Jacksonville Jaguars Preview: 10 Players Who Need to Break Out in 2010
Reputations are made and broken in every NFL season. As hard months of summer work kick in, players step up and shed their labels of yesteryear.
The 2010 campaign, kicking off in just over two months, will be no different.
Few members of the Jaguars' young, competitive roster are notorious enough to have earned the kind of national negative press that sticks. That's the upshot of playing in the league's smallest media market.
All it'd take is one hot 16-game stretch to erase bad Jacksonville small-talk and get recognition—which is, of course, much easier said than done.
Nonetheless, that's the task in front of a few Jaguars in particular as they get ready for the start of training camp later this month. Out of the 80 names on Jacksonville's roster at present, these ten have reps to outgrow with a big '10.
10. ST Kassim Osgood: Special Teams Ace Role
Voted a three-time Pro Bowler as a special-teamer for the San Diego Chargers, Osgood signed with the Jaguars in March for $6.7 million ($2.2 in guarantees) over three years and a shot at playing receiver in Jacksonville.
"I'm going to be a great receiver someday," he once told SignOnSanDiego.com. "Probably not in San Diego."
Behind the Chargers' crowded corps of Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee, and 2007 first-rounder Buster Davis, there weren't many chances to shine for a player with all-star value in kick coverage.
He'll find the going much easier on the Jaguars' depth chart, where only emerging star Mike Sims-Walker has a spot nailed down at present. Early impressions of Osgood's route-running haven't been overly optimistic, but his performance with pads on will be the real test.
9. G Justin Smiley: "Scrap Heap" Designation
Bill Parcells, the Miami Dolphins' vice president of player personnel, showed just how little he thought of Smiley in shipping him off to Jacksonville for the low, low price of a seventh round pick.
From Miami's point of view, their embarrassment of riches on the offensive line gave them leeway to make the trade. Between solid 2009 part-timer Nate Garner, country-strong rookie John Jerry, and much-ballyhooed free agent Richie Incognito, there wasn't space for Smiley.
In giving up a draft pick that they'd have used to pick from potential undrafted free agents, the Jaguars simply prevented Smiley's impending release from becoming a bidding war.
They're hoping, of course, that his injured shoulder isn't as shot as Parcells reckons. That'd allow hobbled guard Vince Manuwai to slide into a straight-ahead role on the right side, improving two positions at once between second-year tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton.
8. OL Uche Nwaneri: Utility Lineman Role
Between Manuwai and Smiley, though, there'd still be the weakest point of Jacksonville's offensive line. As valuable as veteran center Brad Meester has been in schooling the Jaguars' haphazard mix of bodies in the trenches the past few seasons, his own standard of play has dropped.
In Meester's prime, Jacksonville was one of a few NFL teams able to involve the center extensively as a pulling lead blocker in the ground game. Since he missed the first six games in '06 injured, that hasn't happened much.
Enter Uche Nwaneri, the Jaguars' mercurial road-grading guard. Nwaneri, who fell to Jacksonville's fifth round pick in 2007 due to character concerns—he broke a Purdue teammate's jaw at practice—has been beating up his opponents in spot duty since filling in for Manuwai in 2008.
As far back as last year's preseason, the Jaguars have been giving Nwaneri trial reps at center. If he's ready to challenge for the position in 2010, he could give Jacksonville the aggressive, physical presence they've missed.
7. FS Reggie Nelson: Funky Fundamentals
The first of a few first-rounders on this list, Nelson is perhaps also the bleakest prospect among these 10 for a "breakout" year.
Pictured here making a rare wrap-up tackle, Nelson has played practically headless since coasting into the NFL in 2007 on the heels of a successful career at the University of Florida.
Shoulder tackles. Blown zone coverage over the top. Late reads against running plays and bad angles to get to the ball-carrier. Name a cardinal sin for an NFL safety, and he's committed it time and again.
As the Jaguars' 2007 first round pick—one of the last by former GM James "Shack" Harris, who looked to patch team needs—Nelson has stuck by virtue of his top-shelf athleticism. If Jacksonville's improved pass rush can force opponents into hurried decisions, he has the raw talent to be a predator.
6. CB Rashean Mathis: Season-Ending Injuries
Judging from the cast on Mathis' hand here, it's safe to say he's not averse to playing through pain—which only underscores the odd fact that the Jaguars' best defensive playmaker has missed 10 games over the past two seasons, finishing both on the injured reserve list.
In 2008, it was a gruesome knee injury in a December game against the Houston Texans that sidelined Mathis for the remainder of Jacksonville's blown 5-11 season.
Then, in November 2009, a groin injury suffered while breaking up a Mark Sanchez pass at the Meadowlands hindered him for the rest of the season, forcing the Jaguars to turn to rookie Derek Cox as their top cover corner.
