History will remember the NFL draft class of 2000 for two things: (a) it offered perhaps the greatest draft value of all-time in sixth-round steal Tom Brady and (b) it was largely filled with players who failed to reach their full potential. Of the top four picks, only Washington OT Chris Samuel had a lasting NFL career; the other three names (Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington and Peter Warrick) regularly appear on all-time draft bust lists.
It also can be said that the 2000 draft class was one of the few from the past two decades to be well-stocked at the running back position. Five backs were selected in Round One, four of them among the top 20 picks. There was a time when Thomas Jones would have been considered the biggest bust of that group — maybe of the class.
The University of Virginia product gained a little more than 1,200 rushing yards during his three-year stint in Arizona (with just nine touchdowns) and though his yards-per-carry average took a jump (4.6) while in Tampa Bay during his fourth NFL season, Jones' end-of-year statistics didn't jump off the page.
By the age of 26, Jones was an NFL journeyman with no future.
But during his three years in Chicago, and three more running the ball for the Jets, Jones has been one of the best backs in the league. He has gained 1,221 yards per season during those six seasons, and over the past two seasons combined he has scored 27 rushing touchdowns, proving life after 30 doesn't have to be so bad for an NFL running back.
Looking at the five first-round running backs from that 2000 class, an argument could be made that Jones' career tops the rest of his peers:
• Jamal Lewis, No. 5, Baltimore Ravens — Lewis has gained 1,000 yards in seven of nine NFL seasons (he missed 2001), and fans know him as one of only six backs ever to gain 2,000 yards in a single season. Yet when one removes that brilliant 2003 campaign Lewis' career numbers aren't nearly as impressive, and it must be noted that he averaged 3.6 yards or less in four of his last five years.
• Ron Dayne, No. 11, New York Giants — The NCAA's all-time leading rusher was solid in his first two seasons in New York, but the emergence of Tiki Barber pushed Dayne out of town. He had a few high points during trips to Denver and Houston but failed to keep a starting job.
• Shaun Alexander, No. 19, Seattle Seahawks — Few NFL backs were better than Alexander from 2001-05 when he averaged 1,500 yards per season. Like Lewis, Alexander had a banner year (27 touchdowns, 1,880 yards rushing in 2005) but he faded as fast as any back ever has and was unwanted by the age of 31. Alexander benefited from having two premier linemen (Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson) blocking for him during that marvelous five-year run. Is it a coincidence that Alexander fell off in 2006 when Hutchinson bolted for Minnesota?
• Trung Canidate, No. 31, St. Louis Rams — Life is no picnic when you're Marshall Faulk's backup. Canidate showed promise in his second season (5.7 yards per carry, 195 yards in a game against the Jets) but was out of a job after the 2003 season at age 26.
Now consider Jones, the No. 7 selection, who last season (at the age of 31) finished second in the NFL in attempts and third in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. In terms of career numbers, Jones is only 236 yards behind Alexander on the all-time rushing list and 1,390 yards behind Lewis. Should Jones play two more seasons and gain 1,000 or more yards in both, he'll finish his career among the top 20 rushers of all time, ahead of such players as O.J. Simpson, Eddie George, Earl Campbell and every one of his 2000 RB draft mates.
Jones was the lone bright spot for Chicago on offense in Super Bowl XLI and was the Jets' leading weapon en route to their 2009 AFC championship game berth. Yet for all he has accomplished, Jones has made just one Pro Bowl roster and little has been written of his success.
His second act is one of the finest comeback stories in NFL history. Think, how many skill guys can you name who transformed themselves from bust to one of the NFL's best after the age of 26? How many backs can you think of who have aged as well as Jones? In each case, the list is short.
Jones was pushed out of Arizona in favor of Marcel Shipp. The presence of Michael Pittman in Tampa Bay made it easy for Jones to search for a new suitor. And in Chicago, the culprit was Cedric Benson. None of those players stuck long after Jones was cut loose, but Jones has endured. He has proven to be one of the NFL's great fighters, overcoming obstacle after obstacle.
On the cusp of turning 32, and coming off of a season in which he slowed down in December and January, there are those ready to doubt Jones again. And, of course, the talk is that another young back (Shonn Greene) is going to push him out of the Big Apple.
Still, I can't imagine Jones is too concerned. The gem of that 2000 first-round RB class has been left for dead before, only to find new life somewhere else.
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