The Jacksonville Jaguars are a franchise in flux; they’re coming off of a 5 – 11 season, they released the face of their franchise in running back Fred Taylor and have a one-year wonder at quarterback in David Garrard, who they invested $60 million in and are praying that he’s able to recapture the talent he displayed two years ago. There are too many ifs and not enough certainties for a franchise struggling to survive. But, there’s a glimmer of hope with the promising crop of prospects they have on the horizon.
One of those prospects is a known commodity and happens to be the No. 1 prospect in the organization, running back Maurice Jones-Drew. With Taylor now in New England, Jones-Drew finally gets his opportunity to be a featured back this season. Entering his fourth year in the league at just 24 years old, Jones-Drew has established himself as a solid runner who still has the upside to become one of the elite backs in the NFL. In this series, a player under 25 years old is considered a prospect, and even though Jones-Drew has been productive, he has yet to become his own man. Up until now, Jones-Drew had the luxury of being a situational contributor who had his fair share of touches. In each of the last three years, Jones-Drew’s touches have increased and his YPC have dropped. Is that a concern? Maybe, especially since a running back’s longevity is the shortest of any position player in the league and the fact that Jones-Drew is a 5-foot-7, 208-pound bulldozer who takes big hits. But, it’s obvious that the Jaguars are not concerned, and they shouldn’t be because he’s been durable thus far. The Jaguars love his ability and they showed it by releasing Taylor, elevating him to No. 1 and rewarding him with a hefty new contract [five years, $31 million]. It’s now up to Jones-Drew to elevate his play and show everyone in Jacksonville that he can stay healthy while receiving fulltime touches.
A player that figures to be a crucial part of protecting Garrard and opening holes for Jones-Drew on the left this season and in the future is 2009 first round pick and the second rated prospect in the organization, offensive tackle Eugene Monroe. One of the four top offensive tackles available in the ’09 draft, Monroe was a four-year starter at Virginia and will become the cornerstone of the Jaguars offensive line. Monroe is a versatile lineman, who has the skill and technique to be a dominant all-around tackle. He possesses great size, a long wingspan and forceful leg drive. He keeps defenders at bay with his reach and uses his quickness and lateral movement to shield them from getting around the end. He has the ability to get to the second level and be an instrumental part of the rushing attack. The Jaguars brought in long time Philadelphia Eagles tackle Tra Thomas during the offseason to start on the left side, but Monroe’s athleticism and experience for a young player may elevate him into the starting lineup immediately. And, honestly, the Jaguars, who in many respects are rebuilding, don’t have much to lose by starting Monroe from day one.
The Jaguars are a team that doesn’t mind starting rookies right away, especially first round draft picks. And in 2007, when the team didn’t re-sign safety Deon Grant, Reggie Nelson got his chance to break into the starting lineup. The third rated prospect in the organization, Nelson, otherwise known as “The Eraser” for his ballhawking ability and big play potential, started 15 of 16 games during his rookie campaign and recorded 63 tackles, a sack and a team-high five interceptions. Blessed with great ball skills and awareness, Nelson’s been labeled as a freelancer who disregards his coverage responsibilities for the opportunity to turn defense into offense. That label has followed Nelson since his days at Florida, and those characteristics were on display occasionally during his first year, but last year the freelancing was more prevalent. Maybe he was bothered by the knee injury he suffered early in the season, which forced him out of the lineup for three games, but his explosion and playmaking ability weren’t nearly as good as they were the previous year. Nelson had a good season in ’08 and finished with 54 tackles and two interceptions, but he has to be more focused and not take as many chances this season. The Jaguars brought in some intriguing rookies and solid veterans to replace the likes of Gerald Sensabaugh and Drayton Florence; those additions won’t affect Nelson’s status at all. But in order for Nelson to become a complete player, he will have to become a leader and show that he’s a team player.
Another former Gators star that the Jaguars have high hopes for is defensive end Derrick Harvey. The Jaguars were so enamored with Harvey in the 2008 draft that they decided to mortgage a large amount of their selections to move up from the 26th pick to No. 8 to select him. The fourth rated prospect in the organization, Harvey, made headlines during his rookie year when he held out of training camp for 33 days before signing his name to a five year, $30 million contact. The late start stunted his growth in his first year, and for most of the season he looked over matched. Harvey played in all 16 games, starting nine, and contributed just 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks. At 6-foot-5, 281 pounds, Harvey has always been a streaky performer and collects his sacks in bunches. The Jaguars are hoping to get more consistency out of Harvey this year and want to see him improve against the run. Harvey has tremendous potential as a pass rusher, and can become one of the best. But he doesn’t play every down with the same intensity, and against high-octane fueled linemen, that type of motor will eventually flame out.
Even though the Jaguars are in a transitional mode where they have some good parts, but not a collective team, the upside to a lot of their players is enticing. On defense they have some promising athletes and they’ve done a decent job in the draft. And while they selected an outstanding playmaker in Nelson in the first round of the ’07 draft, they also secured a top-flight talent at linebacker in former Hampton star Justin Durant. A fast rising prospect in ’07, Durant immediately made his presence felt from the moment he lined up on defense. As a rookie, Durant played in 13 games, starting eight of them for an injured Mike Peterson and registered 49 tackles, a sack and an interception. Last year, Durant took another step in the right direction playing in 14 games, starting 12 and recording 70 tackles. This season, it appears that the Jaguars will play Durant in the middle and move Daryl Smith back to his more natural outside position. At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Durant has the size, strength and athleticism to be a very good inside linebacker. And it will also allow him to play downhill and do what he does best to position himself to make tackles.
Rounding out their position in the top 10 is high rising wide receiver Mike Walker (No. 6), pass rushing specialist Quentin Groves (No. 7), mauling offensive tackle Eben Britton, quicker than a hiccup return specialist Brian Witherspoon and prolific receiver Jarett Dillard.A third round pick in the ’07 draft, Walker has been bothered by a knee injury since he entered the league. He was placed on injured reserve as a rookie and played in just nine games last year. But he has great upside and the Jaguars are expecting him to challenge for the starting role opposite Torry Holt. Groves is an intriguing player who has great pass rushing ability, but in a situational role. He’s not an every down player and will be most effective on third down situations. He played in all 16 games last year in a limited role and recorded 2.5 sacks. A highly touted tackle in the draft this past April, Britton, a three-year starter at Arizona, offers depth and is a potential starter at right tackle this season. The future at OT is bright for the Jaguars, as Britton and Monroe will form quite the tandem. Witherspoon was an unexpected surprise last year for the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent. An explosive return specialist with an uncanny ability to find the smallest crease and turn it into excellent field position, Witherspoon averaged 24 yards per kick return and 11.3 on punt returns. Anytime he has the ball in his hands, there’s a chance he can take it to the house. And Dillard, a steal in the fifth round of the ’09 draft, had an unbelievable career at Rice. As a senior, Dillard caught 87 passes for 1,310 yards and led the nation with 20 touchdowns. Dillard will challenge for the slot receiver position this season, and can even split out wide in certain formations. He will have a great mentor in Holt and has an opportunity to be a major contributor sooner rather than later.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.