Outlook: When he took over the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003, Jack Del Rio was a young defensive coordinator who was considered to be in over his head. Two seasons later he has led a team that went 6-10 in 2002 to a 5-11 record in 2003 and 9-7 in 2004. Now he heads into season three with expectations higher than ever.
On offense the team has a solid young signal caller in QB Byron Leftwich, veterans in RB Fred Taylor and WR Jimmy Smith and solid depth at wide receiver. For the second consecutive year, he has shuffled his offensive staff and hopes to have hit the jackpot with the hiring of new offensive coordinator Carl Smith. Quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson returns to his rightful spot coaching the signal callers, after spending 2004 as the wide receivers coach, and should be an excellent mentor for Leftwich.
Defensively, Del Rio has a solid nucleus in young DTs John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, CB Rashean Mathis and S Donovian Darrius. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith runs and aggressive scheme, expecting his line to attack and for his linebackers to clean up whatever they miss.
2005 is a pivotal season, as owner Wayne Weaver has blocked off nearly 10,000 seats hoping to avert the NFL's blackout rule. Selling tickets is always a must and winning is really the only way to do it. Del Rio's seat isn't burning up yet, but another season of mediocrity with little to no improvement may warm his seat to the point that next year at this time, he will make every "hot seat" list.
Quarterback: Leftwich was named the starter last year and ran with it, completing 60.2% of his passes for 2,914 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, all respectable stats for a first-year starter and second-year player. He is big, strong and an excellent leader. Improvement is needed in reading defenses, but that will come with time and he should show some serious improvement in this area in 2005 under Anderson's tutelage.
When Leftwich missed two starts in November due to a minor knee injury, four-year pro David Gerrard stepped in and played well, splitting his two starts with a win versus Detroit and a narrow loss to Tennessee. In April, the team gave Gerrard a $2 million signing bonus and three-year contract extension that will keep him in northern Florida as insurance for Leftwich.
Running Back: Known as an injury-prone back that had immense talent, but lacked durability, Taylor had one of the best seasons of his career in 2004. Taylor played in 14 of 16 games, missing the final two with an MCL injury that required arthroscopic surgery during the offseason.
Taylor rushed for 1,224 yards (4.7 yard average), but only rushed for two touchdows. In addition to his excellent running, Taylor is an underrated pass-catcher catching 36 passes for 345 yards an another touchdown.
Big back Greg Jones took most of the carries down near the goal line and filled in for Taylor when he was injured rushing for 162 yards and three touchdowns during the season.
Wide Receiver: This position has seen a big-time influx of talent over the last two years. Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford were brought in last year and 2005 first-rounder Matt Jones was taken to add a speed element that is lacking with all, but one of the wideouts.
That one speedster? 13-year veteran Jimmy Smith. Smith continues to be one of the best in the league, catching 74 passes for 1,172 yards (15.8) and six touchdowns. Seeing as he had little help on the other side, Smith's numbers become that much more impressive. He can still fly and runs one of the best stop-and-go patterns in the league.
Williams, Wilford, Jones and seven-year veteran Troy Edwards will all battle for playing time, but Williams is the projected starter heading into training camp.
During the team's offseason camps and workouts, Williams has reportedly torn it up, using his body and excellent hands more than he did last year, while also improving his speed and ability to separate with improved route-running mechanics. Wilford is an excellent possession receiver who makes spectacular catches in traffic, out-muscling smaller defensive backs for the ball.
Edwards is a solid slot-receiver who isn't very big and not very fast. He is shifty and his 50 receptions for 533 yards and one touchdown ranked second on the team in 2004.
Jones has freakish athleticism, but he will be making the switch from quarterback to receiver which could take some time. He runs well with the ball and has 4.4 speed and 6'6" height, allowing him to use either his speed or height to outplay a defensive back for the ball. He is very raw and his routes need a lot of work, but with his type of athleticism, it won't be long before he is pushing the other receivers for playing time.
At tight end, the Jags have three solid players who have each struggled to find a place in the offense for various reasons.
11-year veteran Kyle Brady has excellent hands and is an outstanding blocker, but his 14 receptions were the lowest of his career. He missed five games with various injuries and only started eight, but he is too good of a player to not be utilized more by the offense.
Brian Jones and George Wrighster both have the necessary skills to be solid contributors, but Jones is on the small side (6'3", 235) and Wrighster has missed time with back problems.
The hope is that Brady will stay healthy and that Wrighster, the best athlete of the bunch, will be able to push the seam better than in the past, opening up the shorter drag-routes that the team likes to utilize Edwards and Wilford with.
Offensive Line: This line does not have any standouts, but as a unit they are a strong and cohesive bunch. LT Mike Pearson is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, but the other four have started all but two games over the last two years. Gs Vince Manuwai and Chris Naeole, C Brad Meester and RT Mo Williams, with fill-in LT Ephraim Salaam, surrendered 32 sacks in 2004 after allowing a franchise-low 28 in 2003. Some of that had to do with a first-year starter in Leftwich, but Salaam really struggled while filling in for Pearson.
In the second-round of the draft, the team selected former Washington T Khalif Barnes as insurance for Pearson and the hope is that he'll be able to start immediately if Pearson struggles to return at full-strength.
