To say that the past two weeks have been an "unkind" stretch for rookie left tackle Eugene Monroe would be quite the understatement.
Coming off an impressive performance against the Houston Texans, where he held All-Pro defensive end Mario Williams without a sack, Monroe was one of three Jaguars to catch the flu in the week leading up to Jacksonville's home win over the Tennessee Titans.
The illness caused him to lose 14 pounds as he missed a start against Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, whom Tra Thomas handled effectively in Monroe's absence.
Then, having worked himself back into shape enough to start this past Sunday, Monroe turned in the worst performance of his young career against the Seattle Seahawks.
Statistically, he was responsible for as many sacks (three) as he'd been in his first three starts combined.
In those games, though, Monroe was facing top-caliber ends: Houston's Williams, Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, and Arizona's Bertrand Berry—two All-Pros and a Pro Bowler, all seasoned veterans. Against the Seahawks, he was beaten just as badly by rotation lineman Darryl Tapp and rookie Nick Reed.
Monroe's health, only a week removed from the flu, was likely part of the problem. That the Jaguars, trailing early, were forced into a pass-heavy offense didn't help his cause against Seattle's aggressive defensive front, either.
Still, with Thomas lurking behind him on the depth chart, Monroe's hold on his starting job might seem tenuous.
Thomas, a 12-year veteran and former All-Pro, was one of Jacksonville's few newsworthy summer signings. In limited action this year, he's done nothing to suggest that his talents have diminished from when he started for the Philadelphia Eagles.
The prevailing sentiment in this type of situation is that the best player should play. Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said as much before Jacksonville's season opener.
Considering Monroe's recent form, that would seem to support Thomas' case to start.
One of the reasons Thomas might be considered a better player, though, is his versatility. The Jaguars have used him as a sixth lineman in several goal-line and short-yardage situations this season, and he's physical enough to be an effective lead blocker at right tackle—a role where a technician like Monroe wouldn't fit.
Contrary to the "best player" logic, that's also a reason why Jacksonville should keep him behind Monroe. With rookie right tackle Eben Britton having already missed one game and the situation at right guard unsettled, Thomas provides solid depth at both tackle spots and a gritty presence as a fill-in.
That Monroe flashed big-time talent against Houston is equally important. After Freeney overwhelmed him with speed and technique and the Cardinals' linemen bulled him back, Monroe used his footwork and leg strength to play aggressively against Williams, both in pass protection and on runs.
Abused though he was this past Sunday at Seattle, the Jaguars need look back no farther than two weeks ago for evidence that his game experience will pay dividends.
As Jacksonville's long-term solution to the problem of protecting quarterback David Garrard's blind side, Monroe will be a full-time starter sooner or later. Sitting and watching wouldn't have prepared him for Williams, and it won't help him going forward; the more he can learn on the job, the quicker he'll catch on.
Right now, Tra Thomas might be the better player, but his play in spot duty makes for the Jaguars' best line as Monroe learns the lessons he'll need to be a standout.
[Photo courtesy of Jaguars.com's gallery.]