With a dismal 2008 season in their rear view mirror, significant roster changes on both sides of the ball, and upheaval among the coaching and front office staff, the Jacksonville Jaguars somehow enter 2009 with a great deal of optimism about rebounding from a 5-11 season, and doing it quickly.
Whether the team will admit it or not, this is a rebuilding year for the Jags. First year General Manager, Gene Smith, has focused his attention on removing elements from the roster that were potential distractions, problems in the locker room, or simply aging players who were due to be replaced.
The net result is a team that is younger, hopefully more disciplined, and loaded with potential.
When the Jaguars jettisoned James "Shack" Harris after six seasons at the helm of the personnel department and replaced him with long time scout and director of player personnel, Gene Smith, the new tone that was set in the transition had a very familiar ring.
Smith, a Coughlin disciple, shares his aptitude for targeting hard working, quality character guys that are also solid football players. Since taking control, every personnel decision he has made reflects his blue collar work ethic.
Clearly, Smith was not afraid to make difficult decisions. After dumping two high priced free agent acquisitions in Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence, and allowing Reggie Williams, Gerald Sensabaugh, and Mike Peterson to hit the free agent market, he moved to release Paul Spicer and Matt Jones, Smith made the difficult decision to address the running back position.
Rather than pull the easy move of simply releasing the player, out of respect for his iconic status, Gene Smith, Jack Del Rio, and Wayne Weaver flew to Miami to meet directly with Fred Taylor and to lay out their plans.
These did not include Taylor, and he was given a couple of options: retire or be released. When the meeting was concluded, Fred Taylor was given his release and allowed to pursue the continuation of his career elsewhere. It was handled as well as the release of any popular player could have been.
With the slate cleared, Smith began the process of rebuilding a roster that was gutted and cleared of veteran leadership. Rather than race into free agency to grab the glitziest player on the board, Smith waited and looked for quality acquisitions that would benefit the roster. With the holes across the board, the signing of Sean Considine fell right into the category of what to expect from Smith.
The fact that a team is chalked full of potential means very little if the coaching staff is unable to tap into that and turn potential into production. Based on what happened with the Jaguars last year, a lot of untapped potential was left on the sideline.
First round draft picks like Reggie Williams and Matt Jones continued to underachieve.
Jerry Porter, a cast off of the Raiders, was given an eight figure signing bonus to put on the teal only to spend the bulk of his time nursing a hamstring injury and fending off reporters with his usual lack of charm.
Another big ticket free agent, Drayton Florence, failed to keep his starting position and wound up being a rotational player not worthy of the $11 million bonus he received upon inking a deal with the Jaguars.
Aging veteran like Mike Peterson, who felt he was deserving of a contract extension, made his feelings known in the locker room and in the media, creating a conflict with Jack Del Rio.
He had clearly lost a step, and was coming off of two injury shortened seasons. He was benched before the end of the season, and ultimately was left shopping for a new team.
Injuries along the offensive line marred what could have been a magical season for Fred Taylor as he continued his climb up the chart of the all time best. It turned out to be one of his least productive seasons despite the fact that he remained healthy throughout. The Jaguars targeted this as an opportunity to get younger, and Taylor was released to pursue his career with New England.
In total, the Jaguars sent more than ten players packing either by not extending their contracts, release, or via trade. In their place, the Jaguars focused more on the draft to plug holes and less on free agency.
The receiving corps, which was almost completely gutted, got much needed veteran talent with the signing of Torry Holt. Even in a down year, Holt’s stat line matched those of all the other receivers left on the Jaguars roster in total for 2008.
Tra Thomas was signed to plug the hole at left tackle left by the departure of Khalif Barnes, giving the Jaguars veteran leadership on the line.
Sean Considine was brought in to provide insurance at the strong safety position, although it seems more likely that he will ultimately be a special teams contributor.
The Jags were content to use the draft as their vehicle to spark a renaissance.
With their first two draft picks, they feel that they addressed the issues at offensive tackle for the long term. Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton will compete for starting positions in training camp against Tra Thomas and Tony Pashos.
In the third round, the Jaguars shifted from addressing the holes offensively to plugging gaps on the defense.
The Jaguars have struggled to find adequate production from the defensive tackle position for the past few years. Even when Marcus Stroud was on the roster, his production had fallen off significantly due to a lingering ankle injury that ultimately wound up requiring surgery.
Prior to that, his numbers were sliding and the loss of production was having an impact on the defense statistically. Once considered a strength, the run stuffing ability and sheer mass of the Stroud/Henderson tandem was no longer intimidating.
When the team traded Marcus to Buffalo last year, the expectation was that Tony McDaniel would assume that role in rotation with Rob Meier. A year later, McDaniel was traded to Miami and the team was once again left looking for an adequate replacement.
Terrance Knighton is the next great hope to fill that role. The big defensive tackle out of Temple is expected to push for a starting role alongside John Henderson, who has also been struggling of late to generate adequate production.
The Jaguars then made a move to grab a corner back out of William & Mary, Derek Cox. Most pundits panned the trade since they had projected Cox to linger until late on the second day of the draft, or even go undrafted. However, the Jaguars scouting staff felt strongly enough that Cox was worth the risk, and they made the move.
With lofty expectations on him, Cox showed up for mini camp and wowed the critics with his size and athletic ability. The buzz now is that he will more than likely be the starting corner back opposite Rashean Mathis.
The Jaguars shifted the focus back to the offense, selecting two smaller, speedy receivers (Mike Thomas and Jarrett Dillard), showing a complete shift in philosophy from bigger, slow receivers.
Both of these receivers showed promise in the rookie mini camp, and will compete for roster spots at a position where everything is wide open.
The team also grabbed a running back late on day two who could prove to be a major find. Rashad Jennings had an impressive rookie camp, and could win the job as Maurice Jones-Drew’s split back. Jennings certainly looked like a seasoned veteran with his pass catching ability combined with his size and speed.
He has a legitimate shot at making the roster if he continues to play up to the level he established at mini camp.
With the bar being set so low this year for the Jaguars, it would be practically impossible for the team to not live up to expectations. Most national analysts are looking at the Jaguars as an afterthought, almost certainly cellar dwellers in the AFC South.
Based on how 2008 ended, that is understandable.
Because the Jags stayed away from any big splashes in free agency, it is clear that they are rolling the dice on their draft picks to turn things around quickly. After a first glance at this strategy in mini camp, it appears that they will be able to show significant improvement over last season.
With a retooled defense, a new look to the offensive line, and a more disciplined approach across the board, the Jacksonville Jaguars have the potential to be one of those dark horse teams that nobody will notice until late in the season. Their task is a tall one based upon their division competition. Houston and Tennessee have only gotten better, and Indianapolis is always a contender.
For the Jaguars to regain their position among the top tier teams, they will need to get significant production from their rookie class, and it has to happen quickly. If they can find a way to make that happen, a quick turnaround is almost a certainty. When the dust settles, nine or even 10 wins is a possibility.