Jacksonville Jaguars 2009 Preview

July 21, 2009 by

Looking at the Jacksonville Jaguars right now is not unlike walking in on someone who is cleaning up after a major basement flood. It’s a mess. And not the type that makes you say Here, let me help; more the type that makes you say I’ll come back later. Jacksonville’s cleanup efforts, daunting as they may be, are completely necessary.

This was a Super Bowl-hopeful club that stumbled to an ugly 5-11 record last season. Injuries played a huge part––the Jags had an interior offensive line that some high school JV coaches wouldn’t have settled for––but only because this team lacked the character and chemistry to cope with adversity.

Owner Wayne Weaver noticed this and, instead of canning head coach Jack Del Rio, he canned VP of Player Personnel Gene “Shack” Harris. Then he appointed longtime scout Gene Smith to the role of GM and instructed him to can just about everyone else. One of Smith’s first orders of business was saying goodbye to franchise icon Fred Taylor. That move was soon followed with a rally behind Taylor’s understudy, Maurice Jones-Drew. Smith signed the third-year pro to a four-year, $31 million contract, making the explosive bowling ball of a runner one of the five highest paid tailbacks in the game.

The rest of the personnel moves were dedicated to eliminating some of the low-character underachievers who had come to plague this team. This included releasing drug-using former first-round receivers Matt Jones and Reggie Williams, and not re-signing sloppy former second-round left tackle Khalif Barnes or mediocre safety Gerald Sensabaugh. Underachievers with clean police records but personality conflicts like ’08 free agent bust Jerry Porter or veteran linebacker Mike Peterson were also let go. And so were non-achievers like ’08 free agent bust 2.0 Drayton Florence, and grossly-overpaid backup quarterback Cleo Lemon. Consider these moves to be the immediate recovery efforts from the basement flood––pumping out the water and pulling up the carpet, if you will.

The ensuing restoration process commenced with the signing of two former Pro Bowl free agents: left tackle Tra Thomas and wide receiver Torry Holt. Both well-worn mid-30-year-olds were available only because their best years were long behind them. The Jaguars themselves recognized this. On Draft Day they selected two players at Thomas and Holt’s respective positions: offensive tackles Eugene Monroe (first round) and Ebon Britton (second round) and wide receivers Mike Thomas (fourth round) and Jarett Dillard (fifth round).

In a somewhat ominous sign for 2009, these four rookies, along with third-round picks Derek Cox (cornerback) and Terrance Knighton (defensive tackle), all enter training camp with a very legitimate chance at capturing a starting job. Monroe will push Thomas at left tackle. Britton should be able to surpass right tackle Tony Pashos. (Pashos, in turn, could steal staring right guard Maurice Williams’s spot.) The receivers, Thomas and Dillard, are both undersized but speedy, high-leaping, big-play weapons. One of them could capture the No. 2 position across from Holt. Knighton is destined to replace defensive tackle Rob Meier, who was overwhelmed in Marcus Stroud’s old role last year. And Cox, an expensive third-round pick whom some thought, coming out of tiny William & Mary, might actually go undrafted, has a chance to start ahead of cornerback Brian Williams.

Starting job competitions in training camp are like Omega-3 fats: healthy, but only in moderation. A stable NFL team would never have six starting positions available to rookies. Even without the rookies, this Jaguars lineup is in serious flux. On the offensive line, no one knows if guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams can rebound from major ’08 injuries. On the defensive line, only tackle John Henderson’s starting position is set in stone. At linebacker, Justin Durant and Daryl Smith are being shuffled around. And questions abound at cornerback and strong safety.

It all comes down to coaching. Del Rio will fully impress his hardnosed persona on this team. He’s also taking a more active role in the defense––his area of expertise––in hopes of mollifying the confusion that could stem from Mel Tucker being the unit’s third different coordinator in three years. If Del Rio succeeds, he could have this club on the brink of recapturing its playoff status of two years ago. If he fails, he could be fired.