As much promise as Cox showed, Jacksonville can't be ready to put him up against every opponent's best receiver just yet. In breaking out of this freak injury streak, Mathis can help stabilize one of the NFL's worst pass defenses.
5. LB Kirk Morrison: "Help" Defender Reputation
Even as they wished Morrison the best of luck in the aftermath of the Jaguars' draft-day trade this past April, Oakland Raiders fans were quick to point out his perceived limitations.
Despite racking up 631 tackles (496 solo) over his five NFL seasons, the Raiders' faithful argued that Morrison had been too dependent on Oakland's defensive linemen to shield him from opposing blockers. As an undersized (6'2", 240 pound) opportunist, they argued, his upside was limited.
It's true, of course, that Jacksonville didn't get the 6'3", 254-pound stack-and-shed prototype they coveted (i.e. Rolando McClain) this year. Still, second-year defensive tackle Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton will provide 325 pounds of cover for Morrison.
If he comes close to the 133 tackles he managed in 2009, sixth-best in the NFL, the Jaguars will be happy no matter how he gets them.
4. WR Mike Sims-Walker: Third-Tier Fantasy Status
Admittedly, this is a nit-picky nomination. To make an about-face from calling Sims-Walker Jacksonville's lone solid option at receiver to calling him out is in questionable taste.
In terms of needed "breakouts," though, this one transcends the Jaguars' starting lineup concerns. Without a media presence comparable to that used by the NFL's 31 other franchises, one of the few routes to national renown in Jacksonville is through fantasy football.
Just ask Maurice Jones-Drew, a flex spot surprise in his rookie year who thrust himself into the limelight by racking up touchdowns in 2007 and 2008.
At present, it'd be a gamble to draft Sims-Walker before any of 15-20 other receivers for fantasy football. With another (slightly more consistent) year as the Jaguars' uncontested top target, though, he'd keep moving up that list.
3. DT Tyson Alualu: Rookie-Year Starting Gate
This is not to suggest that general manager Gene Smith is on any kind of "hot seat" after his much-criticized use of the 10th overall pick on Alualu, a relatively unheralded tweener defensive lineman.
Whether or not Alualu gets into the swing of things in his first NFL season, patience is the virtue that defines Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver.
(How else would Jack Del Rio still have this job?)
With that said, it sure wouldn't hurt for the Jaguars' targeted interior pass rusher to start proving them right from the get-go. Alualu has plenty to learn once Jacksonville's annual first-rounder holdout concludes, but his motor and hand use have already drawn rave reviews from his veteran teammates.
He doesn't need to notch 10 sacks to be a success. In more ways than one, just collapsing opposing pockets would be plenty to start with...
2. DE Derrick Harvey: One-Dimensional Run Stopping
...for Harvey, the Jaguars' oft-maligned 2008 first round pick, in particular.
As reputations go, Harvey's "run stopper" label is perhaps the least deserved of any player on Jacksonville's roster, with the possible exception of the next player on this list.
At 6'5" and a svelte 281 pounds, Harvey does a remarkable job of using his long arms and natural base to anchor against opposing tackles. Face-up on a tight end, he consistently steers his man into the flow of the play.
Less attention, perhaps unsurprisingly, is given to his determined presence in the backfield on passing plays. By bull rush and quick hands, Harvey has become competent (if not overly technical) at getting through pass protection.
It takes at least two to cook up a sack, though, and the Jaguars' hefty fronts in last year's failed attempt at the 3-4 defense didn't help at all. If Alualu can apply pressure up the middle, Harvey's sack totals will jump up and shock those who've only watched the numbers.
1. QB David Garrard: Year-to-Year Inconsistency
When he signed a six-year, $60 million contract extension in April 2008, having led Jacksonville on a gritty playoff run through snow in Pittsburgh and to the final whistle against the 17-0 New England Patriots, Garrard could hardly have seen that his 2007 season would be a weight around his neck.
Behind a slipshod offensive line wracked by injuries, throwing to receivers who'd be lower on almost any other team's depth chart, and teamed with a defense a shell of its former prominence, he's been rudely awakened to the difficulties of captaining a capsizing ship over the past two seasons.
There's the argument that a $60 million quarterback should be able to rise above such circumstance, and there's a germ of truth in that. There, too, are the games the Jaguars lost by Garrard's own late miscues.
At age 32, he'll have to be prepared to defend his job against a high draft pick in 2011. Next year's rookie class figures to be loaded with quarterbacks who'd give Jacksonville an option to succeed Garrard as early as possible.
Under Gene Smith, the Jaguars' arrow is finally pointing up as they enter the 2010 season. After two down, muddled years, this is likely Garrard's last shot to prove that his is still pointing that way, too.