Jacksonville Jaguars 2010 Preview
Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is. Apathy is the last emotion you want to evoke in others. If you evoke hate, at least people care enough to feel something. When you evoke apathy, you basically don’t exist.
Enter the Jacksonville Jaguars. If you’re still reading this, you’re more interested in the Jaguars than the common NFL fan. No team in pro football evokes more apathy than Wayne Weaver’s club. How does a team get to this point?
A big part of the Jaguars’ problem, obviously, has been poor attendance. Duval County, a college football hotbed, is lukewarm about the pro game. Factor in an economic downturn that rocked Northeast Florida as hard as any area in the nation (unemployment hovering around 13 percent) and you get losses of 17,000 season ticket holders in ’09 and weekly television blackouts. This past offseason, another 6,000 fans chose not to renew their Jaguar season tickets. In short, the organization’s days in Jacksonville could be numbered.
But let’s focus on between-the-sideline factors. In football, you don’t evoke apathy through repeated failure. The Detroit Lions might not have many fans these days, but few people are apathetic towards the team. The Lions have been so bad that they’ve become interesting. The Raiders are the same way, to an extent. Apathy might be the worst scenario for an NFL franchise, but it’s not achieved by being the worst NFL franchise. Rather, it’s achieved by being resoundingly mediocre.
Despite playoff appearances in ’05 and ’07, the Jaguars – who are 57-55 in Jack Del Rio’s seven years as head coach – have perfected the art of mediocrity. Quarterback David Garrard was given a $60 million contract – richest in team history – after upsetting the Steelers in the ’07 Wild Card Round. Since then, Garrard has posted passer ratings of 81.7 and 83.5. He’s been prone to turnovers when asked to do more than simply manage a ball-control offense. Though his character is fine, the front office has subtly questioned Garrard’s desire and leadership. (It’s never a good sign when entire articles are written about how the quarterback is trying to become more of a “vocal leader” at age 32.)
Garrard’s mediocrity is reflective of this entire offense. Coordinator Dirk Koetter has had his hands tied by a front five that was ransacked by injuries in ’08 and limited by the learning curve of two rookie tackles (Eugene Monroe and Ebon Britton) in ’09. The dearth of experience and talent at wide receiver hasn’t helped anything either.
Defensively, Jacksonville is just now finding its identity. Last season, Del Rio essentially relegated coordinator Mel Tucker to defensive backs coach and took a very hands-on approach. But Del Rio vacillated between putting his ho-hum front seven personnel in a 3-4 or 4-3. By season’s end, the Jags were running some of the most simplistic zone coverages the sport has to offer and failing to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks (their 14 sacks were the fifth fewest in NFL history). It was a formula ripe for failure and, in that sense, it succeeded.
Of course, this is the NFL, where drastic change is commonplace. Though Jacksonville’s two biggest problems – ticket sales and Garrard – have not been fixed, there’s still reason to hope in 2010. Koetter, somewhat of a passing game wizard, has been told to open up the offense. Powerful assistant coaches and Del Rio-cronies Mike Tice (tight ends) and Kennedy Pola (running backs) are now gone, leaving Koetter more freedom to run his show. Even with a more aggressive aerial approach, that show will star Maurice Jones-Drew, a Top Five running back who rushed for 1,391 yards in his first season as the featured weapon last year. The hope is that Jones-Drew isn’t a lone fighter now that the young offensive tackles and receivers have a year under their belt.
Defensively, Del Rio has settled on a one-gap attacking 4-3 system. Committing to that system, Jaguars GM Gene Smith shook up the front seven personnel. Non-achieving defensive end Quentin Groves was replaced by former Packer Aaron Kampman. Defensive tackle John Henderson was released after Smith used the 10th pick in the draft on Tyson Alualu. The linebacking corps has been restructured, with ex-Raider Kirk Morrison taking over the middle and athletic Justin Durant sliding to Clint Ingram’s vacated spot. (Ingram was released.)
Are these changes significant enough to alter this team’s fortune and save its future in Jacksonville? Let’s find out. (That is, if you even care.)
These days, it’s nearly impossible to win with a caretaker quarterback. But, that’s what the Jaguars will have to do. David Garrard is not built to carry a team. He is only effective operating within basic quarterbacking boundaries. Tell him to drop back and make two or three reads against a standard defensive front in a standard down-and-distance situation, and he’ll do so with picturesque form. But tell him to audible against a disguised coverage and then improvise when a blitzer comes clean, and watch a disaster unfold.
Despite Garrard’s limitations – which include accuracy under duress and, to a degree, arm strength – there is little chance that athletic backup Luke McCown will challenge for the starting job. McCown himself has said as much.
The Jaguars will be relying heavily on Maurice Jones-Drew, and not just in the run game. Not only is the fifth-year pro a bowling ball of a runner with breakaway speed, he’s the best pass-blocking back in football. Jones-Drew is also a good enough receiver to run routes out of the backfield and make catches on the move (53 receptions last season).
It won’t be easy for Dirk Koetter to resist the urge to lean too heavily on Jones-Drew. Backup running back Rashad Jennings is too methodical with the ball in his hands. Sixth-round rookie Deji Karim has potential as a third-down back, but again, that’s where Jones-Drew excels the most. The Jags should consider giving more carries to fullback Greg Jones. Before knee problems ruffled his career, Jones was a power-running tailback.
The entire offense will benefit from the inevitable improvements along the front line. Left tackle Eugene Monroe became more assertive as his rookie season wore on. He has basically all the tools; his key will be consistently maintaining technique while playing with aggression. Second-year right tackle Ebon Britton is in a similar boat, though his challenge isn’t to play with aggression as much as polish his footwork and mechanics.
