Last season was termed as a make-or-break year for both Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio and quarterback David Garrard. It wasn’t. The Jaguars were in contention for the AFC South title all the way into December as running back Maurice Jones-Drew played through a torn meniscus. But, with a chance to clinch the division in Indianapolis, Jacksonville lost to the Colts, then dropped their final two games as well.
This year the same narrative returns, as the Jaguars hope to have another chance to clinch the division — this time, with a different outcome. Adding to the intrigue, the Jaguars drafted quarterback Blaine Gabbert 10th overall in hopes he would be their future franchise quarterback.
This year, Jaguars players believe the team is on the rise. They’ve seen their team’s financial commitment to adding key pieces (more than $100 million in contracts to free agents), and it excites them. They told owner Wayne Weaver they wanted Del Rio back for one more season. They say continuity is what they need, which they’ll have a chance to prove this season.
Jones-Drew made headlines this summer when he was asked during an interview about the Jaguars’ biggest needs, and he replied that it wasn’t quarterback.
A slight to Gabbert, the quarterback? Hardly. It was simply Jones-Drew’s acknowledgment of what was clear last season — offense wasn’t the team’s main problem.
It certainly has room for improvement, though. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has said many times that an explosive receiver will make a big difference, but the Jaguars appear headed into the 2011 season without a proven deep threat. They expect Mike Thomas to be their No. 1 receiver. A fourth-round pick in the 2009 draft, Thomas caught 66 balls for 820 yards and four touchdowns last year. The Jags would like for his 12.4 yards-per-catch average to improve in ’11. Jason Hill, who impressed the team in 2010 after being taken off the waiver wire, could serve as their deep threat. Also in the mix are Jarett Dillard, coming off a year on injured reserve, and rookie Cecil Shorts, who has had very sure hands in training camp.
Garrard has been gracious in the face of the team drafting a first-round rookie at his position. He’s helped Gabbert with the playbook and even some film study. With OTAs and minicamp wiped out this season, the likelihood of Gabbert taking Garrard’s job is slim, although the rookie impressed early during training camp.
A healthy Jones-Drew should be significant. Coming off surgery to repair his torn meniscus, Jones-Drew is determined to prove it won’t affect his ability to carry the team’s load. He works best with an underdog’s motivation.
The Jaguars have been waiting for their young offensive line to take a major step forward. Tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton are entering their third season.
Britton, the right tackle, is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum that kept him out of the final nine games of the season. The surgery, which Dr. James Andrews told him was “the Drew Brees special,” actually fixed a shoulder problem he’s suffered from since high school.
At guard, the Jaguars will have a new face belonging either to rookie Will Rackley, who started picking up the offense remarkably quickly during training camp, or veteran free agent signee Jason Spitz.
Expected to repair their defense during this year’s draft, the Jaguars instead opted to do that in free agency.
First came former Buffalo linebacker Paul Posluszny, who got $45 million over six years with $15 million guaranteed and, to his delight, the opportunity to return to the middle of a 4-3 defense. Next was the diminutive but stocky former Indianapolis linebacker Clint Session, who came at a price of $29 million with $11.5 million guaranteed. He will start on the weak side. Session wanted to stay in the division and seems to relish the chance to face his former team.
And finally, Jacksonville upgraded its secondary, adding former Baltimore safety Dawan Landry at $27.5 million over five years and former Jets cornerback Drew Coleman, whose three-year deal could be worth up to $7.4 million.
The free agency moves brought smiles to the faces of players like cornerback Rashean Mathis, linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive end Aaron Kampman, some of the few veterans on last year’s defense. They’ve added speed they never had before and much more experience, especially on the back end.
The Jaguars ranked 28th against the pass last year and didn’t settle on their regulars in the defensive backfield — especially at safety — until several games into the season. The only constant all season was Mathis.
Last year the Jaguars put some young players in unfamiliar and difficult positions. Don Carey, for example, was a cornerback until Week 1 of last season, then finished the year as the Jaguars’ starting free safety.
