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Kevin Hardy, Tony Brackens highlight Jaguars' best draft class

Linebacker Kevin Hardy still ranks fourth all-time for the Jaguars in sacks (28.5) and tackles (789). AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove

The Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t able to make the playoffs in their second season and go 14-2 and reach the AFC Championship Game three years later without the benefit of some really good early drafts.

Coach/GM Tom Coughlin had quite a haul in his first two drafts. He selected four of the best players in franchise history in 1995 and 1996. The list is headlined by offensive tackle Tony Boselli, the franchise’s inaugural draft pick in 1995, who was also named a Hall of Fame semifinalist last November.

However, I'd pick the 1996 class as the Jaguars' best, and here is a closer look at the four notable players from the class:

Kevin Hardy, LB, Illinois, first round, second overall: Hardy became one of the best defensive players in team history and still ranks fourth all time in sacks (28.5) and tackles (789). He had 10.5 sacks in 1999, which makes him just one of four players in franchise history to record double-digit sacks in a single season. Hardy was named to the All-Rookie team in 1996 and made the Pro Bowl, and was named All-Pro in 1999. Hardy played six seasons with the Jaguars, but he played only nine games in 2001 because of a knee injury and was released in the offseason as part of a salary-cap purge.

Tony Brackens, DE, Texans, second round, 33rd overall: Brackens is regarded as the best defensive player in franchise history. He played eight seasons for the Jaguars and holds eight career records: career sacks (55.0), sacks in a season (12.0), consecutive games with a sack (eight), sacks by a rookie (7.0), career forced fumbles (28), forced fumbles in a season (eight), forced fumbles in a game (three) and career fumble recoveries (13). Despite those numbers, Brackens made only one Pro Bowl. However, he, Hardy and cornerback Aaron Beasley were the key to a defense that held opponents to a franchise-low 217 points in 1999, which was the season the Jaguars went 14-2 and reached the AFC Championship Game.

Aaron Beasley, CB, West Virginia, third round, 63rd overall: Beasley played six years and is regarded as the second-best cornerback in team history behind Rashean Mathis. Beasley is second all time in interceptions (15) and interceptions in a single season (six). He holds the team record with a 93-yard interception return for a touchdown against San Francisco in 1999. Beasley’s 18 takeaways rank third behind Mathis and safety Donovin Darius. Beasley was also part of the salary-cap purge after the 2001 season.

Reggie Barlow, WR, Alabama State, fourth round, 110th overall: He caught only 33 passes in five seasons with the Jaguars, but he made a huge impact as a punt returner. He still holds franchise records for punt returns (146), punt return yardage (1,581 yards), punt return touchdowns (two), and longest punt return (85 yards for a touchdown against Kansas City in 1998).

Next-best Jaguars draft class: The Jaguars had extra picks in the 1995 draft, and after taking offensive tackle Boselli, who went on to become the best player in franchise history, the Jaguars took running back James Stewart with their second first-round pick. That was followed by offensive lineman Brian DeMarco and linebacker Bryan Schwartz in the second round, safety Chris Hudson in the third, and quarterback Rob Johnson in the fifth. Stewart is No. 3 on the franchise’s all-time rushing list (2,951 yards), DeMarco started 39 games, Schwartz is ninth all time in tackles (487), and Hudson started 45 games and intercepted eight passes in four seasons. Johnson started only one game in three seasons for the Jaguars, completing 20 of 24 passes for 294 yards and two TDs and rushing for another TD in the 1997 season opener, but the Jaguars used that performance as leverage in a trade with Buffalo to get the Bills’ first-round pick in 1999. The Jaguars used that pick to take Fred Taylor, who went on to become the franchise’s leading rusher.