Even with the youthful tackles, this line’s greatest improvements need to occur inside. Veteran center Brad Meester is washed up and should be replaced. Guard Uche Nwaneri is terrible in space, but he’s the only logical replacement at center. Nwaneri may be needed at right guard, though, given that Vince Manuwai hasn’t looked the same since his ’08 knee injury. Manuwai was the left guard in ’09, but that job will go to Justin Smiley, one of the best pull-blockers in football. Because Smiley has battled ongoing shoulder problems, Jacksonville was able to obtain him for only a seventh-round pick. If Smiley is unable to contribute, expect journeyman Kynan Forney to get a look.
Tight end Marcedes Lewis is also a meaningful part of the run-blocking efforts. Lewis has a great frame and is good for 35 or 40 catches. A substantial bulk of the catches this year will be made by receiver Mike Sims-Walker. Think of the fourth-year pro as a slightly smaller version of Brandon Marshall. Sims-Walker is a terrific route runner – particularly inside the numbers – and he has the outstanding hands and supple athleticism required to make acrobatic catches.
Consistency was an issue for Sims-Walker last season, in large part because of the players around him. Losing Torry Holt as the No. 2 receiver won’t help stabilize things. The Jags hope speedy second-year target Mike Thomas will step up, but the stocky 5’8”, 198-pounder might be better suited for the slot. Problem is, the other options are dicey. Veteran Troy Williamson is fast but unreliable. Newcomer Kassim Osgood is well-sized but has spent most of his eight NFL years on special teams. Last year’s fifth-round pick Jarrett Dillard only caught six passes before breaking his leg/ankle in November.
The Jaguars are desperate to get pressure on the quarterback in 2010. They were desperate two years ago, as well, when they traded up in the first-round to draft Derrick Harvey eighth overall, then traded up six spots in the second round to get Quentin Groves. Those two combined for eight sacks in two seasons. Groves played with no intelligence and got traded. Harvey is still here, clinging to a starting job. He knows there’s a reason Gene Smith recently drafted two defensive ends – Austen Lane and Larry Hart – in the fifth round.
But for the first time in his career, Harvey is playing in a fitting left defensive end role, where he’ll be able to focus on his strength: stopping the run. Harvey doesn’t have the quickness or fluid hips to rush the passer, which is why the Jags invested $26 million in Aaron Kampman ($11 million up front). Kampman won’t cash his checks and relax like Hugh Douglas did after signing with this team for big money a few years ago, but coming off November ACL surgery, there’s no guarantee he’ll reclaim his dominant form.
The Jags have already experienced the agony of seeing an expensive free agent defensive end battle injury – that’s been the story of Reggie Hayward’s tenure here. Hayward missed the ’06 season with a torn Achilles and the ’09 season with a stress fracture in his fibula. After unsuccessfully testing free agency, the 31-year-old re-signed for one year, $850,000.
With these ends, it’s vital that the Jaguars generate pressure inside. Because second-year defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is a two-gap plugger, the pass-rushing onus falls on first-round rookie Tyson Alualu. Alualu was a definite reach at No. 10 overall, but scouts thought his speed and nastiness fit the system. Third-round pick D’Anthony Smith is also expected to be a good fit and should see plenty of snaps right away. Also, don’t discount Atiyyah Ellison; like Knighton, he is a clogger who gets off blocks well.
There is a belief that middle linebacker Kirk Morrison will fix the linebacking corps. Wrong. Morrison was available for trade (Jags got him for a fourth-rounder) because he spearheaded a Raider run defense that ranked near the very bottom of the league five straight years. Jacksonville will soon learn that he lacks instincts and lateral range.
With Morrison inside, athletic Justin Durant moves outside where, coaches hope, he’ll be a more consistent tackler. Durant has star potential, but maturity has been a concern. Outside linebacker Daryl Smith is popular because he’s versatile and reliable. However, Smith isn’t Jacksonville’s best linebacker; Russell Allen is. That’s right, Russell Allen – the ’09 undrafted rookie from San Diego State. Allen exhibits a sixth sense for the ball and has surprising athleticism as a downhill attacker. If the Jaguar coaches have any guts, they’ll insert him into the starting lineup.
Last season, coaches had the guts to bench former first-round free safety Reggie Nelson for the final two games. Nelson has not responded well to demands for versatility (he’s been asked to play centerfield, in the box and at slot corner). The only reason he’s getting one more “make or break” season is because the front office did not feel comfortable signing free agent Darren Sharper.
If Nelson gets benched, strong safety Gerald Alexander would likely slide to centerfield, where he’s probably more effective anyway. Sean Considine would man the box, with coordinator Mel Tucker praying that offenses don’t attack him through the air. In fact, Considine might be too much of a liability in coverage; perhaps ex-Steeler Anthony Smith, a dime back, would get a look.
At corner, Rashean Mathis is barking for a new contract. But the physical eighth-year playmaker must prove he can stay healthy. (Mathis missed six games last season and a total of six games in ’07-’08.) Second-year corner Derek Cox is very natural but not yet unyielding. Nickelback Tyron Brackenridge plays with fire, but there’s a reason coaches asked Nelson defend the slot last season.
After missing 10 field goals in 2009, the generally-reliable Josh Scobee spent the offseason in Scottsdale working with famed kicking guru Gary Zauner. To be fair, five of Scobee’s misses were from 50-yards out. Adam Podlesh averaged only 41.9 yards per punt last season, but the Jags had the top cover unit in the game (4.2 yards per return). Maurice Jones-Drew is dangerous in the return game but too valuable to use regularly. Thus, Mike Thomas will likely get plenty of work there.
The Jaguars should be better than a year ago simply because so many important offensive rookies have become second-year players, and because the defense now has an identity up front. But there are still holes on this roster, most alarmingly, at quarterback.
Predicted: 4th AFC South
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