Bengals, Levi Jones agree on $40 million extension

When the Cincinnati Bengals used the 10th overall choice in the 2002 lottery to select left offensive tackle Levi Jones, the pick was roundly criticized by draft pundits.

But it was Jones who got the last laugh Tuesday afternoon, reaching agreement with the Bengals on a six-year contract extension that moves the four-year veteran into a salary class which reflects his development as one of the league's emerging standouts at his position.

The deal is worth slightly in excess of $40 million and includes $16.3 million in guarantees. In terms of so-called "new money," it makes Jones the fourth highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL and the highest-paid blocker who has never been to a Pro Bowl.

"I think they wanted to make a statement that they're going to
take care of their own guys who are worth it," Jones' agent Kenny Zuckerman told The Associated Press.

That latter distinction belonged, albeit briefly, to Detroit Lions left tackle Jeff Backus, who less than two weeks ago signed a six-year, $38 million contract with $15.5 million in guarantees. Certainly the Backus deal helped to better define the market for Jones' extension.

Negotiations between the Bengals and Zuckerman had been ongoing for a good portion of the offseason, but were markedly accelerated in recent days. Jones was entering the final season of his original five-year contract in Cincinnati, and would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring if the two sides had not struck the accord.

The deal is in keeping with the leaguewide trend of securing long-term contracts with left offensive tackles, a spot that has evolved nearly into "skill position" status the last several years. The contracts for Backus and Jones leave just Bryant McKinnie of Minnesota and Buffalo's Mike Gandy as the only starting left tackles in the NFL currently eligible for free agency next spring.

On average, the 32 starting left tackles in the NFL now have 3.8 seasons remaining on their contracts.

Jones, 26, became a starter in his rookie season after a standout career at Arizona State, and has started in 61 of his 63 regular-season appearances. He had a streak of 59 straight starts snapped in the season finale last year. Regarded as one of the NFL's premier pass protectors, his play has helped Carson Palmer grow into an elite quarterback, and Jones has also progressed as a run blocker.

"When a player hasn't missed a lot of time on the field, I
think the teams want to take care of them," Zuckerman told AP.

Securing a deal with Jones was key for the Bengals, since three of their other starting linemen are in the final season of their respective contracts. That group includes Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, standout left guard Eric Steinbach and center
Rich Braham. The Bengals earlier this spring signed right guard Bobbie Williams to a three-year extension.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was also used in this report. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.