Jacksonville Jaguars' Philosophy at Wide Receiver Takes a U-Turn
If there was a need for a visual representation of the dramatic changes taking place with the Jacksonville Jaguars roster this offseason, one would only need to look at the rebuilt receiving corps to see how significant the change in philosophy has been.
You do not need a trained eye to recognize how different the unit is from last season, and with a little additional digging, it is clear that the shift is more than just cosmetic.
First, a history lesson is in order to give some perspective on just how difficult it has been to find the right mix of receivers for the Jaguars.
Rolling back the clock to the Tom Coughlin era, the quest to build a solid group of receivers was an epic project that seemed to have no end under the former head coach and general manager.
Jimmy Smith, the greatest receiver to ever put on teal, was a player who spent his first year as a street free agent on the roster as a return guy. He was a special teams player. It was not until the Jaguars' second year in existence that Jimmy emerged from the pack to begin his phenomenal string of nine 1,000-yard seasons over 10 years with the team.
Smith's ascension would have been held back even further if not for an on-field feud between Mark Brunell and receiver Andre Rison. Rison's selfish attitude forced the Jaguars to waive the player who was expected to be their star receiver after only 10 games of the 1996 season.
When Smith took over as the starter, he never looked back.
On the opposite side of the field, the Jaguars had acquired Keenan McCardell from Cleveland. The unheralded receiver was actually one of the leading receivers in Cleveland.
When the two receivers were paired together, they became one of the most prolific tandems in the league, although they were unheralded for this accomplishment because of where they played.
Even with the dynamic duo of Thunder and Lightning as their receiving combination, Coughlin was on a constant vigil to find that elusive third receiver. The endless parade of players pegged to either replace Keenan, or to fill the slot position for the Jaguars to complement the other two, culminated with the disastrous selection of R. Jay Soward as the first-round selection in the 2000 NFL draft.
The decision to draft Soward, and his subsequent failure to meet even the lowest of expectations, signaled the beginning of the end for Coughlin. It was one of the most high-profile personnel mistakes of his tenure in Jacksonville.
The Soward pick is still considered one of the biggest draft blunders in franchise history.
Within a couple of seasons Soward was out of the league because of substance abuse problems, and the Jaguars never did find that third receiver.
When the Jaguars allowed McCardell to leave for Tampa prior to the start of the 2002 season, the receiver carousel cranked up in an effort to find his replacement. Over the past eight seasons, it has not stopped.
No matter what has been attempted, and no matter who has been pulling the trigger on the moves, nothing has come close to matching what the Jaguars had with Smith and McCardell.
The team tried to draft their way back to success, grabbing two receivers in the first round.
In both cases, the team put a high draft value on what turned out to be nothing more than possession receivers.
When Reggie Williams was selected in the 2004 draft, he was considered a reach. While he did have a productive college career, the Jaguars had better options for big play receivers in the draft to select from. They chose the biggest, slowest, youngest receiver of the bunch.
His lack of maturity and inability to shake coverage at the NFL level were a constant problem for Williams. Despite setting the franchise record for receiving touchdowns in 2007, he never came close to providing any sort of value for the first-round pedigree he rode into the league.
Off the field, Williams was an enigma. His bizarre comments in the press were only matched by his behavior when the cameras were not present. After a traffic stop and drug arrest in 2007, Williams' long-term prospects in Jacksonville dimmed.
Setting the franchise touchdown mark in 2007 only prolonged the inevitable. The Jaguars were not going to give Williams a blockbuster extension to remain in Jacksonville, and when he was arrested twice during the offseason this year, any hope of returning to the Jaguars disappeared completely.
A year after drafting Williams, the Jaguars went back to the well again, selecting a quarterback-turned-receiver in Matt Jones with their first-round pick.
There is always an innate risk in any high draft pick, but gambling that a player coming from the college ranks who is also switching positions will be the missing piece you have been looking for is about the same as putting all of your money on a three-legged horse winning the Kentucky Derby. While it could happen, the odds of it becoming a reality are long.
Jones was a gifted athlete who looked like a man-child against the competition he faced at Arkansas. Even that would not have warranted a first-round pick. His performance at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine had the Jaguars infatuated with his measurables.
Despite his physical attributes, he lacked the heart and the desire to play the game. He also lacked the type of discipline required to be a professional wide receiver.
When he was arrested in Arkansas prior to the start of training camp last year, he appeared to come back more motivated. However, his off-field antics and inconsistent production had already taken their toll.
When he was arrested for a violation of the terms of his parole for the drug arrest, the Jaguars were done with the experiment.
Much like Williams, Jones was another possession receiver who struggled to shed coverage. He did a poor job of running routes and at times appeared to be simply going through the motions on the field. Jones was never able to fully establish himself at the professional level as a legitimate receiving threat.
When the draft proved to be a no-go for fixing the receiving situation, free agency was the next option. Unfortunately, the mixed results were similar to what the team saw from their draft picks.
Dennis Northcutt was brought in to provide the team with veteran presence. For the most part, he did his job as expected, and his production was solid. However, his entire tenure in Jacksonville has been defined by one play and by the level of compensation he received.
