Bengals lock up Jones

Posted: 6:15 p.m.

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Jones

If there was ever a doubt how highly the Bengals value left tackle Levi Jones and his ability to protect Carson Palmer's blindside, they offered more than $40 million ways Tuesday in a groundbreaking six-year contract extension that keeps him in Cincinnati through 2012.

After helping make Jones the highest-paid offensive lineman in club history, agent Kenny Zuckerman confirmed a deal that includes $16.3 million in guarantees and $21 million in the first three years.

"I'm extremely happy with how they view me," said Jones, now the NFL's fourth highest-paid offensive lineman. "That means a lot to me. I've played through a lot of pain and I thank God. I'm blessed. It's kind of the light at the end of the tunnel."

The Bengals don't comment on deals until the contracts are signed.

The Jones deal continues to solidify one of the NFL's most potent offenses. Palmer, the team's Pro Bowl quarterback, is in the fold through 2014, and Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson through 2011. Running back Rudi Johnson, the franchise's single-season rushing leader, is here through 2009, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, with 150 catches over the past two seasons, through 2008, and right guard Bobbie Williams is in place for four more seasons.

Jones, who turns 27 next month, joins Palmer, Williams and Chad Johnson in earning extensions since the end of a season the Bengals finished sixth in NFL offense with a line that supplied the club's best individual passing, receiving and rushing seasons of all time while giving up the fewest sacks in team history.

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has had the almost unheard of luxury of letting Jones work one-on-one against the NFL's elite speed rushers.

"For the last several years he's protected our quarterback's blindside without any help from schemes," Alexander said. "He's rare. He's one of the most athletic tackles in the league and he's more than a great pass protector. He's an excellent run blocker. And he's a finisher and a try-hard guy. It's a great signing for us."

Zuckerman, of the Priority Sports firm that also represents Bengals Tory James and Bryan Robinson, knew his client didn't want to be tagged as a franchise free agent after the season even though it would pay him about $9 million for the 2007 season and about $11 million if he was tagged again in 2008. As it is now, he'll get $21 million through 2008.

Jones's average in new money of $6.5 million per year is just below the $7 million tackle trinity of Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and Walter Jones. But they had to go through the franchise game that Zuckerman and his client didn't want to play.

"Those are the kind of situations that pit player against team and Levi's just not that kind of guy," Zuckerman said. "He wants things to be worked out and settled. Both sides wanted to get it done, and they did. The Bengals invested a lot in him early (a first-round pick in 2002), the team has really come on, and so has he."

Jones, off his first alternate Pro Bowl selection, is now the highest-paid lineman never to go to a Pro Bowl, eking past the $38 million deal signed by Lions left tackle Jeff Backus two weeks ago.

But after 2005, Jones figures to lose that tag soon. He's a major reason Palmer went to his first Pro Bowl with the Bengals' first three-digit passer rating, shutting out several of the NFL's top sackers, including the Colts' Dwight Freeney, the Ravens' Terrell Suggs, and the Packers' Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

Zuckerman pointed to the trend of the solid teams keeping their left tackles. Last month, ESPN.com reported that of the 31 projected starting left tackles (Houston's is unknown), the average span remaining on their contracts is about three and a half seasons.

"And lately a lot of the top tackles coming out of college haven't panned out, so there is a shortage," Zuckerman said. "If you get a good one, you've got to keep him."

Jones is not only good, he's tough, reliable and smart in becoming one of the leading members of the locker room. He had started 59 straight games until sitting out last season's finale in Kansas City after the club had clinched the AFC North title. Included in that streak is the now legendary start against the 49ers in 2003 that came just six days after Jones had arthroscopic knee surgery.

His extension finally gives a franchise that has been reamed this offseason for character problems reason to celebrate. Look for Jones to share the spotlight Wednesday with Bengals president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis at the annual training camp media luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium.

"I'm happy that Mr. Brown and Mr. Zuckerman grinded it out and got it done," Jones said. "Now I hope they make a valiant effort and keep the league's No. 1 tackle tandem together. I'm looking for my man to stay."

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Anderson

Jones referred, of course, to right tackle Willie Anderson, until Tuesday the richest Bengals lineman ever with that $30.6 million deal signed before the 2000 season. That ends after this year, but agent Terry Bolar said Tuesday he's had no offseason discussions with the team after the sides couldn't agree on an extension last year before training camp.

Anderson, saying his future is up in the air, is delighted Jones is getting his due.

"This is a great day for the Bengals and their fans. It's a great day to be an offensive lineman," Anderson said. "I'm happy for the team because it means a lot to sign a guy of this caliber who is such a quality guy."

It's doubtful the Bengals would franchise tag Anderson after the season at age 32 or left guard Eric Steinbach because $9 million is considered tackle money.

The first thing Jones asked Zuckerman after he signed off on the deal Tuesday is if the Bengals had room under the salary cap to get Anderson and others.

Probably not for 2006, figuring that Jones's cap number for this season is between $6-7 million, the rookie pool is about $4 million, and the Bengals like to keep about $2 million in reserve for injuries and grievances. But they could do something with '07 cap room.

"He told me, 'Don't leave me hanging,' " Anderson said. "My future is up in the air. I'm not mad. I'm happy for the team and Levi."

Anderson, who has been successful in business as the head of his venture company Think BIG, laughed when asked about losing his title as the team's richest lineman.

"Only on the football field," Anderson joked of his off-field earnings. "But Levi's coming on there, too."

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