JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars aren’t looking for parades or pinwheels as congratulations. But in the two years since Gene Smith took over as general manager, they’ve basically gutted the roster. And while setting about a major rebuilding project, they remained competitive with a 7-9 season and an 8-8 campaign.
After another draft and an active free-agency period, they now feel the rebuild is complete.
“There is an expectation level in this league to win, and I think having some horses makes us all smile in this building,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think we went out and acquired some guys for the second and third level of our defense where we talked about needing some help. ... It’s going to help us be a whole lot better.
“The pressure, the demands, that’s part of what we do, and I love that part of it. It becomes a little more enjoyable when you know you’re getting closer to being on equal footing."
Del Rio’s not buying that the Colts are slipping, and he’s not waiting for them to. The in-house expectation is that this team is capable of competing for the AFC South crown no matter what any other team in the division has going for it.
Bolstered by four upgrades among the top 12 players on defense, Jacksonville is a team that should be much improved. The Jaguars won’t be a popular pick, but they could be a surprise, emergent team.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Will there be a quarterback controversy? The team stands firmly with David Garrard and intends to bring first-round pick Blaine Gabbert along slowly. But Gabbert has looked great early, while Garrard tends to be inconsistent. There are bound to be times during the season when there is some pressure to make a change from inside team headquarters, not just from media and fans.
“If we ever get to the point where we think Blaine is better than Dave, that’s good for the Jaguars,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Because I think Dave is good enough to win with; I think we can win our division with Dave Garrard at quarterback. If Blaine is better than Dave, shoot, that’s good for us.”
Del Rio and Koetter could have a complicated job managing how and when to play Gabbert if they feel he’s forcing his way into the lineup.
“I’ve got a healthy appreciation for the desire out there to make it a story,” Del Rio said. “For us, we’re about maximizing our opportunities as a football team, playing the guys who give us the best chance to win games and working on the preparation. ...
“Through the course of competition and exposure and based on health, those factors kind of take care of themselves. I don’t think we have to get ahead of the story. I think we can just let it play out, and at least we are doing so from a position of strength. There is no reason to make it dysfunctional, make it unhealthy. What purpose does that serve? It’s not going to help us win more games.”
It sounds good, but it can get complicated. Garrard’s the guy right now, and the team and the quarterback need to do a better job of making sure he gets hit far less so he can make consistently good decisions with the ball.
Factor tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller and running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings into the mix with the receivers, and the Jaguars have sufficient weapons to complement a run-based offense. Mike Thomas, Jason Hill and Cecil Shorts could be a better three-pack of receivers than many people think.
2. How much better can the revamped defense be? If this defense doesn’t improve from 32nd against the pass, 28th overall and 27th in points allowed, Del Rio will lose his job.
Smith wanted to build foundations early and spent his first two drafts working on the lines. Defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton should take up all kinds of blockers and create space for the two new linebackers and the underrated Daryl Smith to make a lot of impact plays.
“Jacksonville’s interior D-line really stood out,” Posluszny said about his research as a free agent. “They’ve got two studs in the middle that are very active, get to the ball a lot and certainly are going to take up a lot of blockers.”
Safety play last season was horrific, and Landry will be a significant upgrade even though he didn’t bring Ed Reed with him from Baltimore.
“I’m not looking for any grace period to assemble this defense,” Del Rio said. "Guys we’re assembling and counting on for the most part are veterans. ... We’re going to expect to play coming out of the gate as a winning football team, and defensively we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
3. Can they play well late in the season? December is a debacle for this team.
In the past three seasons in games played in December and beyond, the Jaguars are 4-11. They need to learn to finish games and seasons better. What can change it?
“I think in Week 13 or something, we had a better record than the Packers did last year,” Daryl Smith said. “They got hot, and who would have thought they would go on to win? That could be us. Why not? We have to try to stay off of that roller coaster, try to be consistent, just get better each week. Steady, steady, steady, then come late November or December, get hot.”
“I’ve been in the playoffs twice since I’ve been here and that’s been the formula. … We can’t feel like we arrived when we have a good game or played well and won a couple games.”
Del Rio says that with a more talented roster, he has to guide it to better work in the last quarter of the season.
Beat writers and fans call Austen Lane “The Bringer of Pain.” It’s funny. But he looks like a guy who will make it hard for the team to look anywhere else for its second starting defensive end. He can be a ball of fury, and that will fit right in with the tone and tempo of the rest of the defensive front.
Right tackle Eben Britton came in with a reputation as a nasty player, and the team missed him last season when he was lost with a shoulder injury. I’ve picked him as a breakout-caliber guy this season. But word is he has not been great so far. Perhaps he’s still being cautious and easing his way back, but he needs to take things up a big notch soon.
Two years ago, people were writing off center Brad Meester. But defenses were taking advantage of weak guard play to get to him. He rebounded well last season and is a guy whom coaches love as a reliable offensive line leader.
Knighton’s weight always will be an issue. The defensive tackle is a great player and superlikable guy. The team cannot hold his fork for him. The more he can control it, the more impact and money he will make.
Prosinski could well be in the opening day lineup as the free safety. He worked with the first team early in camp and might be up to a pairing with Landry in the middle of the secondary. Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox need to play better at corner, but the Jaguars will improve from the safety upgrades and from the presence of veteran nickelback Drew Coleman.
Looking for an underdog to root for? How about undrafted free agent Marc Schiechl? He set a Football Championship Subdivision record for sacks at the Colorado School of Mines.
Scotty McGee isn’t working with defensive backs regularly anymore. Can he stick as strictly a punt-return specialist? He caught 185 punts on one day of camp. And the team should move away from using Thomas in the role, although McGee is hardly the only alternative.
I like Miller, and the team raves about his potential. But he’s been inconsistent early in camp with too many drops. He’s got great hands, so it seems to be a focus issue.
Fourth-round receiver Cecil Shorts was great in camp early, and I bet the undrafted crop of wideouts has at least one NFL-caliber guy. Keep your eyes on Armon Binns, Jamar Newsome and Dontrelle Inman.
Third-year receiver Jarett Dillard is running well after a couple of injuries cost him the bulk of his first two seasons.
The Jaguars may be content to use Jones-Drew, coming off a knee operation, very minimally in camp and preseason games.