Second chance for Jones?

4-22-01, 7:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals know if they can get knocked for one thing in this year's NFL Draft, it's their failure to come out with a left tackle.

Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said after this weekend's draft that he'll still attack the problem. But two things of note are the Bengals saying nice things about embattled left tackle Rod Jones and saying nothing when asked about moving right tackle Willie Anderson to left tackle.

"We will look at all options," said LeBeau, who wants to talk about it with Anderson and his staff before he tells the world.

And maybe what shouldn't be a footnote is that offensive line coach Paul Alexander, celebrating his first draft pick not in the last round since 1998, thinks he did get a starting offensive lineman in the fifth round in Arizona State's Victor Leyva. He could play anywhere but left tackle.

"He's about the toughest guy on the board," Alexander said, who started lobbying for him in the third round. "I think the way our division has gone, with all the big

defensive guys inside, the big tackles, and the way the draft has gone yesterday, he's that style of player on the other side. . .I think he can compete as a right tackle, but I think he's a legitimate inside player at guard or center. He gives us a lot of flexibility."

Alexander raved about Leyva's versatility, his 47-2 record his senior year as a California prep wrestler, and his endurance.

"If you take two guys and they bang into each other 100 times, numbers 90 to 100, he'll win, no question about it."

But who will win the left tackle job is now the looming question. The Bengals had a shot at Michigan right tackle Mo Williams in the second round, but switching sides was an X factor. Alexander felt the only upgrade would have been Leonard Davis or Kenyatta Walker, and Davis was gone at No. 4. That's when the Bengals opted for pass rusher Justin Smith instead of Walker, a player who also would have had to move from right to left.

"I didn't feel bad because I've seen this Justin Smith and I think he's terrific," Alexander said. "We talked about Mo Williams there a little bit, but I think if you're looking for a left tackle, you've got to pick them high or wait until the next time. I think a lot of mistakes are made by saying, 'Oh my God, we need to fill this position and let's try this guy.' . . .When you take a left tackle, you have to take him high and you better be sure that he's the right guy. I think those two guys were the only two guys we felt that way about."

Also at play was last year's experience in the second round. The Bengals had a crying need at cornerback and opted to draft a projection in Mark Roman when they felt the best player on the board was left tackle Marvel Smith.

In this second round, the Bengals opted to take the best player on their board, Oregon State wide receiver Chad Johnson, over the projection in Williams.

But it still doesn't solve the problem at left tackle, where Jones struggled mightily last year and got benched just months after getting a three-year, $9 million deal off solid work in '99.

When Jones showed up last week at about 30 pounds shy of last year at 317 pounds, LeBeau said it showed him Jones is willing to fight for his job. It's believed 14-year veteran John Jackson has the edge.

"What happened after this year is I think (Jones) got a wake-up call," Alexander said. "He's in the best shape I've ever seen. There was no question he was humiliated with his performance last year and I think he's certainly not out of the woods. But he's done everything he can do and more to try and rectify the situation. I guess that's all you can ask from the guy."

Alexander said Jones spent five weeks working in New Orleans with a trainer three times a week. Jones never recovered from last minicamp, when he showed up at about 350 pounds because he couldn't run on a knee in which he had arthroscopic surgery.

"What I can tell you is that we as an organization are not going to say, 'Oh, I hope it gets better,'" LeBeau said. "We're going to do something within our judgement whatever we deem that to be and it will competitive."

Whether that means moving Anderson is a delicate question around these parts. Anderson, one of the league's better right tackles, doesn't want to move.

"I'll say this," Alexander said. "Two years ago we were happy with the way Rod played."

Stay tuned.

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