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Jones to add fuel to Jets

Running back ready to take off

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - For nearly a month, a strained right calf has kept the Jets' most significant offseason pickup on ice.

But in a twist of perfect timing, running back Thomas Jones, originally injured Aug. 12, practiced Monday and is on track to play Sunday against the Patriots.

Jones will be running against - and he and his team hope through - a defense that's been jolted by the sudden losses of Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison.

"This is opening day," said Jets wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, his rising voice hinting at his itchiness to hit the field. "If you can't get amped up for opening day, you're in the wrong league."

In 2006, Eric Mangini, like most rookie head coaches, went through his share of sunny and gloomy days. Among the positives: a 10-win season that included six victories on the road, although the Jets lost at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs to the Patriots, 37-16.

The most glaring negative: a sputtering running attack that racked up only 108.6 yards per game, 20th in the NFL. Jets runners averaged only 3.5 yards per rush, a lowly number that bested only those of Baltimore and Arizona.

So on March 6, the Jets acquired Jones, 29, and the 63d selection of the 2007 draft from Chicago for their 37th pick, then signed the running back to a four-year deal. Then in the sixth round of the draft, New York picked 6-foot-6-inch, 316-pound widebody Jacob Bender, a run-blocking rookie who projects to be the club's starting left guard.

Jones, a ninth-year veteran, rushed for a total of 2,545 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Bears the last two seasons.

"He has a lot of different things that he does well, not just on first and second down but on third down," Mangini said. "He's able to make people miss. He's able to get tough yards. All those things are excellent."

The addition of Jones should complement New York's air attack. Last season, quarterback Chad Pennington had the third-busiest 1-2 receiving corps, as Cotchery and Laveranues Coles combined for 173 receptions, trailing only Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson (187) and Indianapolis's Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (181).

Although Jones appears to be on schedule to play against the Patriots, one concern is the lack of practice with his teammates. Mangini emphasized the importance of regular reps, but noted that established players like Jones, who's on his fourth NFL team, are usually in better position than youngsters to deal with shortened practice time.

"The one thing that's different is when you have a veteran player who's been exposed to multiple systems," said Mangini. "Their experience and the things they can draw on going into a game without that level of practice is much better than, say, if you had a young guy in the same situation - a high draft pick running back who had been out of camp. That, to me, is a little bit different."

While Jones represents the organization's biggest on-field upgrade, the Jets have been busy with behind-the-scenes machinations as well. One of the most pointed criticisms of Mangini's first year was that the ex-New England assistant ran roughshod over the Jets by being too hard-line, running challenging practices, and declining to bend to player requests.

Mangini disputed that claim Monday, when a reporter said his head coaching career has been described as a benign dictatorship. Bill Belichick's former lieutenant made a face and kidded that he felt he was back in a political science class, then noted that his door has always been open to his players.

"I think I've had multiple meetings and individual meetings with players when issues have come up, whether it be personal issues or team-related issues," Mangini said. "The one thing I feel very strongly about is always doing what's right and what's going to help the team. If somebody has information they think could help the team, I'm completely open to those ideas."

One of the few Jets in the team's L-shaped locker room at Hofstra University who dared to challenge Mangini last year was Coles, the outspoken receiver.

This year, Coles's words could carry even more weight, as his teammates voted him one of the team's six captains. Coles and the five other captains will meet with Mangini once a week, an opportunity to air any frustrations the players might have.

At least publicly, Mangini welcomed Coles's captaincy, noting that he appreciates straight-shooting players who say what they feel. But while "communication" will be a buzzword in Mangini's second season, Coles and the Jets still will know who is boss.

"It is what it is," said Coles, echoing an oft-heard phrase in Foxborough. "He's my head coach."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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