Fred Taylor finally seems to be at peace

After five NFL seasons, Fred Taylor finally seems to be at peace with himself and the world around him. <br><br> It is not just the money -- getting a long-term contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars and recovering most of his $5 million that was lost to convicted sports agent Tank Black. It is more a feeling that Taylor is ready to put up big numbers and bring the Jaguars back to being a playoff contender.

For the first time in his career, Taylor is coming off a season in which he started all 16 games. The health issues that have always hung over him are now like clouds in the distance. The Jaguars' multi-talented running back just might be primed for, by his definition, a breakout season.

Mentally, all systems are go for a special year, regardless of the perception that the Jaguars are in a rebuilding mode under new coach Jack Del Rio.

"You would think I'd panic more over an all-out blitz, but it was actually stuff off the field that I'd get panicky about in the past," Taylor said after the team completed its most recent passing camp.

"I've learned to block all that stuff out now. I'm as confident and comfortable as I've ever been in a while."

Taylor has rushed for 4,784 yards and 40 touchdowns in 56 career games, credible numbers by NFL standards. However, until last season, where he rushed for 1,314 yards and suited up for every game, Taylor has always been haunted by what he could have done if not for a history of muscle-related injuries. He has missed 24 games because of various ailments, causing him to be dogged most of his career by the tag of Fragile Fred.

All that seems to be behind Taylor, who, at 27, feels his body and mind are in the best condition ever to start stringing together Pro Bowl-type years, as teammate Jimmy Smith did from ages 28-32.

"I want to be the most dangerous guy in NFL history," said Taylor. "I want to put the stamp of everybody's approval on what Fred Taylor can do."

This is not the first time Taylor has made bold preseason proclamations. Before the 2001 season, he felt a 2,000-yard season was attainable, and then got humbled by a severe groin tear that forced him to miss the last 14 games.

Back then; Taylor was coming off a career-best season of 1,399 yards in 2000, a feat that was accomplished in just 13 games. His confidence is soaring again, not just because he stayed healthy all last year, but also because he is excited about the West Coast offense brought in by coordinator Bill Musgrave.

The Jaguars plan on using Taylor more as a pass receiver, a vastly underrated part of his game. If practices without pads this spring are any indication, Taylor likely will be the Jaguars' most indispensable player in 2003.

With backup Stacey Mack, used primarily in short-yardage and goal line situations last year, gone to the Houston Texans, the dependency on Taylor figures to rise dramatically this season.

"If he didn't get any touches in the red zone last year, then he'll get some this year," said Del Rio. "We'll use Fred everywhere. He is too talented not to have out there. He has looked excellent. You can just see by watching him that he looks great."

Taylor's success will likely dictate whether the Jaguars can be a factor in the AFC South division. Though the Jaguars were only 4-5 last year in games when Taylor had 20-plus carries, those five losses were by a combined 15 points. When Taylor gets the carries that allow him to get into a rhythm, he usually puts the Jaguars in a position to win.

Last year, the Jaguars' 20th-ranked defense blew several leads in the fourth quarter that turned a potential 9-7 or 10-6 team into 6-10. With Del Rio revamping the linebacker corps and adding pass-rush demon Hugh Douglas, the Jaguars' defense should be faster and better in 2003.

If that is the case, that should give Taylor and the offense more chances to do some damage. The Jaguars' schedule looks daunting with seven games against playoff teams, but the team's franchise running back is excited about the way things are taking shape.

"What I've learned about this league is the two main components to be successful are timing and opportunity," Taylor said.

"We've brought in guys like Douglas, [Mike] Peterson and [J.J.] Stokes. Those guys have been on playoff teams. We got young guys that are hungry. I think we have a shot to do some good stuff; it is a matter of everyone learning the system.

"The Jaguars have done a great job of bringing in guys that can help us win. The next step is developing that chemistry."

Taylor has been there for the highs and lows of the Jaguars' franchise. He is now in his prime for a running back. As the team upgrades the roster around him, Taylor is the force that allows the Jaguars to possibly get back into the playoff hunt.

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