BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Theoretically, Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons are sharing a locker at Spinney Field. The Cincinnati Bengals' first-round draft choices have been assigned space among the veteran linebackers, their presumed turf marked by strips of tape bearing last names and uniform numbers.
The two rookies continue to hold out for sweeter deals, but the Bengals believe this a temporary condition. If Spikes and Simmons are not in Georgetown Friday for the first fatiguing day of training camp, they may not be long delayed. Negotiations between first-year players and National Football League teams have about as much wiggle room as a worm on a pencil.
Just fall in line
The salary cap determines how many dollars a team can spend. Draft order determines the relative value of different prospects. Each first-round pick who comes to terms serves to set the market for others around him. Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson became the 14th of the 29 first-round selections to sign Monday when he came to terms with the Oakland Raiders. Ultimately, rookies fit into their contractual "slots" as predictably as grade-schoolers lining up by height.
Obstinate agents and stubborn executives can make it a prolonged process, but the end result is practically preordained. It is a rare athlete who can resist the lure of multiple millions. It is a rare team negotiator who will play hardball in a narrow price range when doing so keeps a prized prospect out of camp. It is an annual mating ritual that creates a lot more headlines than hard news.
"I think they'll inevitably be here," Bengals President Mike Brown said Tuesday of Spikes and Simmons. "We're not supposed to say there's a wage scale, but (the contracts) come down step by step and player by player. About the only thing they can do is decide whether they want the money up front, in the bonus, or more overall."
Thus the prevailing sentiment at Spinney Field Tuesday was not panic but patience. Yes, the Bengals are eager to begin educating Spikes and Simmons about the finer points of professional football. No, their absence is not causing apoplexy.
"We think we have depth at linebacker," said Bruce Coslet, the head coach, "but they're all so young they don't know where to line up."
Coslet's depth chart presently shows Spikes as the second-string right inside linebacker, behind 10-year veteran Jerry Olsavsky, the free agent formerly with Pittsburgh. Simmons is listed as the third-team left inside linebacker, after Tom Tumulty and Steve Tovar. Both rookies could improve their position with a solid summer, but neither is being counted on for immediate impact.
Reinard Wilson's rookie experience should have taught the Bengals to brace themselves for long linebacker learning curves. Each day Spikes and Simmons are out of uniform contributes to making that curve more treacherous.
"Some guys miss a couple days and their heads are spinning," Coslet said. "And they never catch up."
Still, the Bengals are sufficiently satisfied with their linebacking situation that they have made no overtures to Greg Lloyd, the five-time Pro Bowler recently released by Pittsburgh. Lloyd has asked his agent to keep him in the AFC Central, but the demand for his services is diminished by knee and ankle problems.
"He's an older player and there's some wear and tear on him," Brown said. "Beyond that, we have drafted three linebackers and have several of our guys returning from last year. We're pressed for space."
Space considerations caused the Bengals to assign Spikes and Simmons to the same stall this week. As the roster is reduced, each player will eventually command his own cubicle. That is, assuming they sign.
"It's distracting when they're not here on time," Mike Brown said. "It's annoying. It's not in the best interests of the players or the club. But how important it is in the overall scheme of things is debatable."
Until they show up, there's no way to know.
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