The one-year contract, worth $1 million to $1.5 million, reunites Hartwell with Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who was once his defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. It also gives Hartwell a chance to become a starter in the league again and re-establish himself as a force against the run.
Although he has primarily played inside linebacker in a 3-4 front or middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, Hartwell could start at weakside linebacker in Cincinnati, where fourth-year veteran Landon Johnson currently tops the depth chart. The rationale of auditioning Hartwell at the weakside position in training camp is that he would be able to move to the ball through less congestion and perhaps bolster a Bengals defense that has struggled against the run in Lewis' four-year tenure as the head coach.
At worst, Hartwell should provide a veteran backup to second-year middle linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who is entering his first season as the full-time starter in 2007.
First, though, Hartwell, 28, will have to demonstrate that he is past the injuries that plagued him the last two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
After four seasons with the Ravens, where he recorded 191 tackles in 2002 while filling in for an injured Ray Lewis, Hartwell signed a six-year, $26.5 million contract with the Falcons as a much-coveted unrestricted free agent in 2005. But he suffered a ruptured Achilles in the fifth game of that season and missed the rest of the campaign. Last summer, he underwent arthroscopic surgery to relieve swelling in both knees just before the start of training camp and played in just eight regular-season contests.
Despite realizing very little from a significant financial investment in Hartwell, the Falcons released him earlier this spring.
Hartwell and his agent spoke to several teams after the Falcons cut him loose, but his goal was to strike a deal with the Bengals because of his familiarity with Lewis and his scheme. Hartwell said he wanted only a one-year contract because it would enable him to prove to the league he is physically whole again and then allow him to go back into the free-agent market again next spring.
The signing with the Bengals has been anticipated for about a week but was delayed when Hartwell's wife went into labor.
In 77 appearances, including 59 as a starter, Hartwell has 544 tackles, seven sacks, one interception, 10 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and two recoveries. During a three-season stretch with the Ravens, 2002-04, he was acknowledged as one of the NFL's best young defenders against the run and averaged 157.3 tackles in that period.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.