Notable Offseason Moves: The teal and black remain, and the cats are still on the sides of the Jacksonville helmets. Outside of that, the Jaguars’ organization received a major overhaul since wrapping up last year’s 6-10 campaign.
Ex-Ravens director of pro personnel and NFL quarterback James Harris was named VP of player personnel, and former NFL linebacker and defensive coach Jack Del Rio was brought in to replace the departed Tom Coughlin. Del Rio tabbed ex-pro quarterback Bill Musgrave as his offensive coordinator. Musgrave, who coached with the 49ers, Broncos, and Panthers, plans to install a version of the West Coast offense.
Jacksonville’s offseason activity wasn’t limited to the front office. Running back Fred Taylor signed a four-year, $20 million contract extension that includes $40,000 for each game the oft-injured back is available. Freddy’s long-time caddy, Stacey Mack, sought out a feature-back gig of his own and left for Houston, leaving untested Elvis Joseph and rookie LaBrandon Toefield in the all-important role of Fred Taylor insurance.
Taylor will be joined in the backfield by fullback Marc Edwards, whose blocking skills and pass-catching ability make him a solid fit for Jacksonville’s transition to the WCO.
The Jags also are taking another stab at filling the void left by Keenan McCardell’s departure prior to last season. Former 49er J.J. Stokes and ex-Patriot and Panther Donald Hayes will battle for the starting spot opposite Jimmy Smith, though both should see plenty of time in the pass-happy WCO.
One surprising non-move was Jacksonville’s decision not to release tight end Kyle Brady, as the Jags decided they could live with the $5.2 million hit to their salary cap. Brady skipped the team’s April minicamp but was back on the field for Jacksonville’s summer sessions. He may still restructure his deal, and the Jags brought in veteran Johnnie Mitchell and drafted George Wrighster in case Brady’s contract becomes an issue.
Of course, the Jags’ selection of quarterback Byron Leftwich in the first round was the club’s biggest offseason noisemaker, but the move won’t have much of a fantasy impact this season. Mark Brunell is still the starter, and unless things go horribly wrong in Jacksonville this fall Leftwich will spend the bulk of the year wearing a headset and holding a clipboard. Brunell contract, which runs through next year, will cost the Jags something north of $8 million per season, giving the team serious financial incentive to hand the reins over to Leftwich as early as 2004.
While there was plenty going on offensively, the defensive side of the ball was where Jacksonville really spent their money. Pass-rushing defensive end Hugh Douglas was lured from Philadelphia, while speedy linebacker Mike Peterson, the Colts’ leading tackler the past two seasons, now fills the middle for the Jags. If Tony Brackens can return from microfracture surgery, Jacksonville’s defensive front—which also includes a pair of first-round draft choices in John Henderson and Marcus Stroud—could be among the best in the league.
Position Battles: The Jaguars have already told anyone who would listen that Brunell is their quarterback for 2003, and even a blistering training camp by Leftwich probably wouldn’t be enough to change that. The Jags’ top pick will get plenty of action in the preseason, however, giving the Jacksonville faithful a glimpse of the future. Backup quarterback David Garrard won’t go quietly, however, and may be the one who steps in should Brunell get hurt. And Quinn Gray, who played well for the NFL Europe champion Frankfurt Galaxy, also figures into the mix as well.
With Taylor set at halfback and Mack now a Texan, the battle to be handcuffed to Taylor comes down to Joseph and Toefield. Joseph, an undrafted free agent in 2001, has played both fullback and halfback and has served as a third-down back and kick returner while amassing 86 career touches. Toefield, a fourth-round pick from Louisiana State, is a solid inside runner but a bit raw to contribute immediately.
The drama to replace McCardell—and the plethora of ineptitude that followed him last season—is the most intriguing battle of the Jacksonville camp. Hayes has been with the club since March, which may or may not have given him enough time to comprehend the Jacksonville playbook. Stokes, who underachieved his way from Jerry Rice’s heir apparent to San Francisco afterthought, hopes a fresh start on the opposite coast is just what the doctor ordered. Either should be an upgrade from the meager production (58 catches, 788 yards) the Jags received from the second receiver spot last year.
Keep an Eye On: Crazed fantasy freaks—and if you’re reading this, you’re probably among that demographic—are dying to see what wrinkles Musgrave has in store for the Jacksonville offense. While the WCO may mean fewer carries for Taylor, the pass-first approach should get him plenty of opportunities to catch a short pass in the open field and make things happen.
Throwing the ball more could also do wonders for Brunell, who hasn’t reached 4,000 passing yards since 1996. It should also give the winner of the second receiver battle—we’ll put our money on Stokes—an opportunity to contribute some fantasy-friendly numbers as well. And while it’s a long shot, there’s always the possibility that Leftwich could be so overwhelmingly good in the preseason the Jags have no other choice but to make their quarterback of the future the quarterback of the present.
As for Smith, he has vowed to shed weight after experimenting with a bulkier frame in the offseason. “I wanted to beef up a little and see if I can carry it,” Smith said of showing up for summer minicamp at about 215 pounds. “I’m still fast, but the endurance part won’t cut it. When you see me [at the start of training camp], I’ll be 10 pounds lighter.” After posting some of his worst numbers as a starter in 2002, it’s nice to see a veteran like Jimmy trying something—anything—to recapture the glory days. Of course, having a second downfield option step up would help, too.
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