Under coach (and former NFL LB) Jack Del Rio, the Jags have been the prototypical power-rushing, run-stuffing football team — straight from the black-and-white era. In 2007, then-GM James Harris installed Dirk Koetter as Offensive Coordinator. Koetter has a history of orchestrating vertical passing attacks, and was brought in to open up the passing game. Player acquisitions at WR to attack downfield failed spectacularly, most prominently Troy Williamson and Jerry Porter. After the ‘08 season ended, Harris resigned, ending the power struggle between him and Del Rio. The team quickly rededicated to a conservative offense — OTs Eugene Monroe, Tra Thomas, Eben Britton, and RB Rashad Jennings (along with a trio of rookie WRs) were all brought in.
QB: David Garrard, Todd Bouman
RB: Maurice Jones-Drew, FB Greg Jones, Rashad Jennings
WR: Torry Holt, Mike Walker, Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard, Tiquan Underwood
TE: Marcedes Lewis, Zach Miller
PK: Josh Scobee
Quarterback: David Garrard begins his third full season as the Jags’ starter. In 2006, he started the second half of the season, posting a 5-5 record, with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. After being forced into the starting lineup in 2007 due to Byron Leftwich’s release, Garrard went 9-3 in games he started, with 18 TDs and three INTs. A healthy contract extension that offseason preceded a dismal 2008 performance (5-11 record, 15 TDs, 13 INTs). Some chalked up his struggles to an injury-ravaged offensive line. Throughout the offseason, rumors about drafting Mark Sanchez — or bringing in some other form of competition at QB — persisted, though nothing ever materialized. Garrard is a mobile quarterback, moving around and outside the pocket to give his WRs time to get open and scrambling for yardage when they don’t. Consequently, the talk of Garrard losing 20 pounds can have far-reaching consequences. Many analysts have pointed out the obvious benefit is a greater mobility to cut back on the career-high 42 sacks in 2008. Another factor is that Garrard’s a non-vocal leader on a team with, potentially, three rookie WRs in critical roles. Some believe this year will make or break Garrard’s future career.
Running Back: Maurice Jones-Drew is the Alpha and Omega of Jacksonville’s offensive aspirations — and potentially the heat-gauge on Del Rio’s seat. A fire hydrant with the power of a bulldozer, MJD finally inherits the team’s lead RB role with Fred Taylor going to the Patriots. Even in a part-time role, he managed to rank in the top-10 among RBs in most fantasy football leagues. As the lead dog on a run-focused team with a rebuilt offensive line, some say the sky may truly be the limit, while the naysayers point out that he has never had to carry such a load. With the release of Taylor early in the offseason, the talk was that FB Greg Jones would get first crack at backing up Jones-Drew, but during the NFL draft, something quite surprising happened. A projected second-round pick, Liberty College’s RB Rashad Jennings fell to the Jags in the seventh round, perhaps due to over-age concerns. Characterized as “a big, strong, powerful running back” by Coach Del Rio, Jennings is a nimble power back with a second gear. After shining in OTAs, he may have already taken the number two tailback job. Alvin Pearman and Chauncey Washington would then fight for the number three spot, while Montell Owens backs up Greg Jones.
Wide Receiver: In 2007, Dennis Northcutt was brought aboard to provide a downfield spark for then-new OC Koetter. Northcutt led or was second on the team in receiving yards and receiving TDs that year. In ‘08, although the emergence of Matt Jones cut into his production, he was 3rd on the team in receptions, receiving yards and TDs while still manning the slot. Last year, Jacksonville went for broke, offering Jerry Porter a fat contract to start opposite Matt Jones (with Northcutt owning the slot). Alas, Porter was repeatedly sidelined, and Reggie Williams took many of his starts. With three rookies with slot-receiver skills, the Jags put Northcutt on the block. The Lions ponied up, exchanging a young, injury-prone safety in the trade. Now, Northcutt, Jones, Porter and Williams are all gone.
A totally new depth chart is taking shape, with Torry Holt currently projected to start along with Mike Walker. A late free-agency signing, Holt is a veteran receiver who, over the years, has compensated for his declining speed (and balky knees) by honing his short-route skills. If his knees hold up, he’s vastly superior to any of the wideouts Jacksonville’s been starting over the last few years. Mike Walker (entering his third year) has the physical tools, but has been repeatedly beset with injuries — apparently a contagion within the Jags receiving corps. In 2007, a knee injury landed Walker on the IR. In 2008, Porter and Jones repeatedly missed game time, and Walker ran with the opportunity — spraining his MCL in the process. While in the hospital, he battled an infection in the injured area. If he can stay healthy (perhaps a big if), the chemistry he showed with David Garrard in ‘08 (highlighted by a 6-catch, 107-yard performance against the season’s Super Bowl champion Steelers) could re-emerge.
