In the NFL, riches in the trenches are never an embarrassment.
When the Jaguars signed free agent tackle Tra Thomas to a three-year contract on March 9, their offensive line situation became stable, if not solid. Thomas, a 12-year fixture at left tackle for Philadelphia, was expected to fit nicely into the vacancy left at that position by Khalif Barnes.
Center Brad Meester was re-signed in February after an unspectacular 2008 season. He had missed six games after tearing his biceps during the preseason and struggled to mesh with Jacksonville's changing cast of interior linemen, but nine years of starting experience earned Meester the benefit of the doubt.
At right tackle, Tony Pashos had an inconsistent 2008 after syncing well with the Jaguars' line in 2007, his first year with the team. Pashos struggled to hold the edge of the pocket in pass protection, but wasn't bad enough to warrant drastic action; plenty of teams would love to have a nasty downhill run blocker of his caliber.
Guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams were back, looking to reclaim their starting jobs after both suffered season-ending injuries in the 2008 opener. Depth was a concern at tackle, but guard Uche Nwaneri and center Dennis Norman had seen significant playing time as injury fill-ins.
Then, on the first day of the 2009 draft, two talented big men fell into Jacksonville's lap and made a puzzle out of what had been a straightforward depth chart.
Virginia's Eugene Monroe, considered the best pass-protecting lineman in this year's draft class, slipped past several teams that could've used him to the Jaguars' eighth overall pick. Arizona's Eben Britton, similarly, was projected as a first round pick but fell to Jacksonville in the second round.
As high draft picks, Monroe and Britton were expected to contribute right away. At worst, they solidified the Jaguars' depth chart past the starters on the line. Even if neither started right away, they were drafted to be Jacksonville's tackles of the future.
Now, according to a tidbit dropped by Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union, the future is threatening to happen sooner rather than later.
"[Monroe] looks more impressive so far than Tra Thomas," Frenette wrote a few weeks ago, "and Tony Pashos might be hard pressed to hold off [Britton] for the right tackle job. The upside of going younger at those key positions will be tough to resist."
Projecting starters this early in the summer—especially according to how they've looked in practices without pads—is premature. But Frenette's assessment underlines that the Jaguars' rookie linemen have looked like NFL-caliber starters thus far: strong, athletic, and smart enough to hold their own on Sundays.
Accordingly, Jacksonville should worry less about whether they'll fit in, which is the usual concern with rookies. With these guys, the question is where they'll fit best.
Meester's job seems secure, as neither rookie has experience at center, but the other four spots could shake out in a few different ways this summer.
Left tackle will be a straightforward position battle: Monroe versus Thomas, winner takes all. But the Jaguars may not be as anxious as Frenette suggests to throw Monroe to the sharks here.
Left tackles usually face the opponent's most dangerous pass rusher. In the same division as Mario Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Dwight Freeney, the experience Thomas has against NFL pass rushers and their tricks could prove invaluable.
Quarterback David Garrard was one of the league's most-pressured passers in 2008, having to keep his head on a swivel against the tide of defenders rushing past departed tackle Khalif Barnes. Barnes, though an eager run blocker, was neither athletic nor seasoned enough to consistently wall off his end on pass plays.
Either Monroe or Thomas would be an immediate upgrade in terms of pass blocking. Whoever ends up starting, Garrard wins.
Right tackle, too, will be a case of veteran against rookie. After struggling to stay with speed rushers in pass protection last season, Pashos has refocused his offseason training on athleticism this spring.
"[Our workouts are] more focused on how good of an athlete and how healthy can you be," he told ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky. "I've always been heavy on how much can I bench and squat by the time the season starts. It's a different changeup for me."
With only five years of wear on his tires, so to say, Pashos is hardly on his last legs. Britton, who was fleet-footed enough to play his senior year in college at left tackle, will challenge Pashos for his starting job. Even at 6'6" and 310 pounds, though, Britton might not be big enough to unseat the Jaguars' 325-pound incumbent on a team that leans heavily on the strength of its linemen.
If not, he'll still provide pressure on both of Jacksonville's returning guards. In addition to his decent feet, Britton has the right mix of lower body strength and strong hands to kick inside to guard if he's needed there.
Reports out of Jacksonville say that Manuwai is moving well on his rehabbed knee, and Williams has been a full participant in the Jaguars' team activities this offseason. With Britton waiting in the wings, though, both will have to work back to full health to return to their starting roles for the 2009 season opener.
If the Jaguars are worried about either man's injury—as troublesome as knee injuries are, Manuwai would seem to be the greater concern—look for Britton to step into the starting lineup right away.
On a line with this much depth, no one will simply slide into a starting job anywhere.
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