Left tackle Levi Jones hasn't had the chance to put on pads and hit anyone in a full Bengals practice yet, much less play in a real game. But already, the club's No. 1 draft pick is beginning to feel as if he knows top NFL pass rushers such as Baltimore's Michael McCrary and Jacksonville's Tony Brackens.
Jones has been in constant contact this offseason with line coach Paul Alexander, including a just-completed week of work at Paul Brown Stadium. And his mental work has gone well beyond the X's and O's of the Cincinnati offensive scheme.
"When a rookie first learns the offense, he learns the basic assignments of the plays," Alexander said. "But beyond that, we've taken Levi to the concept of, 'This is how you run this play against McCrary,' or "This is how you block Brackens in this particular situation.'
"That's what veterans do. They get to the point where the plays are second nature, and they spend all their effort figuring out how to block a certain guy. We can't say our offense is second nature yet to Levi, but he knows it very well. He's well ahead of any rookie I've ever had at this early point."
Jones says he's already studied tape of so many opposing players that some of them are beginning to run together in his mind. But the true standouts,........
such as Baltimore's McCrary, stand out.
"Watching the things he's able to do against tackles is impressive," Jones said. "He's a power-type defensive end, but he's quick enough to mix in a combination of things that can make it very tough.
"Watching it makes me look forward to playing him, to see what I can do against him."
Jones' first chance to tangle with McCrary would not come until Nov. 10, when the Bengals visit Baltimore in the first of two meetings. For now, Jones is also looking with much interest at tapes of the Buffalo Bills, against whom the Bengals open the preseason on Aug. 9.
"That'll be my first game, my first NFL playing time," said the Arizona State product, who earned his bachelor's degree recently. "I want to get prepared for what I'll have to face and get off to a good start."
Before he can get into training camp and get ready to face the Bills, of course, Jones has to sign his first NFL contract. Negotiations haven't reached that point yet, but Bengals executive vice-president Katie Blackburn and player agent Kenny Zuckerman are working toward the goal of getting Jones in the fold in time for the July 25 training camp reporting date.
"We've had discussions this week, and we expect them to continue next week," Blackburn said Friday. "There's a strong desire on both sides to get Levi in camp, where he can make the most of the work he's already done."
Leaguewide as of early Friday afternoon, only two first-round draft picks had signed, No. 1 pick David Carr (QB, Fresno State) with Houston, and No. 22 pick Bryan Thomas (DE. Alabama-Birmingham) with the New York Jets.
Jones was the No. 10 pick in round one. Initially, the Bengals encountered some criticism for the pick, based on projections they might have traded down and still gotten Jones. But that criticism has faded in light of reports that Jones might indeed have been plucked by a team picking shortly after the 10 spot, and Jones has done everything humanly possible to bolster his reputation as a high-quality individual who will make the most of his considerable NFL potential.
"It's amazing," Alexander said of his experience with Jones the past few months. "He works out and studies on his own six hours or more a day. He has a rare intrinsic motivation. I have not seen a ceiling. I have not seen a plateau. Everything he's absorbed, he's been able to apply. At some point there's got to be at least a temporary plateau, but right now we're pushing the envelope to see just how much he can assimilate."
On the practice field this past week, Alexander and Jones continued the quest for perfect technique.
"It's great that Levi works out on his own as much as he does," Alexander said, "but practice (without pads) for line play is all footwork and timing. If you don't have someone there watching exactly what you're doing, it can be fruitless in some ways. We just spent the week going through basic mechanics and looking for faults he can work on."
Cincinnati's weather mellowed late in the week, but earlier, Jones had the chance to get used to the sticky, brand of heat and humidity he'll face at in training camp at Georgetown.
"I'm used to dry heat," the Eloy, Ariz., native said. "I'm not used to breathing the air like it can be here, all filled with moisture. When I run in Arizona, my throat feels real dry. But running here, you don't feel that dry, and you may feel like you don't need water.
"But then you look at yourself, and you're drenched in sweat, and you know you need to get some water in you."
The end of this week marked the end of the pre-camp work Alexander and Jones have planned.
"He needs to get out of here for a while now," Alexander said. "He's already shown me more work ethic and maturity level than you could ask for."