When David Garrard surveys the field in 2009, there will not be many familiar faces in teal looking back at him from the secondary. Other than Dennis Northcutt and Mike Walker, the Jaguars receiving corps has been completely rebuilt for 2009.
It is a good thing.
A critical missing piece for the Jacksonville Jaguars in recent years has been the lack of a vertical passing attack. Since his arrival in Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio has scoured the ranks to find the magic fairy dust he could sprinkle on an historically pedestrian unit to make them a more potent weapon in the offensive attack.
The Jaguars have traditionally been a very good running team during Del Rio's tenure, ranking near the top of the league in key statistical categories for five of the past six seasons.
Where they have been less successful is in the passing game. Whether it is an issue with the quarterback, or with injuries along the offensive line, for some reason the Jaguars have simply been unable to get any real traction with their passing attack.
They have had the occasional flash, but for the most part the lack of consistency in stretching the field with a vertical attack has given opposing defenses ample opportunity to load up the box and come after the quarterback. Without any fear of repercussion, this strategy has been an effective tool in slowing down the Jaguars offense, and a stumbling block in allowing the team to get to the next level.
So, entering 2009 we see the latest iteration in the long-standing effort to build a receiving corps that could finally break the dry spell for the team.
Will this finally be the year where they get it right?
For a team desperately looking for the right combination of players to make this work, rebuilding a unit around a 33-year-old veteran would normally seem like a bad approach. However, when that veteran is a future Hall of Fame receiver, and you have a unit loaded with young talent, it might just be the right approach for this team.
Torry Holt arrives on the scene in Jacksonville as the latest player hoped to be the guy that can turn things around for the receiving corps. With his impressive track record and his professionalism on the field, the goal is to use him not only to produce on the field, but also to serve as a mentor to the younger players that are fighting for roster spots, and for playing time.
For now, there does not appear to be a challenge to his status as the No. 1 receiver. This is especially true when looking at his statistics last season. In a down year, Holt's individual stats are practically identical to the entire receiving corps currently on the roster for the Jaguars. The hope is that Holt will be able to rebound and validate his status as the go-to guy in this offense, and in the process the younger receivers should learn and develop as a group.
Lining up on the opposite side of the field, for now, is Mike Walker.
Walker has yet to find any real statistical success at the NFL level. He has had one solid performance in his three year career, putting up more than 100 yards of receiving against Pittsburgh in 2008. Walker came into the league with high expectations that were tempered because of health issues.
For the first two seasons, he was struggling with the knee injury that slowed him in college. In 2008, he appeared to be poised to have a big season. He was healthy, and ready to get back to the business of making plays. However, the combination of minor injuries, and personal tragedy that served as a major distraction derailed his hopes of taking the next step.
With 2009 now in focus, Walker seems prepared for the challenge. In a recent press conference, Walker spoke highly of having Torry Holt on the field to serve as a mentor. From his perspective, he said that Holt has already helped him to improve his stance at the line, and how he comes out of his breaks during his routes.
Walker also said that his goal this year was to avoid injuries and to achieve success. He is spending extra time in the weight room working with the new training staff. He feels confident that by making his body stronger, it will allow him to avoid some of the nagging injuries that have undermined his progress over the past three seasons.
He understands that consistency is the key to reaching the next level among NFL receivers. Walker has always shown that he has the talent, whether it is route running, hands, or speed. He possesses all of the tools required to be a success at the professional level. He has simply been unable to put it all together up to this point, but with a renewed sense of energy, he seems prepared to make the necessary changes in his approach to become a regular contributor for the Jaguars.
While the two starting receiver positions appear to be a lock barring any surprises, the focus shifts to the rest of the guys vying for spots on the roster.
There is a crowded field trying to win the slot position.
Based solely on experience and production, Dennis Northcutt currently holds the edge. This is obviously not set in stone, but he was one of the more reliable outlets that David Garrard targeted last season, and he is the only receiver that has a significant body of work here in Jacksonville.
He will certainly be pushed by the younger receivers that were brought in during an active offseason, but Northcutt seems to hold all of the cards for now. He has had a solid spring preparing for the upcoming season.
The wild cards in how quickly the receiving corps will fare in 2009 are the rookies. All three players represent a transition from the big, tall, lumbering receivers which became the trademark for drafts over the past six seasons.
