Rookie CB Derek Cox (pictured) signing autographs for the fans after Friday afternoon's minicamp practice
After a tough season and a long offseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars took the field for their annual minicamp May 1-3 and the new season has officially started.
Just five days after being drafted, the rookie class of 2009 was on the field participating alongside veteran players they have been following for years. Head coach Jack Del Rio scheduled this year’s minicamp as close to the draft as possible this year as he wanted to bring a “shock factor” to the young players.
"They're going to be swimming” Del Rio said in his press conference. “They're going to be challenged, and we really want that this year. Last year I got away from bringing in the rookies right after the draft and I wanted that shock factor. I want these guys to hit Jacksonville and be shocked by me, be shocked by the veteran players that have been here working out.”
Before we get into the camp specifics, I think it is important to put this mini-camp in perspective and take it for what it is, an “underwear practice.”
These are no pads and no contact practices and the players wear only shorts and jerseys. This makes it very difficult to evaluate the Jaguars’ first three draft picks as they are all lineman who are especially challenging to evaluate as nobody is engaging.
The defensive line really has an advantage in these practices and it is noticeable on the field. An offensive lineman’s best friends are his hands and his ability to get up under the defenders pads where they can control their momentum.
With no pads on, the offensive lineman don’t have anything to grab on to and have to just rely on their feet. This all changes when the pads go on.
In front of a daily crowd of about 1,000 faithful Jaguars fans, although they may have been overwhelmed mentally, this rookie class rose to Del Rio’s challenge as if to justify why they were drafted.
The crowd buzz was a little subdued compared to last year, but it was a solid turnout as fans came out to get their first glimpse of the 2009 Jaguars team.
Three things really stood out to me as the players were taking the field. The first was how large this new offensive line is. Rookie OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton along with the free agent signing of veteran OT Tra Thomas make this offensive line look massive which is encouraging after the debacle last year.
Both Mo Williams and Brad Meester are fully recovered from their injuries and were going 100 percent in practice. OG Vince Manuwai’s injury was a little more serious and had major reconstructive surgery on his knee last fall. When I asked how he was progressing he responded with “very good. Running 100 percent straight-line right now and about 70 percent on my cuts...I will be ready by training camp.” This was very encouraging news.
The second thing that really stood out is the size difference between this year’s WR group and last years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as they have clearly decided to go with quicker and more sure handed receivers who can give this offense something after the catch.
Last but not least was QB David Garrard. Last year the roster listed Garrard at 246 lbs but many believe he was more like 260. This year he reported to minicamp at 232 lbs. He looked slim and trim and really seemed more comfortable in the pocket. He seemed like a new person out there and this was as the best I have ever seen Garrard throw this early in the season.
This camp has a little different feel than min-camps in the past. First of all, the practices themselves were longer by about a half hour over last years. They were upbeat and much crisper than in the past.
Also, I saw a lot more teaching going on. The coaches are stopping the drills right in the middle of action to point out formations as well as who is lined up incorrectly. They then put everyone back to where they were before the stoppage and then they start the drill again.
Saturday afternoon’s practice was by far the sharpest of the three. Garrard looked especially sharp and he and Torry Holt connected for three touchdowns. Torry started off slow as he took off on a one-on-one drill when it wasn't his turn and then had to go to the back of the line. On his next trip out in the one-on-ones, he dropped an easy ball.
In the 11 on 11s however he more than made up for it. One of the TDs was on a post corner route and the other two were on deep slant routes. All 3 TDs were about 20 yards. Not only does he run crisp routes, but he just finds the hole in the defense and Garrard was looking his way often.
On defense, I thought LBs Ingram and Durant both looked quick to the ball as did rookie LB No. 55 Johnny Williams. DEs Harvey, Groves, and Hayward all looked quick off the snap and SS Sean Considine really made some nice plays throughout camp as well.
Third round pick Derek Cox stole the show throughout mini-camp though. The rookie CB from William and Mary deflected nearly every pass thrown his way and came away with a nice interception thrown by Cleo Lemon. On Friday, Cox’s guy only caught one ball all day.
On Saturday, Cox looked solid again. He didn't have the kind of night he did on Friday, but he made one especially nice play on a jump ball with rookie WR Tiquan Underwood. They both went up for it and timed their jumps pretty good, but Cox knocked the ball away at the last second. D-Cox got some love on the sideline from veterans Brian Williams and Rashean Mathis for that play.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but Cox looked like the real deal out there. He moves extremely well, shows good footwork, transitions from the back pedal to turn in coverage very nicely, and he's got good instincts for the ball.
He seemed very confident out there and it wouldn’t surprise me at all when it’s all said and done if Cox starts opposite Mathis come week one.
Fellow rookie WR Jarrett Dillard also had a nice camp. He displayed nice hands, catching anything thrown in is direction. On more than one occasion, he made some nice grabs in traffic running crossing routes.
I understand that there’s no contact right now, but the guy doesn’t appear to have any fear about going over the middle to make a play. We’ll see how that translates when the pads go on in July.
There is a long way to go between now and training camp, and there will be a lot of position battles that are going to be interesting to watch develop. None more so than the wide receiver battle that is brewing where the young talent will all be competing for a couple of spots. It should be a fun battle to watch.
Another battle to keep an eye on as training camp progresses is the one at the running-back position. Rookie RB Rashad Jennings is going to make a major push and should overtake Washington’s spot and he might even give Greg Jones a run for that number two spot before all is said and done.
The play of the camp was probably the footrace between Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashean Mathis.
Jones-Drew broke free on a run play and after about 20 yards downfield he slowed down a bit thinking the play was over. What he didn't know is that the veteran Rashean Mathis was still playing. Maurice looked over his shoulder to see No. 27 running full speed towards him and kicked it into fifth gear as they raced step for step for 30 yards. Mathis had an angle but ended up just one step behind as Jones-Drew crossed the goal line. Neither one of them wanted to lose that race.
It was a crowd favorite, but it was also good to see both Maurice and Rashean out there showing the young guys how to finish a play.
Overall, I thought it was a very tight and crisp mini-camp. It was nice to see the guys back at it as they try to put the 5-11 season of misery to rest. There was a clear emphasis on working on the basics and fundamentals which was encouraging.
This is only the first minicamp leading up to OTAs and many things can happen between now and the end of July when training camp begins for the team.
The camp had a nice positive feel to it and leaves us fans with a feeling of optimism. Let’s hope they can carry this momentum into training camp and into the new season.