Gene Smith is straightforward, simple and a little uncomfortable when he’s the focus. He’s no jokester pulling punch lines out of his pocket.
Those are qualities that make him seem like a perfect fit for his job. Twelve games into his first season as GM of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he works quietly, anonymous to most NFL fans. That’s just fine with him.
With his team surprisingly in control of one of the AFC’s final playoff spots as it prepares to host Miami Sunday and Indianapolis next Thursday night, he’s been more popular this week, carving out more time to talk to people like me.
His first draft class has made as big a contribution as any in the league and includes a third-round defensive tackle from Temple, Terrance Knighton, and a third-round cornerback from William & Mary, Derek Cox. Coming from those non-powerhouse schools, both picks raised eyebrows when their names were called in April. Both have been effective and look to be long-term building blocks.
Some of Smith’s personnel peers say he deserves applause for his willingness to go with them.
“You’ve got to identify what your needs are, really look at the players and not worry about what everybody else says and I think that’s what they did,” one AFC personnel man said. “You’d prefer not to have to make those decisions your first or second year, you’d like that to come further down the road. But sometimes you don’t have a choice. I think he gets a lot of credit for stepping forward and doing what he thought was the right thing.”
Unless things come apart for the 7-5 Jaguars in spectacular fashion from here, I believe Smith has done enough of the right things that he ought to be seriously considered for any executive of the year awards.
In a wide-ranging conversation Thursday afternoon, we covered a lot of ground.
Here is my attempt to plug you into all of it.
Draft class: Part of the reason the team’s gotten such a big contribution from its draft class is because it had holes to fill and opportunities to provide. Perhaps other teams drafted as well, but haven’t had to call on their rookies so much.
“They prepare well. They take what they do very seriously. They’ve got a passion for their profession,” Smith said of the group. “I am proud of each one of them, because when given opportunities they’ve been able to take advantage of them because of their approach to the game. Sometimes you don’t see that all the time in younger players. I am not saying these players don’t have a learning curve, but there is a maturity level with this group that has been very positive to see.”
Monroe: Been a better pass-blocker than a run-blocker like in college, although he’s improving as a run-blocker. He’s been matched a lot with the best pass-rushers, and we’ve had a good menu of them on our schedule. He’s had his moments when he’s given up some sacks. More off of technique or footwork than his skill set.
Britton: Eben’s been with us from day one. He’s really done a good job run blocking. Pass blocking, where he’s probably had some struggles, he’s been too aggressive and that can work against you. The times he’s been beat, again, it hasn’t been his skill set. It’s been footwork and technique.
Knighton: Has shown dominant traits against the run. Here’s a guy that’s 330 pounds that’s very athletic, long arms, learning how to play off blocks better. Starting to show signs of a guy who can get on the edge of a block and be an inside force as a pass-rusher. Today, he’s been a very stout run-defender. He’s really had a good year and he’s sustained it.
Cox: He’s got a natural feel and awareness for the game. He’s got a little bit of Rashean Mathis in him that way. He’s got outstanding ball skills. For a big corner, he’s got good feet and hips and can close. We feel like he belongs. He has sustained it as well.
Performance versus expectations: Smith said he was cautiously optimistic at the start of the year, that he liked the blend of veterans and kids. He didn’t know how quickly youth would perform. He said that if during camp he knew the Jags would be 7-5 and in control of the final wild card with four games left, “it would have been close to the high end” of what he thought could happen. But he knows it’s more of a surprise to outsiders.
As for how he has done as a first-year GM with power over personnel decisions:
“I’ve done OK,” he said. “It’s like a quarterback who takes over as a starter. There is some on-the-job training. I feel like you can outsmart people some of the time but you can outwork them all of the time. I feel like the one thing that I can already do for the coaching staff is give them a competitive advantage by what we do in player personnel.”
He credited player personnel director Terry McDonough and the scouting staff for helping give the team an edge.
Team personality: There is a talent gap between the Jaguars and the team they are chasing, the undefeated Colts.
“I like to think that we’re getting closer,” Smith said. “The Colts being in our division are the benchmark … Our goal is certainly to become what they are. That’s what we’re striving for.”
But in terms of team personality, Smith already has a lot of what he wants.
“We have a good team profile of guys who understand it’s a privilege to be in the NFL, guys who have some structure and discipline in their lives and guys who do understand you have to have a team-first mentality to compete at the very highest level,” Smith said. “It takes good fortune in terms of your roster health and then it takes a group of good players who play great together.”
Tim Tebow:A local guy with a storied career in nearby Gainesville, Tebow would do a lot to perk interest in the Jaguars, who struggle at the gate. But that’s not going to be a factor in where Smith ultimately places the Florida quarterback on his draft board.
Smith said the Jags have a very good feel for Tebow, a Jacksonville product who he does believe can be a successful NFL quarterback. Smith called him an outstanding player and competitor.
“I’ve never drafted based off marketing, we have a department for marketing,” Smith said. “From my standpoint, we have a system we employ here and it’s best available player in the draft. If he’s the best available player when we’re drafting at whatever point in the draft, he would be a Jaguar. But we’ll stay with our system.”
Jack Del Rio: Del Rio probably ranks behind Sean Payton and Marvin Lewis, but certainly deserves to be mentioned in the coach of the year conversation.
Smith said his relationship with the coach has been great and he admires how Del Rio and his staff have won a lot of different ways with a lot of different people.
“He’s got some scout in him and I’ve got some coach in me,” he said. “We just instinctually see things very similarly for whatever reason.”
He thinks part of it is they both grew up watching fathers who were in construction.
Distractions: The big story for a lot of the country isn’t how the Jags have played, it’s how they’ve drawn. Though they are 5-1 at home, their average attendance of 45,497 is second-worst in the league and all their home games have been blacked out.
Smith wants to be a background guy, and those storylines have actually allowed him to lay low.
“I am not the face of the franchise, I certainly don’t coach the team and I am not the quarterback,” he said. “I understand my defined role. … Whatever I was at any point in my life, whether it was assistant football coach, recruiting coordinator, Blesto scout, regional scout, director of college scouting, the only credit I ever wanted was winning.
“And that’s the only credit I still want. Good drafting should be defined by how you transfer it to the field, defined by winning on the field.”
Roster-building strategy: The Jaguars gave up a second-round pick to draft Cox and a seventh-rounder to get backup quarterback Luke McCown. That means Smith will have a smaller second draft class. He said the Jaguars can make up for that with undrafted successes like Russell Allen and William Middleton.
The philosophy against spending big for free agents won’t change.
“This is a smaller market here and we do have to make fewer mistakes and in pro free agency we have to do things in a different way and in a way that fits my philosophy in roster building,” Smith said. “… Certainly pro free agency has a role. They’ll be players we target.
“The key thing is placing the right market value on them by evaluating them correctly and then trying to see how you fit them into your team structure. We’re going to build this team through the draft and I feel like over the long term that’s what’s going to enable us to sustain success.
The next four weeks: If the Jaguars only win one of their final four, they’ll have missed a great chance. But an 8-8 year would still be a success considering their overhaul. What’s Smith thinking about with four games remaining and a playoff berth there for the taking?
“It may not always be reflected on the scoreboard, some of the things that are taking place in good way,” he said. “I just want to continue to see improvement. You can lose games and I really believe it’s more about the lesson than the loss sometimes. Especially with the young players. I’ve seen growth on this team and improvement and that’s all I want to continue to see.
“We’d like to win the rest of our games and be in the playoffs. But realistically we’re honed in on the next game and we’re looking for improvement and we’ll just see where that takes us.”