Jones’ release opens OT job for Smith

Published 2:30 am Thursday, May 7, 2009

CINCINNATI — Left tackle Levi Jones was released Wednesday by the Cincinnati Bengals, who spent their first-round draft pick on his replacement.

Jones has been bothered by knee and leg problems in recent years. The club notified him before the draft that it planned to trade or release him. The Bengals took tackle Andre Smith from Alabama with the sixth overall pick in the draft.

‘‘Now he can sort of sit back and wait for a good opportunity,’’ said Jones’ agent, Ken Zuckerman.

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The move makes a clean break with the tackle tandem that helped the Bengals reach the playoffs in 2005, when they had their only winning record in the last 18 years. The Bengals released right tackle Willie Anderson, their first-round pick in 1996, shortly before the start of last season when he declined to take a pay cut and remain as a backup.

Jones was the 10th overall pick in 2002 and played in 94 games for the Bengals. He started 15 games plus their playoff loss to Pittsburgh in 2005, enjoying one of his best seasons.

The Bengals gave him a six-year extension before the 2006 season. He was paid $21 million over the first three years of the deal. Last season, he missed the final six games because of injury.

The decision to release Jones leaves the Bengals with little margin for error on the offensive line, which was hit hard by injuries last season. The Bengals had the worst offense in the NFL, unable to run or throw the ball in large part because of the line’s struggles.

Quarterback Carson Palmer broke his nose in the preseason, then sprained his ankle and partially tore the ligament and tendon in his passing elbow, forcing him to miss 12 games in the regular season. Palmer decided to let the elbow heal with rest rather than surgery.

The Bengals expect Smith to step into a starting role quickly. They lost right tackle Stacy Andrews to free agency after the season, and have little experience or depth at the tackle spot. Rookie Anthony Collins, a fourth-round draft pick last year, took over at left tackle after Jones got hurt last season.