Communication was a big problem in the secondary last year, and figures to improve with the veteran Landry in play. Rookie Chris Prosinski is another option to start next to Landry at safety. Both Prosinski and Landry can play either safety position, giving the Jaguars flexibility they didn’t have last year.
Coleman is likely to be the Jaguars’ nickel corner. He played there all last year for the Jets and gives the Jaguars an upgrade over Will Middleton, who did that last year. In all, the Jaguars’ defense made serious upgrades in talent that should be worth at least a win or two.
Kicker Josh Scobee is entering his eighth season with the team. He made 22-of-28 field goals last season, including a 59-yarder to beat the Indianapolis Colts, and every extra point attempt. He played better early on than he did late. Punter Adam Podlesh left for a lucrative deal with the Chicago Bears, and the Jaguars replaced him with Matt Turk, a 43-year-old veteran of 15 NFL seasons. Long snapper Jeremy Cain was signed to a three-year deal before the lockout began.
Kick returner Deji Karim and punt returner Scotty McGee are both healthier after injury-plagued rookie seasons (McGee was on injured reserve last year).
The Jaguars defense will be better than it was last year, but Jacksonville is still facing a very tough schedule that includes the Jets, Steelers, Ravens and Saints. The Colts are the gold standard in the AFC South, and the Texans should be much better than last year, so the division will still be tough. The Jags could be better in 2011 yet still finish in third place and miss the playoffs.
Outside the Huddle
A Gentler NFL
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, a former NFL linebacker, had a humorous reaction to the limitations on padded practices in the new collective bargaining agreement: “First reaction is, I want to see if I can maybe unretire and get a couple more years in,” he joked. General manager Gene Smith did not say whether he would sign Del Rio should he unretire.
Tickets Still Available
Despite the numerous jokes about their lack of fan support, the Jaguars didn’t actually have any blackouts in 2010. But they lost momentum during the lockout. As of Tuesday, Aug. 2, they needed to sell 17,000 non-premium tickets per game, including 10,000 season tickets to avoid blackouts this season.
In his 76 starts in the NFL, David Garrard has a record of 39–37. He won 19 of his first 30 starts but is 20–36 over the last three seasons.
Passing the Bar
Special teams ace Kassim Osgood bought two bars during the offseason — one in his hometown of San Diego and one in Jacksonville.
A lot of painting happened at the Jaguars’ facility during the lockout. Large paintings of Jaguars were added to the inside of the locker room.
Maurice Jones-Drew has been in the top 10 in the NFL in the past two seasons in rushing attempts, rushing yards, touches and yards from scrimmage.
Small School Gems
The Jaguars’ gravitate toward small-school players in the draft and college free agency. This year they drafted only one player from a BCS conference — Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert. They drafted one rookie from Division III Mount Union (wide receiver Cecil Shorts) and signed another (tight end Kyle Miller) from the same school as a free agent. One undrafted free agent signing came from Colorado School of Mines (defensive end Marc Schiechl).
Head of the Class
Gabbert was one of the first players at the Jaguars’ facility on Tuesday, July 26, the first day players could report for voluntary activities after the lockout. He arrived at 7:45 a.m.
Last summer the Jaguars cafeteria went through a nutritional makeover. All artificial sweeteners were removed, and healthy snacks replaced cookies in the interest of giving players a healthier lifestyle.
Kicker Josh Scobee made the cut in the Jacksonville Amateur Golf Association tournament. He shot an 81 in the third round, then shot a 74 in the final round. He also tried to qualify for the U.S. Open.
In addition to learning the playbook from Garrard during an offseason without coaches, Gabbert also kept in touch with the veteran about fishing. The two are both avid fishermen, and Garrard invited Gabbert to his fishing tournament. Although Gabbert couldn’t attend, when Garrard returned from the high seas, the first text on his phone was from Gabbert, asking what he caught.