During his time in Jacksonville, Northcutt established himself as a preferred target for David Garrard. Working out of the slot position, Northcutt was able to develop a rapport with Garrard that none of the other receivers were able to craft.
He became the clutch outlet in many situations for Garrard.
He might still be filling that role in Jacksonville if it was not for a dropped pass during a playoff game in New England in 2008, when the team was driving to get back into the game. On the play, Northcutt came open going over the middle inside the five-yard line. Garrard spotted him and threw a strike. Northcutt sensed the safety coming up to remove his head from his body and subsequently short-armed the ball.
It was a monumental mistake for Northcutt that could have changed the entire dynamic of the game.
He spent much of the past season in the doghouse because of the drop.
When he did get back on the field, he was productive. But by then, it was simply too late.
Because he did not represent an upgrade over the younger talent brought in by the Jaguars in the draft and free agency, Northcutt became expendable.
The more high-profile free agent acquisition to fix the receiving corps was Jerry Porter. When the Jaguars made him the centerpiece of their free agent choices prior to the start of the 2008 season, there was a leap of faith involved in the decision.
Porter had proven to be a malcontent in Oakland, sparring with his coaches in the media and on the sidelines. The hope was that a change of scenery would be all that was required, and the Jaguars would have a talented receiver focused on resurrecting his career.
It did not take long to determine the scope of the mistake made in giving Porter a signing bonus in the $20 million neighborhood.
A hamstring injury early in the preparation process for the 2008 season sidelined Porter and required clean-up surgery to address. When he did finally return from the injury, he had already created a stir in the media by openly expressing his frustrations over his lack of production.
When his production did not show any signs of improvement upon returning to the field, the calls for his dismissal mounted.
When Gene Smith took over as general manager, the move to cut Porter was as swift as it was expensive. However, it was necessary for a team trying to rebuild itself with players who were capable of being productive on the field while also being good citizens away from the gridiron.
Once the roster purge was completed, the first move the Jaguars made was signing veteran receiver Torry Holt.
Holt provides the team with a player with some of the strongest credentials of any player the Jaguars have ever had play receiver for them.
Despite his age, he has maintained a level of production and professionalism that is paralleled by very few inside the league. There is a concern about a lingering knee issue hampering Holt, but he played with this injury for the entire 2008 season and still put up solid numbers.
His veteran leadership will play a pivotal role in the development of a very young core group of receivers. With Mike Walker and Troy Williamson the only other receivers on the roster to have caught a pass in the NFL, this is a corps ripe for development.
Their draft selections this year exemplify how different the mindset is for the Jaguars.
Unlike years past, the Jaguars waited until the middle of the second day of the draft to select a receiver. When they did pull the trigger, they selected Mike Thomas out of Arizona.
As the all-time leader in receptions (259) in the Pac-10, Thomas was a productive grab in the fourth round. What made it unique for the Jaguars was how different he was from the last few receivers drafted by the team. At 5'8" tall, he is a full 10 inches shorter than former first-round pick Matt Jones and eight inches shorter than Reggie Williams.
Thomas' selection made the trade of Dennis Northcutt a reality. Since he can handle return duties and will more than likely work out of the slot, it created a situation where the veteran receiver became the odd man out.
His reliable hands and 4.4 speed will help him to become a big play threat for the Jaguars. Comparisons to Steve Smith in Carolina might be over the top, but he has the potential to be a significant contributor to the Jaguars' offense.
With their fifth-round selection, the Jaguars went back to the well and grabbed Jarett Dillard.
Dillard is another smaller receiver (5'10" tall), and not quite as quick as Thomas (4.57 in the 40-yard dash). But he has proven to be one of the most prolific receivers in college football history with 60 touchdowns during his career at Rice, setting a new gold standard for the NCAA.
He will not run away from anyone, but he has good field vision, runs crisp routes, and has excellent hands.
He will more than likely find himself competing with Mike Walker on the outside because he has the ability to deal with press coverage. Dillard will be a project of sorts, but he shows great potential to be another productive option for the Jaguars over the long haul.
In the final round with their last pick, the Jaguars snapped up Tiquan Underwood. Underwood represents the biggest of the draft picks at 6'1" tall, and he has outstanding straight-line speed, giving the Jaguars a deep threat with reliable hands.
Underwood is not going to dazzle anyone with his route-running skills. Much like Matt Jones, he is a long strider. Unlike Jones, he is an experienced receiver capable of breaking free from coverage and making plays down field.
What makes each of the rookies on the roster unique from former first-round picks Williams and Jones is the fact that all three are solid men. Each of them has managed to avoid trouble while doing good work in their communities.
For example, Underwood was actually named to the AFCA Good Works team for his extensive charity work in the community while he was at Rutgers.
Even more important than their community efforts, Thomas, Dillard, and Underwood have shown a desire to dig into the playbook and work with their coaches to get up to speed quickly. They are showing a work ethic that at least Jones could never be accused of having and a level of maturity that Williams never achieved here in Jacksonville.
The times are changing. It remains to be seen if these selections will give the Jaguars the fix that has eluded them for nearly a decade, transforming the receiving corps from a liability into a reliable asset.
This is something that has proven to be a difficult task to accomplish, but the team might finally be on the right track.
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