Today: Cincinnati Bengals

Next: Cleveland Browns

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer

Offseason Recap:

Bengals Coach: Marvin Lewis (entering 2nd season with team)

Players Released

Oliver Gibson, DL

Atrell Hawkins, CB

Jeff Burris, CB

Riall Johnson, LB

Scott Rehberg, G

Free Agents Lost

Mike Goff, C (San Diego)

Matt O'Dwyer, OL (Tampa Bay)

Brandon Bennett, RB (Tampa Bay)

Mark Roman, S (Green Bay)

Free Agents Signed

Kim Herring, S (St. Louis)

Nate Webster, LB (Tampa Bay)

Patrick Johnson, WR (Washington)

Bobbie Williams, G (Philadelphia)

Larry Moore, C (Washington)

Kurt Kittner, QB (Atlanta, waiver claim)

Traded

Corey Dillon, RB (New England)

Traded For

Deltha O'Neal, CB (Denver)

Draft Picks

Rd. 1 (No. 26 overall) Chris Perry, RB, Michigan

2 (49) Keiwan Ratliff, CB, Florida

2 (56) Madieu Williams, S, Maryland

3 (80) Caleb Miller, LB, Arkansas

3 (96) Landon Johnson, LB, Purdue

4 (114) Matthias Askew, DT, Michigan State

4 (117) Robert Geathers, DE, Georgia

4 (123) Stacy Andrews, T, Mississippi

5 (149) Maurice Mann, WR, Nevada

6 (183) Greg Brooks, CB, Southern Mississippi

7 (218) Casey Bramlet, QB, Wyoming

Analysis

They are a legitimate NFL franchise and an honest-to-goodness AFC North contender. Meet the new Cincinnati Bengals, who have Coach Marvin Lewis to thank.

Not everyone in the Bengals organization wanted to hire Lewis in January 2003. There were those in the club's front office who supported Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (now the head coach of the Buffalo Bills). But Katie Blackburn, the team's executive vice president, was sold on Lewis and kept pushing her father, club president Mike Brown, to hire Lewis, and that's what Brown did. Brown turned over the Bengals' football operations to Lewis, and it took Lewis only one season to lift the club from laughingstock status to playoff contender. The Bengals went 8-8 last season in Lewis's unveiling as an NFL head coach -- a six-win improvement over Cincinnati's 2-14 record in 2002 under Dick LeBeau -- and next season he will try to secure the franchise's first winning season and first playoff appearance since 1990.

"Cincinnati, with Marvin, clearly is a team on the rise that feels like it can step up and challenge for a division championship, which it can," said Lewis's former boss in Baltimore, Ravens Coach Brian Billick.

Lewis continued this offseason to clear out players who didn't want to be in Cincinnati, trading perpetually disgruntled tailback Corey Dillon to New England after holding out long enough to get a second-round draft choice in return. The Bengals also got a fourth-round pick from the Denver Broncos in a trade in which Cincinnati obtained cornerback Deltha O'Neal and the two teams exchanged spots in the first-round draft order. The Bengals emerged with five of the draft's first 96 choices and eight selections in the initial four rounds, and Lewis could be building a club that will be a contender for years to come.

He made the difficult decision of handing his starting quarterback job to Carson Palmer, the top overall choice in the 2003 draft who sat last season while Jon Kitna threw for 3,591 yards and 26 touchdowns. It does not appear that Kitna will become a locker-room problem because of the demotion. Last month, he signed a one-year contract extension that runs through the 2005 season.

Rudi Johnson keeps the starting tailback job that he took from Dillon last season, and Lewis used his first-round draft pick on Michigan tailback Chris Perry. The defense got a boost with the free-agent addition of linebacker Nate Webster. Lewis backed away at the last minute from a near-deal on March 19 with free agent defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who signed with the Oakland Raiders instead. The Bengals have a four-year, $9.3 million contract agreement virtually in place with defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, who was told by the Broncos that he would be released in June and he could line up a deal with another team. Gardener created problems for the Miami Dolphins and the Broncos, but he was the Washington Redskins' most valuable player in 2002 when Lewis was the club's defensive coordinator. He can be a game-changing force when his energies are funneled in a productive direction by a coach that he respects, and Lewis qualifies.