Offense

It’s easy to assume that Jacksonville’s hopes of improvement hinge on better quarterbacking from David Garrard. The eighth-year veteran’s passer rating fell more than 20 points last season, and under his mundane guidance, the offense had just one aerial play over 40 yards. But Garrard isn’t a dynamic quarterback; he’s a caretaker. His game is predicated on calm leadership, protecting possession and moving the chains on third down.

To do this, Garrard must rely on his mobility (which should regain its ’07 form now that his weight has dropped from 250 to 230) and follow through on his vow to be a more vocal leader. Because the Jaguars had Mark Sanchez in for a visit before the draft, skeptics reasoned that the team isn’t happy with its 31-year-old quarterback. But likely Jacksonville’s interest in Sanchez was merely a veiled attempt at generating trade value with the No. 8 overall selection. Garrard, who signed a franchise-record $60 million contract last season, remains this team’s leader.

With journeyman Todd Bouman as the backup, it’s vital that Garrard stay healthy. But perhaps even more vital is the health of Maurice Jones-Drew. The budding star is now the lone ballcarrier in this offense––no small task considering he’s also prominent in the passing game (Jones-Drew led all NFL running backs with 565 yards receiving last year). Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter must be cautious about falling in love with Jones-Drew. The thick 5’7”, 208-pounder has not registered 300 touches in any of his first three seasons.

Amplifying Koetter’s temptation to overwork Jones-Drew is the absence of an enticing ancillary ballcarrier. Second-year pro Chauncey Washington is unproven. Veteran Alvin Pearman might not be better than seventh-round rookie Rashad Jennings, and fullback Greg Jones is fairly powerful but not elusive.

But a lack of backfield depth shouldn’t scare a now-jaded Koetter––not after the horrors he witnessed with a makeshift O-line last season. Injuries to starting guards Vince Manuwai (ACL) and Maurice Williams (biceps) ruined this team in ’08. Now, both veterans are back. Of the two, Manuwai’s return is most arduous. If the 29-year-old can’t immediately regain his powerful (though not super powerful) form, then right tackle Tony Pashos could move inside. Pashos, who has trouble sustaining his balance in space, needs to relocate anyway. Plus, his craftiness as a run-blocker would shine more next to shrewd, gritty veteran center Brad Meester.

Expect this change to occur at some point; the Jaguars are eager to get Eben Britton in the lineup. Upon being drafted in Round Two, the disciplined 310-pounder declared that he will one day “be the greatest offensive tackle to ever play the game.” (The Jaguars PR department promptly told him to pipe down.) Britton will be a bookend to No. 8 overall pick Eugene Monroe, an athletic left tackle who could bring far more mobility to the ground game than admirable yet creaky 12th-year veteran Tra Thomas. Regardless of who starts, Jacksonville should get sound protection on Garrard’s blindside.

With an improved offensive line, Koetter can elevate rising fourth-year tight end Marcedes Lewis. The former first-round pick has made great use of his long 6’6”, 275-pound frame as a run-blocker, but he’s capable of increasing his ’08 receiving numbers (41 catches, 489 yards) by at least 50 percent.

The Jags need him to. Even if Torry Holt beats the odds and recaptures his ability to separate from defenders, this will still be an iffy receiver corps. Butterfingered Troy Williamson will not keep a starting job. Third-year pro Mike Walker is athletic and shore-handed, but he missed all of ’07 recovering from a devastating left knee injury and half of ’08 with issues in the right knee. Rookies Mike Thomas and Jarett Dillard were both prolific in college (At Arizona, Thomas set the Pac-10 receptions record with 259, while Dillard’s 60 receiving touchdowns at Rice bested Troy Edwards’s previous NCAA record by 10). Both are fast and explosive but also more equipped for the slot.

