Marcedes Lewis has to be feeling the heat. After watching his fellow first-round draft selections fall by the wayside over the past few years, he must be squirming a bit knowing that he could be next.
The discomfort he might be feeling is especially relevant now that the general manager has made it crystal clear that he will not be swayed by draft pedigree or contractual obligations. He is going to do what is best for the sake of the team—even if that requires some short-term sacrifice.
Byron Leftwich, Reggie Williams, and Matt Jones are all gone. Each player was considered a disappointment based upon where they were selected by the team. Leftwich was the only one of the first-round selections that was actually released by the same personnel guy that brought him into the league.
The other high-profile cuts came from "Guillotine" Gene Smith as he did his player evaluations and subsequent roster purge.
It is not that Marcedes has been a bad player, or caused any sort of distractions for the team with his off-field antics. In fact, Lewis has been one of the better citizens over the past few years here in Jacksonville.
His numbers have just not lived up to the expectations attached to where he was drafted. The bar is always set considerably higher for first-round draft picks, and Lewis has struggled to meet the standard.
He was dealt a bad hand as a rookie when he suffered a serious high ankle sprain early in the year. It hampered his ability to become more integrated into the offensive scheme and caused him to struggle as a rookie.
The highly touted pass catching tight end was relegated to a secondary role as a rookie. This was not a role that he was familiar with coming out of UCLA. As the winner of the 2005 Mackey Award, he was considered one of the top collegiate tight ends in the country.
This is not a guy that was accustomed to any sort of struggles on the gridiron, but his transition to the NFL had a slow, sputtering start.
Upon arriving in Jacksonville, the Jaguars focused on improving his blocking skills. This was the weak link in his game, and a critical component in the offense that the Jaguars like to operate. His pass catching abilities were never questioned, but probably should have been more of a focus as he struggled at the NFL level.
He started to round into form in 2007, as he shook off his injury issues as a rookie and started all 16 regular season games and both playoff games.
He seemed to have hit his stride, as he helped the Jaguars rushing attack compile nearly 2,400 yards. He contributed significantly in creating the lanes that both Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew enjoyed in 2007 on their way to the second best rushing attack in franchise history.
He hit a wall in 2008, and his struggles mirrored the rest of the team. While he did manage to establish new career marks for receptions (41), total yardage (489), and yards per catch average (11.9), he also started to experience a problem with catching the football.
Early last season in a game against Minnesota, he dropped a touchdown pass. He was wide open on the play, and the ball was delivered perfectly. He just muffed it.
The following week against the Houston Texans, Lewis dropped four passes.
There were times last season where he almost appeared to be fighting off the passes. It was a source of frustration for Lewis, and a point in his career from which he now draws significant motivation.
He wants take away the necessary lessons from those mistakes and then erase those memories all together.
Granted, it was not all bad for Lewis.
He became a legitimate pass-blocking tight end. He had improved in this area to the extent that some analysts considered him to be one of the best in the league in this category.
It certainly is not considered a sexy aspect of the game for tight ends from the fan perspective. But, it is a critical component for a team that takes a great deal of pride in running the football.
At the end of the 2008 season, Lewis understood there was a level of dedication required to take his game to the next level.
The pressure to improve and become a complete tight end has clearly been a primary focus this offseason.
According to local media reports, Lewis has spent the entire offseason here in Jacksonville instead of jetting back and forth to his home in California. He also spent a significant amount of time at the stadium, studying game film, critiquing himself and watching tape on Tony Gonzalez.
His goal is to pick up the little nuances that make a good tight end a great one so that he can take that next step in his progression and meet expectations.
The hope is that this new dedication and attention to detail is going to serve him well in the passing game.
Entering 2009, Lewis has rededicated himself to regaining the pass catching skills that landed him in the first round.
During minicamp, he dropped one pass the entire weekend, and that was an errant pass he made a terrific effort to try to haul in. Aside from that drop, it has been reported that he has overcome his issues and is catching everything thrown in his direction.
That is encouraging.
With all of the upheaval on the roster, Lewis will undoubtedly become more of a focal point in the passing game.
At 6’5”, he provides quarterback David Garrard with a massive target who is easily found in traffic.
The concern centers on his reliability as a pass catcher.
His quarterback has a tendency to target those players more often with whom he has a certain level of trust. After his performance last season, rebuilding that relationship will be critical in regaining his status as a trustworthy outlet for Garrard.
By focusing on working with his quarterback during this offseason, Lewis is moving in the right direction in developing the chemistry and trust that can make the tandem far more effective when the passes matter most.
The coaching staff has every intention of getting him more involved. Based upon the amount of time and effort he is putting into becoming a more complete tight end, he could find himself being one of the unexpected stars for the Jaguars in 2009.