Competition Heats Up in Trenches

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Competition Heats Up in Trenches
(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

I always get a kick out of players who shy away from competition.

Whether it's on the collegiate level (Robert Marve leaving Miami because he couldn't win the job against Jacory Harris) or the NFL (Jason Campbell threatening to demand a trade if Washington drafted a QB), these athletes don't understand that healthy competition is important to the success of any football team. Without the fear that a guy could lose his spot if he doesn't step it up in practice every day, players get fat and happy and lazy and it generally makes for a sub-par team.

That's at least one thing the Jaguars don't have to worry about in 2009. With the moves made in free agency and the draft, Coach Jack Del Rio will have no shortage of intriguing position battles to consider. I believe the best (and most important) battles will be on the offensive and defensive lines.

Offensive line

It's going to be really interesting to see how the rookies impact the competition up front on offense. Assuming that Brad Meester has the center position locked up, there could be a whole lot of shuffling going on in the trenches.

You would think that Tra Thomas would play left tackle in the fall. The three-time pro bowler, and native of DeLand, had protected Donovan McNabb's blind side for a decade and did it well.

At the same time, Thomas is 34 years old. While O-linemen can have a long NFL shelf life, he's already played a lot of football. During his time in Philly, he started 166 games at left tackle. You have to wonder how long he has before his body starts breaking down.

With rookies Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton in the fold, Jacksonville picked up two OTs that could very well anchor its offensive line for the next 10 years. The question is, will they get a chance to show their stuff this year? I would think that Monroe is probably the second best tackle on the roster, behind Thomas. But Monroe's strength is pass blocking, which makes him a natural choice at LT. At this stage of his career, however, I don't think he can beat out a guy like Tra Thomas.

Tony Pashos could be the catalyst for a revamped offensive line that could get some of its mean-streak mojo back. Pashos is a mauler. He did very well run blocking in 2008. But his pass protection definitely left something to be desired. If the coaches moved him inside to guard, you could have an O-line of Thomas-Manuwai-Meester-Pashos-Monroe. It would be nice to upgrade the center position, but I would take that line in a heartbeat. And who knows how Maurice Williams fits into the mix? We'll see what transpires, but something tells me the rookies won't have to wait long to get on the field.

Defensive tackle

I've written before about the gaping void Marcus Stroud left when he went up to Buffalo. The Jaguars were banking on the fact that Stroud had suffered to many injuries to make him worth bringing back. As he proved with the Bills, that was definitely not the case.

It's common knowledge that Stroud and Henderson (insert shameless SEC plug here) were the most formidable DT tandem in the NFL. They controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed the linebackers to flow to the ball and make plays.

Without Stroud, the defense – especially Henderson – struggled to find an identity. If Jacksonville wants to return to its old school, hard-nosed defense, the team must find a stout DT to line up with Henderson.

A quick look at the Jaguars' roster can't give fans a lot of confidence. Rob Meier and Derek Landri, while capable backups, shouldn't be getting the bulk of the playing time. After those two, the picture gets pretty grim. Don't be shocked if Terrance Knighton, the rookie out of Temple, finishes the season as Henderson's right-hand man.

I recently saw some tape of this kid and came away pretty impressed. He showed off a relentless motor, chasing down backs from more than 10 yards away. He also demonstrated a high football IQ. The play that really stands out to me is one where the offense was running a screen pass. Knighton got up field, recognized what was going on and put himself in position to break up the pass. If you have a player with great instincts, you're already ahead of the game. I'm not saying he's the long-term solution, but don't sleep on the kid.

Two other units to keep an eye on are the receiving corps and the secondary. Will the rookies push the veterans? Is this the year Mike Walker breaks out? Has Dennis Northcutt made his way out of Del Rio's doghouse? Will Troy Williamson do anything worth mentioning?

As far as the secondary goes, things would seem to be pretty set with Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams at corner and Reggie Nelson and free-agent signing Sean Considine playing free safety and strong safety, respectively. However, Williams has moved back and forth between safety and corner. If rookie Derek Cox comes on strong, maybe Williams will move again.

Also (and it pains me to say this, but), Reggie Nelson has to figure out what's going on out there. After a solid rookie season, there was way too many times that Nelson just looked lost. I question his ability to play corner if he couldn't figure out the safety spot. He played a little CB at Florida before Urban Meyer moved him back, and I think "The Eraser" is athletic enough to make the switch if necessary.

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