No. 1 looks like it

5-5-02, 6:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander admitted that with a week to go before minicamp he got a little nervous.

Not that he doubted Levi Jones was every inch a NFL left tackle. It's just when you put your hide on the line with a first-round draft pick. . .

Alexander walked off the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields Saturday after minicamp's first practice breathing just a little easier because people like incumbent left tackle Richmond Webb and his seven Pro Bowls were saying, "He looked damn good, especially on pass blocking. He shut down just about everybody that came over there. He uses his hands and feet and he's got good body control. I didn't have to help him today. He was holding his own out there."

Right tackle Willie Anderson, himself a No. 10 pick in the NFL Draft, was impressed even before he saw Jones on the field. Alexander introduced the linemen to each other in the classroom by showing each of them on film for three plays. Anderson's eyes bugged out when he saw Jones reach block a wide defensive end and drive him 15 yards down field.

"That's damn near impossible," Anderson said.

On a first day wide receiver Peter Warrick ran the fastest 40-yard time of his Bengals' career, quarterback Gus Frerotte's reconstructed throwing shoulder responded to long throws, and the linebackers and defensive end Justin Smith scorched the earth with 40-yard times in the 4.6 range, Jones' performance had critics and club personnel both raving.

"He looks like a 240-pound guy in space instead of a 310-pound guy in space," said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played every offensive line position for the Bengals a generation ago. "He just moves his body so easily. He's going to be a decade guy over there. Looking at him at this minicamp, he's definitely not over his head."

Especially when he went head-to-head with last year's first round pick, Smith, the hair-trigger quick defensive end coming off a 8.5-sack season. On three matchups in a pass rush drill, Jones twice used his 36-

inch arms to steer Smith to the outside and then used his basketball quickness to cut off the inside.

"We're not wearing pads, but he looked good," Smith said. "He's agile, quick. He's a good athlete."

A good athlete? Anderson, a pretty fair athlete himself, saw enough on tape and on the field that he shook his head over the people who ripped the Bengals for taking Jones with the 10th pick six years after taking Anderson.

"He's light years ahead of where I was," said Anderson, who still managed to start seven games as a rookie at left tackle despite a holdout and injury. "He's a better athlete and he comes out of college as a left tackle. I was a utility guy. He got some guys today. He surprised every defensive end we've got."

But maybe Jones was the least surprised guy in the house as he calmly took stock of his first day while sitting in a locker stall equipment manager Rob Recker had strategically placed next to Anderson.

"I expected the tempo to be real fast and it was," Jones said. "I think the transition today was pretty smooth. I made one mental mistake, but I knew it the minute I did it.

"(Anderson) is a point of reference with everybody," Jones said. "He does exactly everything the way the coaches want it because he's technically sound."

The lone missed assignment came on a blitz pickup in a team period, but Jones was under so many wings out there that he didn't have space to feel badly about it. Webb gave him a scouting report on the team's defensive ends and Anderson gave him advice on the wide rushers.

"(Webb) gave me some good veteran information," Jones said. "It's a plus to watch Willie because of his technique. He told me against the wide defensive ends to set back and try not to get caught up in it. Wait on him. Be patient. Yeah, I like to be aggressive, but the one time you're too aggressive, it can really hurt you the worst."

Anderson loves Jones' aggressiveness, and wasn't surprised to hear the scouting reports say he has a mean streak.

"A lot of guys coming out of college just aren't aggressive like that," Anderson said. "He punches hard and he runs down field after every play. He's got quick feet. A quick kick step (into pass protection)."

Of course, it's early. There are no pads this weekend.

It's early. As he did last year and for much of his career, Webb arrived at about 350 pounds and needs to lose about 25 in the next two months, but he always does.

It's early. Jones was already thinking about the mental game on Sunday because, "They are going to put in a whole bunch of new stuff tonight, so we'll see what happens tomorrow."

It's early. When asked how long Jones is going to run No. 2, Alexander said, "We're not playing a game tomorrow."

But Jones showed on Saturday that tomorrow might not be that far away.

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