G/T Brent Smith, G Mike Compton and C Dennis Norman add adequate depth to the line, but aren't very noteworthy.
Defensive Line: While the team ranked 11th against the run in 2004, the pass-rush struggled to generate the needed pressure and the team finished a mediocre 16th against the pass.
The front-office took steps to improve the pass rush, offering former Denver DE Reggie Hayward $10 million in guaranteed money to improve a lackluster pass-rush. His 10.5 sacks last year led the Broncos and he adds a much needed presence on the outside to an already stout line.
The core of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud at defensive tackle is the heart of the line and they are both coming into their own as playmakers. Henderson led the team in sacks with 6.5 and his 76 tackles, an eye-popping number from an interior defensive lineman, finished fifth. Henderson is strong at the point of attack and gets his hands up quickly when he doesn't get to the passer.
Stroud has been everything this team could want over his first four years and more. His 4.5 sacks tied for third on the team and he is an even better run-stuffer than Henderson. He uses his 312 pounds to push players around along the line and he clogs the middle, allowing the linebackers to flow and make plays.
At the other defensive end spot will be Paul Spicer. Spicer finished the season on injured reserve but he brings a good motor and solid skills to the strong-side end position. Pushing Spicer in camp will be second-year DE Bobby McCrary who started seven games last year, but was in over his head.
Adding free agents DE Marcellus Wiley and DT Tony Williams and the expected return of DE Rob Meier make this one of the deepest lines in the entire league and a team strength that will be counted on to set the tone for the defense.
Linebackers: With the hiring of fiery linebackers coach Van Gorder the thought was that Del Rio would be looking to upgrade this position during the draft. That didn't happen as the team didn't select a linebacker until the sixth round and added little in free agency, nabbing Eagles role-player Nate Wayne late in the process.
The best playmaker among the bunch of linebackers is MLB Mike Peterson. He led the team in tackles finishing with 126 tackles, 6.5 for loss, five sacks and one forced fumble. He is small by middle linebacker standards and he can get lost in traffic if he isn't protected. He's an average middle linebacker who will make tackles, but he won't make many extraordinary plays.
Akin Ayodele and second-year man Daryl Smith are the starters on the outside and both will be expected to step up their play in 2005. Ayodele finished second on the team with 93 tackles, but his two sacks are not enough for a player with his talent. He must step up his efforts and improve his play or he could find himself in a different uniform in 2006.
Smith had a solid rookie season, starting 13 games and finishing with 48 tackles, two sacks and one interception, but he lacked consistency. Look for Del Rio and Gorder to find more ways to get Smith involved and for Smith to be on the field during passing situations as his speed and athleticism are excellent fits for a nickel linebacker.
Wayne, Greg Favors and Tony Gilbert are the backups but mainly their role is to play on special teams. They are not players you want manning the linebacker spots on a regular basis.
Defensive Backs: Third-year CB Rashean Mathis is quickly establishing himself as one of the best young corners in the league, but the team is still struggling to find a compliment for the other side.
Mathis comes up and fills well against the run, registering 63 tackles, five interceptions and a monstrous 21 passes defensed. He is excellent in bump-and-run, but when called upon to play zone he struggles, peeking into the backfield and guessing more than he should. He uses his height and strength, as well as his excellent speed, to win jump-balls and as he continues to mature he will eventually rank as one of the best in the league.
Last year DeWayne Washington started opposite Mathis, but the team let him move on following the season. Kenny Wright is penciled in as the starter but the team will look for challengers during camp.
The Jags are set at safety with Donovian Darrius and Deon Grant. Grant signed as a free agent in 2004 and started all 16 games, registering 65 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defensed. Darrius, who was angered when the team placed the franchise-tag on him again this offseason, is a man among boys in the secondary intimidating receivers with his hard-hitting style and ball-hawking skills. He tied Mathis for the interception lead with five and finished third on the team with 89 tackles. The Darrius situation is worth keeping an eye on during training camp as it is unlikely that he will appear before the regular season.
Special Teams: As a rookie, K Josh Scobee made 24 of 31 field goals hitting 6 of 10 outside 40 yards. He has a very strong leg and gets good distance on his kickoffs, but his mechanics still need a little work so his accuracy can improve. He has the ability to be in the Pro Bowl if he improves his consistency.
P Chris Hanson had a 42.8 yard average on his kicks and pinned teams inside their own 20, 28 times. He has a strong leg and after coming back from an injury suffered in 2003, he should be even stronger in 2005.
The return duties are in the hands of David Allen who was solid returning punts but barely average on kick returns. He will be challenged in camp by WR/KR Chad Owens who is explosive, but might not be ready to take over the return duties on a full-time basis.
Final Prediction: The Jaguars are right on the cusp of something great, but they have too many holes to really challenge the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. Their hope needs to be that Leftwich and Williams come into their own on offense and that Hayward adds the needed pressure off the edge on defense so the DBs won't have to cover for ten seconds.
If they can mask the lack of playmaking ability at linebacker and get the most out of their offense, providing Taylor stays healthy the entire year, this team could maintain a 9-7 pace with the outside chance at a wild-card spot. Expecting anything more out of this team right now, is deluding oneself.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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