A Primary Secondary

When the Jaguars take the field on September 9th for the season opener against the Tennessee Titans, their defense will look quite a bit different from the team that finished the '06 season with a 35-30 loss at Kansas City. It is uncertain whether or not defensive end Reggie Hayward will be healthy enough to go, but the team will return their best linebacker in Mike Peterson.

The Jaguars secondary is where the major changes will be noticed, as the team opted to get younger at the safety position, as they let Deon Grant go in free agency, as well as last weeks big news, the release of the longest tenured Jaguars defensive player and the franchise all-time leader in tackles, Donovin Darius.

In the process of getting younger at safety, the Jaguars also became a lot more inexperienced. Deon Grant and Donovin Darius have a combined 16 seasons of service in the NFL, which includes 211 games played, 1020 tackles, 9 fumbles forced, and 32 interceptions. The combo of Darius and Grant have played in nine playoff games, and Grant has appeared in a Super Bowl (XXXVIII, Carolina lost 32-29 to the Patriots). Both players were team leaders and great community guys.

Something else that the Jaguars will be missing without Grant and Darius on the roster for '07 will be approximately $8.5 million in salary. Deon Grant was paid in a big way by the Seattle Seahawks, as he signed a six-year, $30 million deal with $10 million in guaranteed money. Darius was due to earn approximately $3.5 million this season with the Jaguars. I've touched on some of the accolades of this pair of safeties, but lets look at the actual level of play from the two of them in the last few years. Deon Grant played in Jacksonville for three years and was a solid, unspectacular safety. Grant doesn't get beat on a regular basis in the passing game, but he doesn't make plays either. In Deon's three seasons in Jacksonville, he recorded a grand total of seven interceptions, which is respectable, but he dropped at least twice that number. Grant forced a total of zero fumbles in his time in Jacksonville, and has forced just one fumble in his entire career. Donovin Darius has missed 21 games in the last two seasons due to a pair of significant leg injuries, and in the cameo's that he's made over the last two years, he was very average. Although Darius is known to be a punishing hitter, he hasn't forced a turnover via the interception or forced fumble since 2004. 2005's torn ACL seemed to have some lasting effects, as Darius didn't have great range in the secondary in 2006.

Although Darius' best days are clearly behind him, and Grant is little more than average at safety, the Jaguars still need to suit up a couple of guys to replace them. The players that have chosen to accept the mission are Gerald Sensabaugh and Reggie Nelson. Sensabaugh is a former fifth-round draft pick from North Carolina (2005), and Nelson is of course the Jaguars current first-round selection from the University of Florida. Sensabaugh has filled in for Darius over the last two seasons, and in 2006, there was no drop-off in play at the strong safety position. Sensabaugh is a fantastic athlete, and he hits hard. Sensabaugh covers more ground in the secondary than Darius does, and he forced three turnovers while starting in just six games in 2006. Throw in the fact that Sensabaugh is just 24 years old, and is scheduled to earn more than $3 million less than Darius, and the business decision was a simple one to make.

Although Reggie Nelson is yet to play in his first NFL game, or even suit up with pads in practice, he looks to be an upgrade at the free safety position. Whereas no draft pick is a sure thing, Reggie Nelson appears to be something close to that, and so do first round safeties of late. From 2002 to 2005, four safeties were drafted in the first round, and amazingly each of the four have made a minimum of one Pro Bowl. Reggie Nelson is the definition of play-maker at the safety position, as he boasts speed in the 4.3's with great leaping ability, as well as the ability to knock someone out. Nelson will likely make some mistakes early on in his NFL career, but he will also make plays. Nelson was an All-American in his first season playing D-I football, and helped lead the Gators to the 2006 national championship.

It will be interesting to see how the exchange of experience for athleticism works for the Jaguars in 2007. It is always been said that football is a young man's game, and the Jaguars have certainly went a lot younger in the secondary (Darius 32, Grant 28 when the season starts- Sensabaugh 24, Nelson 23). With going younger the Jaguars will likely save approximately $6 million in salary, and they likely won't have to address the safety position for quite a few years. Anytime a team can gain considerably more speed and upside, while slashing salary and getting younger, it can only lead towards greater things.

Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of Jagnation.com, and a regular contributor to FoxSports.com and Sportsillustated.com. Feel free to e-mail Charlie at charlie@jagnation.com

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