While they are definitely smaller in stature, they bring a different dimension to the roster from what was seen previously.
Let's take a look.
The Jaguars took Mike Thomas in the fourth round of the draft this year. A lot of questions surrounded the selection based on his 5'8" height, but nobody questioned his ability. His 259 receptions at Arizona set the Pac-10 all time conference record.
Because of his size, he will most likely challenge Dennis Northcutt for receptions out of the slot position. If he thrives in that role in the preseason, he could push the more costly Northcutt out the door before the end of training camp. He lacks the top end speed to be a legitimate threat outside, but he does have the ability to exploit soft coverage in the middle of the field.
How Thomas responds to the challenge of putting on the pads and dealing with contact remains to be seen. That will go a long way in determining the fate of the veteran, Northcutt.
Another receiver that will be competing for time in the slot is Jarett Dillard. The fifth round pick out of Rice is the first Owl All-American in half a century and a consensus pick for conference honors in Conference USA for three consecutive years.
Dillard has outstanding hands and ball skills, and runs precision routes that allow him to maneuver in traffic.
He proved to be one of the most productive receivers in NCAA history, setting the standard for touchdown receptions (60) and finishing his collegiate career ninth overall for receiving yardage (4,138 yards).
Having a nose for the end zone will go a long way in securing his spot with the team if he proves to be able to continue that trend at the NFL level. The preseason will be a real test of his ability to transition his game for the next level.
The Jaguars grabbed their final receiver in the draft when they spent one of their seventh round picks on Tiquan Underwood.
In most cases, he would be considered Mr. Irrelevant to the Jaguars. However, the one asset that he brings to the table that the other additions do not is pure speed. It could give him a viable shot at a roster position as one of the fastest players in the NFL draft this year.
His speed was readily apparent in the rookie camp in May as he ran right through the secondary on more than one occasion. The concern is that he could wind up being a similar type player to another former Jaguar who had world class speed, Alvis Whitted. As fast as Whitted was, catching the ball was always the problem here in Jacksonville. He simply could not hang on to a football.
His most likely path to the NFL will be via the special team route as a kickoff return specialist or gunner on punts.
He seems like a project based on scouting reports that have listed him as a long strider lacking any suddenness. That makes his route running skills somewhat suspect. If you toss in his reluctance to go over the middle because of his wiry build and it really does point to a special team guy who might be a development project for the long haul.
He has an uphill task ahead of him to just make the roster.
The depth at the slot receiver position assures a very lively competition during training camp.
On the outside, one receiver who stood out during early camps was Nate Hughes. A practice squad player who came into the league with Cleveland, Hughes showed nice ball skills making several difficult catches, showing nice athletic ability in the process.
It may not be enough for him to crack the final roster, but the Jaguars like what they have seen from him so far this offseason. Jack Del Rio singled him out late last month when he discussed the outstanding offseason that Hughes has enjoyed so far.
It never hurts to get an endorsement from your boss at this level.
The forgotten man for the Jaguars has to be Troy Williamson. The speedy receiver and former first round pick has been quiet this offseason after struggling last year with hamstring issues that slowed his progress in his first season with the Jaguars. He will have to fight to keep his roster spot with young talent on the roster poised to push him as a receiver and return specialist.
Williamson was widely considered a disappointment in Minnesota. When the Jaguars acquired him last season, they landed a player with tremendous upside if he could jump start his career. That did not happen, but injuries contributed significantly to his difficulty.
When he was healthy early last year, he was showing no signs of the issues that plagued him in Minnesota with dropped passes. Unfortunately, because he was limited, the Jaguars never got to take advantage of his field stretching speed.
He is still a young player by NFL standards, and the Jaguars will certainly give him every opportunity to earn a roster spot. With a lack of depth on the outside, Williamson's 4.34 speed is going to be a major appeal for the Jaguars. If he can stay healthy and prove his pass catching ability consistently, he may remind people of what it was that landed him in the first round of the 2005 draft.
Aside from the two starting positions, the battle for roster spots among wide receivers is going to be one of the more entertaining to keep an eye on during the offseason.
Whether the veterans on the roster can hold off the younger players fighting for a shot at making the active roster represents a major challenge for the players, and a golden opportunity for the team. No matter what happens, the receiving corps can only be better than it was in 2008.