Trading Places in the Backfield

Cedric Benson missed all of training camp and the preseason last year because of a contract dispute with the Bears. In a twist of fate, it appears Benson will now benefit from Thomas Jones seeking a new deal.

Although training camp is more than six weeks away, Benson might already have the inside track to earning the starting running back job. After rushing for 272 yards on 67 carries as a rookie, he's working with the first string offense.

Benson has been hard at work during the off-season to catch-up mentally to the NFL game, a subtlety he missed because of his 36-day impasse with the team.

"I feel I made big strides and I'm feeling a lot better than I did last year for sure," Benson said.

"The biggest thing I wanted to improve on mostly coming into this season was the playbook. I just wanted to make sure I know it and know it really good just so I don't ever run into any pre-snap errors or anything like that. I want to play it smooth."

The biggest reason for the change in the backfield is Coach Lovie Smith sending a message to Jones for skipping off-season workouts and organized training activities. Even if Jones had participated in all voluntary activities, he would have to compete for the job, which is also why he's frustrated with the situation.

Most running backs wouldn't have to prove anything after rushing for 1,335 yards. However, Jones had never topped the 1,000-yard mark before last season.

There's no doubt Jones is a much more finished product than Benson at this point. But as the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, salaries dictate Benson have an opportunity to compete with Jones. Benson is working on a five-year deal with $17 million guaranteed.

Jones is understandably upset about being paid far less, $10 million over four years, and wants to capitalize on his best season as a professional. Still, running backs nearing 30 are usually not a hot commodity. Jones will turn 28 in August, but after six years in the league he only has 1,053 attempts.

To lock down a starting job, Benson will need to improve his skills in the passing game. He struggled to learn the blocking scheme as a rookie and caught just one pass. He looked out of place trying to be a receiver out of the backfield in the first mini-camp practice, with several balls thrown his way ending up on the ground.

"He dropped a few like most guys," Smith said. "Bob Hayes, back in the old days, used to drop a few too. We like the progress he's made."

The question is whether or not Benson will make enough progress to earn the trust of the coaching staff. If not, Jones has another bargaining chip as he seeks a big payday.

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