During OTAs in ‘09, Jacksonville’s new rookie wideouts (Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard, Tiquan Underwood) were so impressive that Jacksonville traded away Northcutt. Suddenly, the most productive receiving position of the last two years was open to competition. Rookie Mike Thomas is quick off the snap, and runs crisp routes; he bursts out of breaks, cuts at speed and is tough — Thomas doesn’t fear contact. His size, though (5′-8″, 187 lbs.), limits him to the slot. Jarett Dillard’s excellent route-running skills and extremely reliable hands, in part, explain how he set the NCAA TD reception mark with 60. Just a little bigger than Thomas (5′-10 1/4″, 185 lbs.), and lacking elite speed, he still has caught the eye (and praise) of OC Koetter with his physical attributes and football IQ. Tiquan Underwood’s height, long arms, and rather reliable hands have some folks proclaiming him a dark horse for the slot role.
Tight End: Marcedes Lewis has long been the team’s starting TE, but he has yet to evolve into a receiving threat. Richard Angulo and Greg Estandia lurk — that is, if guppies can lurk. Most intriguing is Zach Miller, an athletic college QB trying to make the position switch.
IDP: New Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker will run a simplified 4-3 scheme. Less play-reading options will allow the defense to highlight its athleticism, particularly at defensive end. DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves both underperformed last year as rookies. Harvey will start opposite Reggie Hayward, while Groves will shift around to apply pressure from all over. Before the ‘08 season, the team traded away DT Marcus Stroud; tackle Rob Meier played poorly in his place, while linemate John Henderson underperformed as well, though less severely. Third-year DT Derek Landri will get much more time, and the team drafted Temple’s Terrance Knighton.
Once the team’s strongest position, Jacksonville’s linebacking corps performed disappointingly last season. Further exacerbating the issue, middle linebacker Mike Peterson signed with former position coach Mike Smith in Atlanta during the offseason, unleashing a cascade of position changes. A late-round gem in ‘07, Justin Durant missed numerous tackles at WLB in 2008. While Del Rio believes this was partly due to the complex defensive scheme, there is talk Durant will be shifted to the middle to fill in for Peterson. Whether this move combines with the defensive line’s issues to expose the team to runs up the middle is a question unanswered. Last year’s strongside ‘backer — and a Team Captain — Daryl Smith finished on the IR. The Jaguars’ leader in tackles with 130, he’s currently projected to move to the weakside, to take advantage of his superior tackling (based on last year’s performance). The staff has been disappointed with Clint Ingram, but declared no interest in free-agent Derrick Brooks, largely due to their backups (Thomas Williams, Brian Iwuh, Lamar Myles and Tim Shaw).
Last year’s struggles by Jacksonville’s 24th-ranked pass defense were compounded when former SS Gerald Sensabaugh fled to Dallas. The Jags have a number of ways to compensate for the void; they moved up into the third round of the draft this year to get CB Derek Cox. If he impresses in the offseason, they could start him and slide CB Brian Williams to safety, where he started seven games last year. Alternately, free-agency signee Sean Considine could be moved into the starting lineup at SS. Finally, safety Gerald Alexander was acquired for Dennis Northcutt. A talented rookie in ‘07, he missed nearly all of last season with fractured vertebrae. If healthy, he’s considered by some to be an IDP sleeper, and potential starter at SS. 2006 Pro-Bowler Rashean Mathis struggled last year, missing the last 4 games and ending the season on IR due to a knee injury. Athletic FS Reggie Nelson, a 2007 draftee, seemed overwhelmed by the complex defensive scheme. Both players, considered the best DBs the team has, struggled mightily last year.
The return of focus to power-rushing — centered on one of the most promising young RBs — is a source for near-glee. Garrard’s offseason work and his determination to forge chemistry with all the new blood at WR is also a cause for optimism, albeit more tempered. Some write off Jacksonville as playoff non-contenders, and consequently predict Del Rio’s seat will get progressively hotter. How a retooled offense meshes with new faces at WR, a rededicated QB, and a centerpiece bulldog RB could well determine whether the seat gets warmer than room temperature.
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