Rookies Reign in Jacksonville: Costly Veterans Among Jaguars' Final Cuts
Among the players cut, few were long-tenured members of the team, but three former Jaguars starters stood out: offensive lineman Tony Pashos, cornerback Brian Williams, and long snapper Joe Zelenka. None of the three—all of whom started all 16 games in 2008—were considered at-risk for release entering training camp.
In each case, a younger, less-expensive player won the starting job and made the veteran expendable.
Judging from the roster after this last round of cuts, Jacksonville's latest crop of rookies has shown well. Eight of the Jaguars' nine picks in the 2009 draft earned roster spots, with seventh-round receiver Tiquan Underwood the only cut. Two undrafted rookie free agents, defensive end Julius Williams and linebacker Russell Allen, also made the team.
Of those eight drafted rookies on the final roster, four will start or see significant playing time early on.
Second-round offensive lineman Eben Britton is Jacksonville's likely Week One right tackle, and third-round cornerback Derek Cox will step up to replace Brian Williams. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, the Jaguars' other third-round pick, will play in a rotation at his position, and first-round offensive tackle Eugene Monroe is expected to take over at left tackle sooner rather than later.
The rookies highlight a young squad, with only eight players 30 years or older.
In the process of getting younger and releasing underperforming players, Jacksonville effected a significant roster overhaul: 24 of the current 53 weren't on the team last season. The Jaguars have eight new starters in 2009—nine, if third-year offensive lineman Uche Nwaneri beats Maurice Williams for the right guard job.
Nwaneri, who has taken reps at center this preseason, is representative of Jacksonville's depth on the offensive line. Five of the Jaguars' nine linemen have experience at multiple positions, which should prevent a repeat of last year's disastrous revolving door situation behind the starters.
The Jaguars tried Pashos, their 2008 starter at right tackle, as a guard in their last preseason game this year. He performed well, but not well enough to justify his $4 million starter's salary; with Britton, Monroe, and veteran Tra Thomas crowding the depth chart at tackle, cutting Pashos was a feasible money-saving measure.
Similarly, the release of Brian Williams cuts costs for Jacksonville, though his salary will still count against the cap.
Such bottom-line decisions continue to distinguish new general manager Gene Smith from his predecessor, James "Shack" Harris, who was fired after the 2008 season. Harris awarded big contracts to free agents like Pashos and Williams—and, more recently, Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence—to fill starting roles, an expensive (and often ineffective) strategy for the small-market Jaguars.
Smith hasn't been shy in free agency, bringing in Thomas, receiver Torry Holt, and safety Sean Considine to provide experience and compete for starting jobs. But the contracts they've signed—front-loaded deals with low guaranteed money—won't linger should Jacksonville decide to cut ties with them.
To call the Jaguars "cheap," though, would be an overstatement. One of their biggest moves this offseason was signing star running back Maurice Jones-Drew to a five-year, $30 million extension, despite Jones-Drew having yet to carry the full rushing workload in his three seasons with the team.
The picture that has emerged, rather, over an offseason of change in Jacksonville is that of a franchise committed to a sensible salary structure.
Last year's team wrote the biggest game checks to free-agent signings and high draft picks (ex. Matt Jones and Reggie Williams) whose on-field performance didn't merit the pay. The 53 players remaining after Saturday's cuts, by contrast, are largely paid in line with their expected contributions.
Bargain backups abound, from high-potential rookies like running back Rashad Jennings to utility types such as special-teams ace Brian Iwuh. Several low-cost starters, including all three of the team's starting linebackers, will need to be evaluated for contract extensions soon.
But the team's fortunes will rest on the shoulders of players well-paid to carry that load.
With overpaid average starters gone, the highest-paid Jaguars—Jones-Drew, quarterback David Garrard, fullback Greg Jones, cornerback Rashean Mathis, and defensive end Derrick Harvey—are now those most crucial to the team's success. If they don't play up to their contracts, a clear precedent was set Saturday for handling such situations.
After eight months of work, those final cuts seem to have stripped away the last vestiges of last year's underperforming team. The 45 who dress for next Sunday's season opener at Indianapolis will be starting something new.
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