22 Starters in 22 Days: Thomas Jones

Thanks in large part to the work of RB Thomas Jones, the ground game is the only thing that went right for the offense last year. However, the 1300-yard rusher faces the possibility of playing second string to Cedric Benson in 2006.

With the veteran mini-camp less than a month away, Jones continues to stay away from the Bears' off-season workout program.

He signed a $10 million, four-year deal as a free agent after the 2003 season, but based on his 1,335 rushing yards last season, Jones believes he's underpaid. A trade would likely result in a new, more lucrative contract. But the Bears are hesitant to let Jones get away, since it would deprive them of the depth they value at running back.

"I figure it all will work out," Bears running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "I know he hasn't been there, but I know Thomas, and he is working out. I know he will be ready to go."

Jones was the key to the Bears' offense last season. He was fifth in the NFC in rushing yards and third on the Bears with 26 receptions.

"Ain't no question, that was our guy," Spencer said. "We've got to have Thomas. I hope everything gets squared away, so I can get my man back. He did a lot of other things, a lot of the stuff that other guys don't want to do, a lot of that dirty work."

Benson has been hard at work this off-season to be ready to challenge Jones for the starting job. The fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft had a disappointing rookie campaign due to a contract dispute that led to him missing all the preseason and a knee injury which cost him six games.

The biggest obstacle in Benson overtaking Jones is the passing game. Jones has caught 82 balls over the past two seasons, but even more importantly he's one of the best blocking backs in the league. Considering Rex Grossman's injury history and Brian Griese is coming off knee surgery, having a reliable blocker to pickup a blitz is important.

Despite being quiet when talking with the media, Jones has become a leader within the locker room. He played through knee and rib injuries last year on his way to starting 15 games and setting career bests in nearly every rushing category.

With Jones, Benson and Adrian Peterson all averaging over 4.0 yards per carry last year, the backfield is the strongest area on offense. Still as a hedge against a possible trade of Jones, the Bears signed 5-foot-10, 219-pound running back Tony Hollings to a two-year contract last week.

Selected in the second round of the 2003 NFL supplemental draft out of Georgia Tech, Hollings has totaled a modest 149 career rushing yards on 49 carries and caught seven passes for 71 yards. He appeared in just two games with the Texans in 2005, with no statistics. But in just four career starts at Georgia Tech, he rushed for 633 yards.

Without a deal for Jones coming during the draft, it's unlikely anything will happen this season. The Bears are trying to win now and trading your most productive player on offense for a future draft pick makes little sense.

The plan is to let Jones and Benson fight it out in Bourbonnais and try to distribute the carries to keep both fresh over the course of the season.

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