'This is the old Rod'

5-21-01, 5:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If he's able to stay healthy enough to keep in shape, Rod Jones thinks he's "a pretty dominant player." A starting NFL left tackle.

Willie Anderson, his teammate and fellow Bengals tackle, has seen and heard this Rod Jones before.

This isn't the Rod Jones of last year. Saddled with 30 extra pounds. Chained to an extra $9 million. Burdened by blind-side sacks allowed in a year to forget.

This is the Rod Jones Anderson saw when they got drafted as bookends in 1996, when Anderson arrived in the first round and Jones in the seventh and Jones worked himself into the Opening Day left guard.

This is the Rod Jones Anderson saw in 1999, when he was the best lineman in training camp and played well enough at left tackle against quicksilver pass rushers Michael McCrary and Kenny Holmes to earn a three-year, $9 million deal after the season.

"This is the Rod Jones they fell in love with that you see now," Anderson said after Monday's workout at Paul Brown Stadium. "The hunger is there. The hunger isn't for the money. It's to verify he can play in this league and be successful. This is the old Rod. There's going to be no pressure from the outside. He loves to compete, I can see it in his eyes right now."

Of course, where Jones is going to be doing that competing has been the subject of much debate.

Here's a guy who could go into training camp with a shot to win back his job at left tackle.

Or be the perfect utilityman, a guy who can back up every spot on the line but center. P>Or get cut tomorrow.

With the signing of Richmond Webb and the re-signing of John Jackson,

aging but effective pass-blocking former Pro Bowl left tackles, Jones name has surfaced nationally as a potential June 1 cut.

But if the Bengals were to cut Jones, it makes more sense to do it before June 1. They would absorb the $1.6 million hit under this year's salary cap attached to his $2.5 million signing bonus and save about $600,000.

But Jones has looked agile enough at tackle and quick enough at guard this month to have club insiders talking about him being in the thick of a spirited training-camp roster battle. The Bengals are confident they have a terrific pass-blocking veteran in Webb. But before making any moves, it appears they want to give Webb time to settle in and lose some extra winter weight while easing into play with surgically repaired elbows that are responding well.

"I don't really know and I haven't thought about it at all," said Jones of his status. "Wherever they want to use me and where they think I can help the team best. I've come to the conclusion you control what you control. If they evaluate it and see I'm not a necessity, life goes on."

Jones is taking about reporting to training camp at 310 pounds, about seven pounds lighter than he is now and 40 pounds less than last year. He says last year's troubles began at the beginning, when arthroscopic surgery on torn knee cartilage prevented him from his normal offseason routine.

"It was a bad year. Just a lot things were going on," Jones said. "The pain of the surgery. Coming in out of shape. You can never recoup that. It's one thing to be out of shape. You can run and get better. But it's one thing to be out of shape and hurt.

"You have to squander a lot of time do a lot of other things that don't help you," Jones said. "You kind of find yourself out there struggling and suffering. Once you have pain and are out of shape, you're going to have more pain. There's no reprieve. You just have to maintain instead of dominate and that's what I was doing last year. Just trying to maintain and that's not enough out there."

Anderson thinks Jones learned the hard way about the pressure that comes with a big-time contract. How much harder is it watching the team sign two other players at a spot they filled with your $9 million?

"Yeah, definitely, not to be able to perform and everyone is looking at you, it became difficult," Jones said. "Everybody is saying, 'What are you going to do? What are you going to do?' But I don't expect sympathy from anybody."

Jones thinks he's quick enough to play tackle. He thinks he's big enough to play guard. The Bengals have never questioned his strength and ability to run block.

But now they have to ask themselves some tough questions. If Webb is the starter, is Jones' $2.2 million salary too expensive to be backing up both tackles and guards? Or is he worth his weight in gold if the utility role allows the Bengals to keep nine offensive linemen instead of 10?

That opens up the possibility of keeping six wide receivers or four tight ends.

Would the Bengals cut Jones and then like they did with cornerback Tom Carter and like they would like to do with defensive end John Copeland, re-sign him at a lower rate?

"I don't talk about that," Jones said. "Well talk about if we cross that road. I like the direction we're going. I like the city, the organization, everything. We shall see."

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