Defense

The Jaguars know that if they can’t rush the passer, they’re liable to once again lead the league in plays of 40 yards or more allowed (they gave up 17 in ’08). They actually grasped the significance of a potent pass-rush prior to last season when they drafted Derrick Harvey in Round One and Quentin Groves in Round Two. But neither has been impressive thus far. Harvey’s habit of attacking wide and opening his hips makes him easy to pass-block. Groves’s troubles with staying above 250 pounds makes him vulnerable in the phone booth. Many believe that Groves’s speed and almost freakish fluidity would be better suited at outside linebacker. The Jags disagree and have instead asked new strength and conditioning director––the renowned Luke Richesson––to help Groves bulk up to 270.

Groves may still get an opportunity to stand up when defensive coordinator Mel Tucker refers to 3-4 sets in nickel. There have even been fleeting whispers about the Jaguars adopting this look fulltime. Rapacious 335-pound John Henderson would make a fine nose tackle, and 317-pound rookie defensive tackle Terrance Knighton might be tough for blockers to move along the edges. But the rest of the current front line personnel would be ill-fitting in a 3-4. Veteran defensive end Reggie Hayward is too finesse. Defensive tackles Rob Meier and Derek Landri, while both strong enough to hold ground, are better as energetic one-gap shooters. That said, don’t be surprised if this defense gradually starts morphing into a 3-4 as the season unfolds. Groves and third-year pass-rushing specialist Jeremy Mincey are both prototypical outside linebackers.

The release of versatile Mike Peterson obliterated Jacksonville’s once-plentiful linebacking depth. Starters Justin Durant, Daryl Smith and Clint Ingram are now backed up by no-names like Thomas Williams, Brian Iwuh and Tim Shaw. However, the starters are all familiar with playing multiple positions, so as long as they stay healthy, everything will be fine. Smith and Ingram, solid in their early years, have wound up plateauing in their prime. That’s okay––they’re still good. Smith is a fine tackler with sharp diagnostic skills; Ingram offers more pop, though not as frequently. Jacksonville is expected to start these two on the outside in an effort to maximize the star potential of Durant. The ’07 second-round pick from Hampton has outstanding speed and uncanny instincts. Coaches must continue to help groom his delicate maturation.

It was originally thought that first-round safety Reggie Nelson would be the star of Jacksonville’s ’07 draft class. Right now, Nelson can be considered a reliable though somewhat mild-hitting run defender. The Jaguars need their centerfielder to be a ballhawk, but Nelson plays at a fairly middling speed and might never develop top-notch range.

The plan was once for Brian Williams to man the free safety position. However, the Jags simply don’t have another cornerback capable of surviving at the spot opposite gambling guru Rashean Mathis. Perhaps third-round rookie Derek Cox can change that, though he’ll be transitioning to the NFL from tiny Williams & Mary. Williams staying at corner relegates Nelson to free safety, which means ex-Eagle Sean Considine, a fine-tackling career backup, will start at strong safety. The depth behind Considine is suspect. Gerald Alexander, recently a second-round pick of Detroit, is coming back from a serious neck injury. He’s not physical enough to play in the box anyway. Veteran Marlon McCree is a familiar face but was out of football last year.

Special Teams

Kicker Josh Scobee, like the rest of this team, had a down year in ’08. He was just 12/18 from 30 yards and beyond. He’s good enough to warrant a second chance, though. Punter Steve Weatherford did a nice job filling in for an injured Adam Podlesh last December and now has an outside opportunity at permanently unseating the ’07 fourth-round pick. Cornerback Brian Witherspoon handles all returns. He’s not dynamic like, say, a Maurice Jones-Drew, but he’s serviceable enough to allow the superstar running back to focus strictly on offense.

Bottom Line

There’s a frightening amount of uncertainty with this personnel, especially considering this is a team that hasn’t handled job competitions all that well in the past. More alarming is the lack of depth on both sides of the ball. The Jaguars will be golden if they get positive returns from their last two draft classes. But that’s a tall order––especially given that the tea is overly reliant on those young players.

Predicted finish: 4th AFC South

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