
No one should be too surprised that the 49ers, who have needs at several positions, are spending a ton of time studying University of Florida quarterback Rex Grossman, even though the franchise already has a standout starter in Jeff Garcia. What the fans sometimes lose sight of is that, even though Garcia has been in the NFL just four seasons, he celebrated his 33rd birthday two months ago. That isn't to suggest that Garcia, who played in the CFL before signing with the 49ers as a free agent in 1999, is nearing the end of the road. But he is a quarterback who, by his nature, puts himself in harm's way an awful lot. At his best outside the pocket, all of his running around could eventually mean the worst for the gutsy Garcia, who is hardly a physical specimen. At some point, one would assume, the 49ers want to upgrade over current backup Tim Rattay, an untested three-year veteran who isn't admired nearly as much by the new coaching regime as he was the former one. The 49ers are also snooping around tailback candidates, and that may not bode well for the future of Garrison Hearst, now 32. Some feel this is the year San Francisco turns the starting job over to the heretofore fairly undependable Kevan Barlow and, if that is the case, then Heart's base salary of $2.2 million and salary cap charge of $2.7 million might be way too cumbersome for a backup.
One more note about Grossman, who is always much admired by Mike Mularkey, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator: Although he has one of the slowest 40-yard times among all the quarterback prospects in the draft, and was clocked at just under five seconds during a campus audition, three scouting directors to whom we spoke insist there is nothing that's pedestrian about his footwork in the pocket. "Put on the tape and you can see he really is pretty deft in the pocket," said one NFC talent evaluator. "Much more so than any of the other top guys. For the quarterbacks, that's a lot more important than straightline speed, what you run in the 40."
With their draft choice cupboard perilously bare, the Washington Redskins are suddenly brainstorming internally for ideas on how to add some choices, at least in the middle rounds. The problem is, Washington really isn't in very good position to acquire additional choices by dealing down from its current picks, and isn't about to trade any high-profile veterans like tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, linebacker LaVar Arrington and Jeremiah Trotter or wide receiver Rod Gardner. But one guy the Redskins offered up in trade talks a couple months ago, and who quietly is back on the block, is cornerback Fred Smoot. There is a lot to like about Smoot for any team that might want to make an inquiry. He's just a two-year veteran, only 24 years old, an excellent cover guy and not making very much money. While his departure would weaken the Washington secondary, some Redskins worry that Smoot is never going to be the most mature guy, and owner Dan Snyder might part with him for a high second-round choice. Snyder realizes that, at some point, Smoot is going to want big money. The Redskins will have to invest a bunch next spring, either in an extension or by using a "franchise" tag, to retain Champ Bailey, their other standout cornerback.
Smoot might not be the only cornerback on the market. The Raiders were shopping veteran Charles Woodson earlier in the offseason, and tried hard to get Bill Parcells and the Dallas Cowboys to bite, and there are rumblings they may dangle the five-year veteran again before the draft. Woodson is coming off a 2002 season when he slumped because of a shoulder injury. It isn't as if the Heisman Trophy winner has fallen out of favor in Oakland but, if someone were to make an offer, the Raiders might listen.
Ralph Vitolo, the agent for New Orleans wide receiver Joe Horn, has confirmed the two sides are close to agreement on a contract extension, but also cautioned on Friday that there are still some hurdles to be navigated. Vitolo met earlier in the week with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and there seems to be an agreement that something will get done. Just what the shape of the extension looks like, though, isn't certain yet. Vitolo said it could end up essentially being a one-year extension with a series of options after that. "Their big hangup right now," said Vitolo, "is that Joe is already 31 years old and they aren't sure how far out they want to stretch his deal. My counter is that, during those first few seasons Joe was in Kansas City, before he signed with the Saints (in 2000), he wasn't used very much. So there isn't a lot of tread on the tires yet. But they know how productive Joe has been for them, I think they count him among the best wide receivers in the game, and we'll get (an extension) done, I'm confident." In his three seasons with the Saints, the seven-year veteran has averaged 88.3 catches, 1,305.7 yards and eight touchdown catches. Horn has a base salary for 2003 of $2.7 million, a $200,000 roster bonus, and a $100,000 workout bonus that he is jeopardizing by boycotting the offseason conditioning program. His base salary for 2004 is $2.9 million with a $100,000 workout bonus. The never-shy Horn has suggested that, unless a deal is done before the team's May mini-camp, he will avoid those sessions as well.