The expectations have been raised exponentially for the Bengals, who even are scheduled to return to the Monday Night Football stage next season with an Oct. 25 meeting with the Broncos. It will be Cincinnati's first Monday night game since 1992, and first at home since '89. Lewis has Bengals fans thinking that the team will reach the playoffs next season, but now he must get it done with essentially a rookie quarterback.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Subhed

Quarterback Kurt Warner remains under contract to the St. Louis Rams, but he and agent Mark Bartelstein already are well into the process of finding Warner's next team.

Bartelstein said he is dealing with eight to 12 clubs with varying levels of interest in Warner after being granted permission by the Rams to talk to other teams in anticipation of Warner's release next month.

Warner, a two-time NFL most valuable player who led the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances in a three-year span between the 1999 and 2001 seasons, said during an appearance on NBC last weekend that the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers were among the teams that had expressed interest. Bartelstein has confirmed that he's had several conversations with Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi, but he declined in a telephone interview to name any of the other clubs pursuing Warner, who turns 33 next month.

"There are all kinds of different situations out there," Bartelstein said. "It's different now than it was in March. People have made plans and been through minicamps. But for a player of Kurt's stature, there's plenty of interest. Why wouldn't you want Kurt Warner? He's started seven games since being the MVP of the league."

The Giants are looking for a veteran quarterback to go with top overall draft choice Eli Manning. The Bears have made plans to start youngster Rex Grossman, and the 49ers have stated their intentions to start Tim Rattay since releasing Jeff Garcia in March.

Kansas City Chiefs Coach Dick Vermeil, Warner's former coach in St. Louis, has said he won't pursue Warner, but there has been speculation that he could reconsider. In all, more than a dozen NFL teams seem in need of help at quarterback, although no clubs are advertising an opening for a prospective starter.

"There are a lot of people putting a lot of hope into some young quarterbacks, and they don't know for sure how that's going to work out," Bartelstein said. "There's interest out there for Kurt Warner."

The Rams would save $4.75 million on next season's salary cap by releasing Warner after June 1. Warner and Bartelstein have said they don't envision Warner accepting a pay cut to remain in St. Louis as a backup. The Rams signed veteran Chris Chandler in March and drafted Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker in the sixth round last month. On Tuesday, the team signed starting quarterback Marc Bulger to a four-year contract extension worth about $19.1 million.

Subhed

An NFL source said that free agent quarterback Kordell Stewart still could end up in Buffalo even though the Bills used a first-round draft choice on Tulane quarterback J.P. Losman and retained veteran starter Drew Bledsoe by agreeing to a new contract with him.

Here's how the still-active quarterback market shapes up:

Free Agents (Previous Team)

Kerry Collins (Giants)

Kordell Stewart (Bears)

Jeff Blake (Cardinals)

Damon Huard (Patriots)

Chris Redman (Ravens)

Rob Johnson (Raiders)

Shane Matthews (Bengals)

On The Trading Block (Current Team)

Tim Couch (Browns)

Drew Brees (Chargers)

Mike McMahon (Lions)

Possible June Cuts (Current Team)

Kurt Warner (Rams)

Vinny Testaverde (Jets)

Tim Couch (Browns)

Drew Brees (Chargers)

QB-Needy Teams (Current Starter-Backup)

Giants (Eli Manning-Jesse Palmer)

Bears (Rex Grossman-Jonathan Quinn)

Raiders (Rich Gannon-Marques Tuiasosopo)

Cowboys (Quincy Carter-Chad Hutchinson)

Ravens (Kyle Boller-Anthony Wright)

Cardinals (Josh McCown-Shaun King)

49ers (Tim Rattay-Ken Dorsey)

Packers (Brett Favre-Doug Pederson)

Falcons (Michael Vick-Ty Detmer)

Chargers (Philip Rivers-Doug Flutie/Drew Brees)

Broncos (Jake Plummer-Steve Beuerlein)

Dolphins (Jay Fiedler/A.J. Feeley)

Bills (Drew Bledsoe-J.P. Losman)

Chiefs (Trent Green-Todd Collins)

Subhed

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans said their farewells to safety John Lynch on Wednesday. About 500 fans showed up for a goodbye party for Lynch, who spent 11 seasons with the club before being released in March and signing with Denver. Retired U.S. Army General Tommy Franks, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and several of Lynch's former Buccaneers teammates were among those on hand for the function at the St. Pete Times Forum, home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. Iorio presented Lynch with a key to the city and declared it John Lynch Day in the city. Lynch and his family were scheduled to leave today for Denver, where Lynch is to attend a minicamp beginning Friday.