Can Maurice Jones-Drew Be the Feature Back for the Jacksonville Jaguars?
Identifying the one move that could sink any hope of a speedy turnaround for the Jacksonville Jaguars is a difficult task.
Considering the number of moves that the team has made, both big and small, to fix their roster, pinpointing the precise action that could turn things south for the Jaguars is like finding the needle in a haystack.
Most of the high impact moves that have occurred during the past few months have had a more significant tilt towards offense, and more specifically the skill positions.
With the upgrades associated with the receiving corps being the area that could catapult this team back to winning ways, it is another offensive skill position that could prove to undermine all of the changes that have been made by the team since the end of the 2008 season.
The running backs stand front and center as the unit that has seen significant change. If the offseason decisions fail to get the running game back to the top of the league, the Jaguars will suffer as a whole in 2009.
Jacksonville has gained an identity as one of the better rushing attacks in the entire league. At least that was the case until 2008 when injuries along the offensive line left the running attack stumbling and sputtering for the entire season.
The struggles with the running game put the Jaguars' ball control offense in a state of panic. The Jaguars were incapable of mounting long, clock eating drives that gave the defense a break and wore out the opposition. The lanes were not there, and no matter what was attempted, the running game never really got any positive momentum.
Anchored by Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars had a potent tandem to work with, and for the most part the pair enjoyed a great deal of success over the past few years.
But when the offensive line literally fell apart in front of them, the two backs were never able to regain the step that helped the Jaguars advance to the playoffs in 2007.
The Jaguars were faced with some difficult decisions when the offseason began.
Fred Taylor was 33 years old. When the running game struggled last season, some of it was attributed to the fact that Fred may have finally succumbed to age and the torch had been passed to Maurice Jones-Drew.
Fred had obviously lost a step over the past two seasons, but he was still capable of ripping a big play off occasionally. Was that worth the $5 million cap hit that the team was on the hook for in 2009? A part-time running back with the occasional burst in his arsenal is certainly not worth the coin he was going to be collecting.
The Jaguars decided that it was time to move on, and as a sign of respect to arguably the greatest Jaguar in the short franchise history, general manager Gene Smith, owner Wayne Weaver, and Jack Del Rio flew to Miami to give Taylor his options: retire as a Jaguar or be released.
Fred believed that he still had something left to offer a team, so the latter option was chosen. He has subsequently landed on the New England Patriots roster.
Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, Maurice Jones-Drew was officially given the top dog designation. He got the contract that went with that as well, making him one of the top paid running backs in the NFL.
The expectation is that he will be the feature back in the new offense. This transition started last year, but Drew has still not broken the 1,000-yard threshold in his short career, and he has never been tasked with being the feature back for the team.
How he responds to the new challenge remains to be seen.
Expectations are high for Drew, and he sounds confident in how he will manage the new demands.
It cannot be discounted that getting more touches for Drew should be a priority. His big play capabilities are well documented, but he benefited greatly from rotating with Taylor (as did Fred). The two backs made each other better.
With Fred gone, speculation surrounding who would replace Taylor and fill the backup role started immediately. Most anticipated that Greg Jones, the starting fullback, would secure the backup role and split carries with Drew. It was the logical choice.
Prior to his knee injury in the preseason a few years ago, Jones was on target to actually replace Fred Taylor. The ACL injury derailed those plans. When Jones returned, Maurice Jones-Drew was on the scene, and the Taylor/Drew tandem was racking up impressive statistics.
This left Jones relegated to the fullback role. He got the occasional carry, but he was more focused on creating creases for the high profile backs.
With Taylor gone, Jones was certainly a consideration to assume that role. The team had Montell Owens being groomed to play fullback, so the change would have been relatively painless.
The Jaguars selected Chauncey Washington late in the 2008 draft. Washington was a prospect that had the potential to develop into a legitimate rotation guy with Drew, but his inconsistent play and reported struggles with grasping the more complex NFL playbook have left him underachieving and waiting for his shot.
While he has a shot at earning playing time, he has become more of an afterthought in the position battle. This is partly because of his performance, but also because the Jaguars came upon a gem late in the draft this past April.
When the Jaguars chose a running back out of Liberty in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, most overlooked the pick. But Rashad Jennings had the size, speed, and ball catching ability that should have given him a much higher draft pedigree.
Jennings had been projected as a second through fifth round draft prospect. When he was still on the board when the Jaguars were picking in the seventh round, the team was quietly pleased.
Jennings had already started talking to teams about signing as a rookie free agent on Sunday evening when the call came from the Jaguars. With the 250th pick in the draft, he was a Jacksonville Jaguar.
When he arrived for the first rookie camp, not much thought was given to his participation. That ended very quickly when people got a look at the quality player he actually was.
Smooth in his running style, Jennings quickly caught the attention of all watching the practices with his natural pass catching abilities. If the ball was within his zone, he caught it without any struggles.
He showed surprising burst off the line, getting small as he hit the hole quickly.
His performance in the first mini-camp put Greg Jones and Chauncey Washington on the back burner as this two-time Big South offensive player of the year put on a show for the fans, coaches, media, and, most importantly, his new teammates.
With Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings potentially splitting carries in 2009, the Jaguars may have a chance to regain their swagger with the rushing attack.
Losing Fred Taylor certainly leaves a huge pair of shoes to fill.
If the switch to Maurice Jones-Drew as the face of the franchise and the feature back does not pan out, this decision to shuffle the running back corps could wind up being the single move that sinks the Jaguars' plans in 2009.
The Jaguars want to return to a physical, ball control style of offense where they can grind up the opposition and leave little time for recovery. If the moves made this year do not work out, it will prove to be a devastating blow to the Jaguars.
They can survive if other units of the team do not perform up to expectations, but if they cannot get the running game back on track, this team is destined for another year of looking up at the rest of their division rivals in the AFC South.
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