In Jacksonville, as everywhere else: what a difference a year makes.
The Jaguars team that came into last season's training camp had high expectations and few perceived holes on the roster. Defensive end, the team's one acknowledged problem spot, was earmarked for first-round pick Derrick Harvey.
Only four drafted rookies attended—Harvey's contract dispute made him ineligible—and only three of them made the final roster. Of those three, fifth-round linebacker Thomas Williams and seventh-round running back Chauncey Washington were used sparingly on special teams.
As it turned out, second-round defensive end Quentin Groves was the only rookie who went to camp and earned significant playing time.
Now, in the aftermath of Jacksonville's disappointing 5-11 season, the Jaguars near the start of their training camp on Aug. 2 with a different set of expectations—both for their season and for the drafted rookies among them.
As of Monday, four of Jacksonville's nine draft picks were under contract and eligible to report to training camp. With the exception of seventh-round receiver Tiquan Underwood, who has yet to sign, they represent the Jaguars' selections from rounds four through seven of April's draft.
Last year, those picks would've faced long odds to make the roster.
This year, each has a chance to fill a role created by an offseason of turnover on a depth chart open to young talent.
Seventh-round running back Rashad Jennings, who signed a contract Friday, will have a shot at taking over where Fred Taylor left off. He'll compete with Washington and part-time return man Alvin Pearman for a share of carries behind feature back Maurice Jones-Drew—and his striking similarity to Taylor makes him a strong candidate for the job.
Jennings, of course, isn't quite the rookie Taylor was in 1998. Jacksonville drafted Taylor eighth overall that year, on the strength of his stellar production at Florida and a blazing 4.3-second time in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. The two have similar 6'1", 230-pound frames, but Jennings lacks that top-gear speed.
What he does have, though, is a slashing running style that might remind Jaguars fans of Taylor circa 2007.
Jennings' 4.2-second mark in the combine's 20-yard shuttle drill—eighth-best among rookies, and better than Denver first-rounder Knowshon Moreno—attests to his lateral quickness. He opened eyes at the Senior Bowl in January with his power and short-area burst en route to 41 yards on nine carries, and impressed Jacksonville's coaches in the team's mini-camp in May.
Despite his fall in April's draft, Jennings could reasonably be considered the odds-on favorite to become Jones-Drew's understudy. A good showing in training camp might even put him on track to a significant timeshare in the Jaguars' backfield this season.
Rookie receivers Mike Thomas and Jarrett Dillard, who signed contracts earlier this month, are prime candidates for the slot receiver spot vacated by Dennis Northcutt.
Jacksonville gave Northcutt permission to seek a trade in June, on the heels of promising performances by Thomas and Dillard in mini-camp. The Jaguars fortified their depth chart at receiver from the top down in April by signing Torry Holt, but seem willing to give their drafted rookies a chance to contribute.
The rookies' stiffest competition figures to come from former first-round pick Troy Williamson, a vertical threat whose questionable hands wore out his welcome in Minnesota a year ago.
Though Thomas and Dillard have different styles, they both should work well with quarterback David Garrard, who has a proclivity for short, quick passes. Thomas' strong suit is his acceleration and play-making ability after the catch, and Dillard caught scouts' eyes with his precision route-running in college and in pre-draft events.
Shiftiness, in either form, has been lacking for years in Jacksonville's corps of possession receivers and north-south burners. With Holt drawing defenses' attention, either rookie could become Garrard's favorite target on underneath routes this year.
Sixth-round tight end Zach Miller, a converted option quarterback out of Division II Nebraska-Omaha who signed a contract in June, has the toughest path to a roster spot.
The release of injury-plagued tight end George Wrighster in April left a spot open behind Marcedes Lewis for camp competition. But Miller faces an uphill battle against Greg Estandia and Rich Angulo, the Jaguars' twin 6'8" towers who have provided solid depth at the position the past two seasons.
Miller's athleticism and versatility stand out in contrast to those tall, long-armed blocking specialists. Rather than trying to fit in with that group by dedicating himself to helping the running game, Miller will need to show the Jaguars that he can diversify their offense as an H-back to earn a place on the roster.
If Miller impresses in camp, he could force a competition between Angulo and Estandia at one spot on the depth chart for their similar talents.
Jacksonville's higher draft picks will likely sign with the team in time to report to the first practice of camp on Monday, Aug. 3. They each face depth chart competitions of their own, along with the heightened expectations that accompany their draft spots.
But the real story of this year's Jaguars is that these four rookies, late-round selections without the leverage to hold out on signing, are expected to contribute.
Next week, they'll begin Jacksonville's youth movement in earnest.
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