Jones was a first-round draft pick of the Bengals in 2002. (Bengals photo)
Updated: 9:50 p.m.
Levi Jones, who goes hard all the time, found some soft spots in the text messages that flowed from Arizona on Wednesday after his much anticipated release.
"Though there were several rocky moments, I truly wish the best for my teammates and the organization," Jones wrote. "There are many fans in Cincinnati that I love and truly care about. I truly hope and wish nothing but the best for my fellow teammates. I have so much love for them."
The Jones move is another step in what could be the installation of first-rounder Andre Smith at left tackle, although the Bengals are exercising the right to move him to right tackle. There is some speculation that they feel right tackle is an easier transition to the NFL game for a rookie tackle.
It also officially ushers in a total revamp job along an offensive line that blocked for the NFL's last-rated offense. With the departure of right tackle Stacy Andrews and center Eric Ghiaciuc to free agency, only right guard Bobbie Williams and left guard Andrew Whitworth remain from last year's Opening Day line.
Since there is no salary cap next season in the NFL, the Bengals assume what is left of Jones' prorated signing bonus in this year's cap. Since he was scheduled to make in excess of $3 million this season, that figures to be about a $500,000 hit.
The 6-5, 307-pound Jones, 29, had requested a trade before the 2008 NFL Draft, and the club told his agent this past March that it would either trade him or cut him. When the Bengals couldn't get any takers for a deal, most likely because of his salary, they decided to make the move three days after Smith made his Bengals debut on the practice field at left tackle.
Asked why he requested a trade, Jones said, "My mother always told me if you've got nothing good to say, don't say anything."
There are now just two Bengals who were here when head coach Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003: Long snapper Brad St. Louis and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
"I don't think new necessarily means anything bad," Whitworth said of the new-look offensive line. "I like our guys. We've got good athletes who are hungry and a lot of times those are the toughest guys to play against. I think this gives us a chance to revive us and get us going again."
Jones has been the left tackle since the second month of his NFL career, which began when he was a surprise but solid pick in the 2002 draft. He started 89 games and emerged as one of the top left tackles in the game during a 2005 season he was voted a Pro Bowl second alternate. But knee and leg problems limited him to 31 games in the last three seasons.
"The Bengals made Levi the 10th pick in the draft and then made him one of the highest paid tackles in the league," said agent Kenny Zuckerman, who negotiated the six-year extension with $16.3 million in guarantees and $21 million in the first three years before the 2006 season. "He definitely appreciates what the Bengals did for him and now he's looking to continue his career elsewhere."
Jones had some public disagreements with the training staff and coaches as they grappled with his injuries and for the last couple of years he chose to work out in his native Arizona at Athletes' Performance Institute in Tempe. When there were no takers before, during and after the draft, the Bengals cut him and FoxSports.com reported he had a visit lined up with a Seattle team coping with Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones' microfracture knee surgery.
While it got ugly at times, Jones said he has no bitterness.
"Why?" he asked. "I got what I asked for two years ago."
In one of his texts he wrote, " I want to thank the Brown family. ... They have truly blessed my family throughout the years. I thank them for giving me the first opportunity to play a game that I love."
What is probably the highlight of Jones' Bengals career involved injury. In one of the toughest feats ever in franchise history, he played six days after arthroscopic knee surgery down the playoff stretch in December 2003.
Injury also played a part in his last Bengals appearance. He had to take himself out of the Eagles game because Trent Cole saw he could exploit Jones' physical problems. No one ever got into the specifics of the injury, but Zuckerman said Jones has had a good offseason and is healthy.
The Bengals had to turn to rookie Anthony Collins to replace Jones in the last six games when Whitworth suffered an ankle injury in the same game and also missed the rest of the season.
"It's hard to see a guy like that go; a great guy who was really good with the young players," said Whitworth, who arrived in '06 under the wing of Jones and right tackle Willie Anderson. "He helped me a lot when he got hurt for most of the year and I had to play as a rookie, and he helped Anthony last year."
Jones has a simmering intensity that some can take the wrong way. Whitworth didn't.
"It meant a lot to him. Playing well and winning meant a lot to him," Whitworth said. "Like T.J. (Houshmandzadeh). They only got hot-headed because they wanted to do well and the team to win. I loved having a guy like that in the locker room."
Whitworth has emerged as a leader in that locker room and he's a key figure in the drama of who's going to be the next left tackle. If the Bengals decide Smith is better off at right tackle and Collins is the backup for both, then Whitworth would be the guy.
But not if they think Collins can play left and Whitworth should continue his Pro Bowl pursuit after a big-time year last season at left guard. That's where he's made 25 of his 38 NFL starts. The others have been at left tackle.
"I don't really mind it because I want to do what's best for the team," he said of the unknown. "It would be nice being able to go into a year and be able to concentrate on one position. When I was a rookie, I was expecting to back up left guard, but I ended up starting (10 games) at tackle when Levi got hurt. The next year I started out at left tackle, Levi came back and I went back to guard. We'll see what happens. I just have to make sure I'm ready physically and go from there."