One veteran for whom contract extension discussions are not going quite as swimmingly is Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. Only a month or so ago, it seemed Brunell and Jaguars management were closing in on a new deal, one that would definitely permit him to finish his career with the team. But the talks have gone nowhere fast lately, with the Jaguars offering a shorter extension than Brunell and his camp wanted, and at far less value than was anticipated. It would be hyperbole to say that Brunell is disillusioned by the offer. He isn't exactly a happy camper, though, when he considers what he has meant to the franchise and where things might be headed under the new football regime of vice president James Harris and rookie head coach Jack Del Rio. At age 32, Brunell definitely has some productive seasons left. It remains to be seen if those seasons are played out in a Jaguars uniform. There are two seasons remaining on the deal Brunell restructured in 2001. His base salary for 2003 is $6.75 million and his cap charge is $8.755 million. In 2004, however, he has a prohibitive salary cap charge of $10.5 million, which includes a $6.5 million base salary and a $2 million roster bonus payable next spring.
Perhaps the toughest guy to peg in the first round, because he clearly is a top 10-12 talent but plays a position that is not a priority for most teams, is Iowa guard Eric Steinbach. Most scouts now don't feel that Steinbach can play tackle, which would have significantly upgraded him, and that he is a guard who might also be able to move to center. Steinbach is incredibly athletic, though, and some team is going to get a tremendous prospect at about the middle of the first round.
Two weeks ago, we reported in this space that agent Leigh Steinberg was attempting to re-acquire his company from Assante Corp., the Canadian investment firm that purchased it a few years ago. Sure enough, Assante has announced that such a transaction has been consummated. But from what we hear, Steinberg was precluded from taking along some of his prized clients. The word is that high profile veterans Edgerrin James, Plaxico Burress and Bubba Franks had to remain with Assante as part of the deal.
We hear this every spring and, once again, people who have seen Jerome Bettis insist the declining Steelers tailback is in the best condition that he has been in for several years. In the past, such endorsements have hardly proven on-target, so forgive the accompanying skepticism, please. In this case, though, there are multiple sources, all of them outside the parameters of Bettis' usual propaganda machine. Here's hoping it's true this time, since The Bus is one of the NFL's class acts, not to mention a media darling. But just in case the rumors are erroneous, the Steelers, as reported here last week, continue to explore Penn State tailback Larry Johnson as a potential first-round draft choice.
While all has seemed quiet of late on the Jason Sehorn front, agent Jimmy Sexton continues to field phone calls regarding the former New York Giants star, but a contract agreement isn't likely now until after the draft. There remain four teams -- Carolina, Jacksonville, Cleveland and St. Louis -- with legitimate interest in the 10-year veteran. "Everyone is still checking in on a pretty regular basis," Sexton said. "It's pretty much along the lines of, 'Hey, we're still in this thing, and make sure you don't do something without at least calling us.' The smart thing, at this point, is probably just to wait now until the draft smoke clears." Carolina and St. Louis want Sehorn as a free safety, while Cleveland and Jacksonville still regard him as a viable option at the cornerback spot, it seems. Sexton reiterated what partner Kyle Rote Jr. contended in the wake of Sehorn's release by the Giants, that their client has no plans to retire and definitely will play in 2003 and likely beyond.
The Philadelphia Eagles already have great depth at tailback, with Duce Staley, the rehabilitated Correll Buckhalter, and Brian Westbrook. But Staley has a contract that expires after the 2004 season, Buckhalter iscoming off knee surgery and Westbrook isn't regarded as an every-down back. The upshot: Philadelphia is suddenly looking seriously at Miami tailback Willis McGahee, who they could afford to redshirt in 2003, as he finishes with his rehabilitation from his knee injury. With the 30th overall selection, McGahee could be a steal, and team president Joe Banner is always planning ahead.
Should the Redskins land Miami restricted free agent Jermaine Haley with the offer sheet to which they signed him Friday -- remember, the Dolphins still have seven days to match the four-year, $4 million deal, and keep him -- Washington still won't be done shopping for defensive tackle depth. Club officials will visit early next week, ESPN.com has confirmed, with Dallas Cowboys veteran Michael Myers, an unrestricted free agent. A five-year pro, Myers is just 27 years old and the former University of Alabama star is a solid backup-type defender. The best part for the spendthrift Redskins is that Myers is not attracting a lot of attention elsewhere, would like to find a new home before the draft, and is probably willing to sign on for the league minimum base salary of $530,000 and modest $25,000 signing bonus. One reason that Haley chose the offer sheet from the Redskins over a proposal from Green Bay was the presence of Robert Nunn on the Washington staff. Nunn was the assistant defensive line coach in Miami and was hired early this spring by the Redskins as their new defensive line mentor.
The conventional wisdom has the Buffalo Bills choosing a defensive lineman, preferably an end, with their first-round draft choice. But the club is also looking hard at the cornerback spot. Always cognizant of what is upcoming for his team, general manager Tom Donahoe knows that current starting corner Antoine Winfield is eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2003 campaign. And the feeling on the part of some Bills officials is that Winfield, given the spiraling rate of cornerback contracts, could be difficult to retain. Thus the interest in perhaps adding a quality corner in the draft and, quite possibly, even in the first round.
Kansas City officials continue to explore possible candidates for the No. 2 tailback position behind starter Priest Holmes, who is still recovering from offseason hip surgery, and who might not be in training camp because of a contract dispute. The Chiefs are still interested in free agent Olandis Gary of Denver, but have also conceded publicly that may attempt to trade for former Cardinals first-rounder Thomas Jones. An underachiever during three years in Arizona, having entered every season as the starter and then losing the No. 1 job, Jones is expendable because of the Emmitt Smith deal. He will either be traded or released and, since the Chiefs would prefer not to wait until he is cut later in the spring, might be willing to surrender a low-round draft pick to secure his rights.
Condolences to good buddy Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who I have always thought of more as a comrade than a competitor, on the death of his mother last week. Peter is one of the good guys, arguably one of the best family men in the business, a person of great values. In the 20 years I have known him, he has always been serious about his work, but has never taken this gig too seriously, as some of us do. In this business, those are rare commodities, for sure, and you have to learn them from someone. So while I never met Phyllis King, I'm betting she was one heck of a good teacher.
The top 10 teams in the league, in terms of salary-cap space available, as of Friday morning: Arizona, $17.08 million; Minnesota, $16.23 million; Philadelphia, $12.42 million; Houston, $11.02 million; New Orleans, $9.07 million; Chicago, $8.14 million; Dallas, $7.51 million; Seattle, $6.75 million; Buffalo, $6.23 million; and Baltimore, $6.12 million. At the other end of the spectrum, six teams have less than $1 million in available funds, with Tennessee at a paltry $213,978.
Just a hunch, but the bet here is that some team is going to land a pretty good playmaker in wide receiver Marcus Robinson, released earlier this week by the Chicago Bears, and at a relatively bargain basement price. The veteran receiver, who has suffered through three seasons of injuries, still has big-play potential, great size, and deep skills. Given current circumstances, it's easy to suggest that Robinson's 1999 breakout year was an aberration, especially with what has ensued. But if Robinson is even close to healthy again, he could be a starter again in the league, and provide outside speed for the franchise that lands him. Robinson will audition early next week for Arizona, a team that desperately needs a veteran wideout.
Punts: Kudos to Falcons coach Dan Reeves, whose war room shortcomings sometimes overshadowed what a terrific coach he has been, for turning over control of this year's draft to Ron Hill. The team's personnel chief has been excellent in bolstering the Atlanta roster this offseason and has a very good eye for talent. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ Even though Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said this week he is in no hurry to trade underachieving and AWOL tailback Ron Dayne, he'll probably listen to offers on draft day, and could get a few calls on the former Heisman Trophy winner. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ Miami officials have informed backup quarterback Ray Lucas his release is coming. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ Bucs coach Jon Gruden has stayed in touch with the agent for Rickey Dudley, and the tight end still figures to re-sign with the Bucs at some point this spring. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ Green Bay left offensive end Chad Clifton underwent elbow surgery last week and the weeks of additional rehabilitation are hardly what he needed. Clifton, of course, continues his recovery from the severe hip injury he suffered when victimized by a Warren Sapp cheap-shot. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ The player who most figures to benefit from the expected early run on defensive tackles in the first round is Ty Warren of Texas A&M. He is the "fallback" tackle for several teams, the guy they could select if the other highly-rated tackles on their board are already gone. A fringe first-rounder just a few weeks ago, it now appears that Warren will definitely be a No. 1 pick.
The last word: "We've never given any thought to trading him, and we're not dancing on hot coals as to whether we get him signed, either. He's under contract and is our quarterback for 2003. If we can get him signed (to an extension), fine. If we don't, that's fine, also. But we've never given any thought to trading him." -- Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs, responding to rumors the team might trade Daunte Culpepper.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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