Jags need big Year 2 from Cox, Knighton

Derek Cox (left) and Terrance Knighton will have to continue the success from their breakout rookie seasons if Jacksonville's defense is going to improve. Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Do little as a rookie, and the expectation is a second-year jump.

Produce, and the talk is of the potential for a sophomore slump.

I’m not sure I get that. But when I look at the Jacksonville Jaguars' continued effort to remake their defense, I look to two second-year players as key components.

If cornerback Derek Cox and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, third-rounder picks last year, get better, so will Jacksonville.

Now how do they make it happen?

“That’s the one thing that our first-year guys coming back as second-year guys have to understand is, what they did last year is not good enough,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “In this league you’ve got to continue to improve or people are going to pass you by.

"Those guys got off to a good start in their careers by playing 16 games, but we’re going to need more from them and the rest of that group. They can’t rest on their laurels and think that they’ve figured it out. That’s what leads to that sophomore problem that we don’t want to see.”

Cox was a solid pass defender as a rookie, ending the first drive of his career with an end-zone pick of Peyton Manning. He usually stepped up to make tackles when needed, though he is working to improve that area. Generally, he drew strong reviews.

He played with poise and his body language made him seem more like a fearless veteran than a rookie out of a smaller program like William & Mary.

Jacksonville is counting on a revamped defensive line to produce a far better pass rush, but it didn't add any help at safety. So top quarterbacks like Manning and Matt Schaub, who face the Jaguars twice a year, will feel they have room to work if they have time to do so. That increases the pressure on Cox and Rashean Mathis.

“Now, I have experience, I’m more aware and it’s not new territory for me,” Cox said. “Now my biggest thing is I want to be more football savvy and be more a student of the game -- learning offenses, their habits, their tendencies, what somebody is trying to do to you.”

There is only so much a quarterback, receiver and passing offense can do, it’s just that they find different ways to do them. Cox said he's determined to boil it down to the basic parts so he can recognize them when they’re used as pieces of bigger, more complicated scenarios.

He is used to relying on his athleticism and reacting to what he sees, he said.

“But I want to make plays by actually processing, having the game slow down and having my vision go from being in a tunnel to being broad and opening up,” he said.

Said general manager Gene Smith during the team’s recent minicamp: “I think Derek Cox out here has been outstanding. You see a guy who’s bigger physically. He’s trusting his eyes a little bit better, I think. He’s a little bit more technique-conscious.”

Knighton was a hard-to-move run-stuffer who persevered through what could have been a difficult season despite a high ankle sprain. His upside is also big, though there may also be a concern about him getting too big.

Smith said he expects Knight to be better, and to regularly draw the sort of double teams that allow for the other tackles to have one-on-one matchups with guards who should be beaten.

Knighton is focusing more on block recognition and the sort of maneuvering he will see from players like Colts center Jeff Saturday. He’s studying film and formations and concentrating on what an offensive lineman’s initial hand placement and eye location means.

Veteran defensive end Reggie Hayward had talked to Knighton about the extra attention he will face in his second go-round.

“The first few weeks those double teams may not make a difference,” Hayward said. “But the season is long. It’s going to take its toll on him. He has to be mentally strong. They can’t double team you every single play. So if you don’t take a play off, when you don’t get double teamed you are going to make some plays.”

Four rookie linemen will look to Knighton as a leader, and he is trying to bring the constant energy that new defensive line coach Joe Cullen demands.

“Nobody wants to have the sophomore slump,” he said. “I played good against the run, I wasn’t so good against the pass as I wanted to be, so that’s something I am focusing on. I want to develop that high motor. Even though Tyson [Alualu] is a rookie, he brings that energy to the D-line because he’s one of those non-stop guys.”

The Jaguars hope that while Cox and Knighton will stay on a good growth curve, the members of their rookie class can emerge as big contributors from the start the way those two did. It's fair to say that as players drafted in Smith's first year, Cox and Knighton created a standard for first-year defenders.

Now, perhaps, they’ll create another for second-year members of Del Rio’s D.

Hayward said he’s talked to Knighton about Year 2, and what he’s had to say certainly can apply to Cox as well.

“I try to tell him, your second year is always your hardest year,” Hayward said. “Because you’ve had some success, you’re not going to be surprising anyone. They’re ready for you. So you’re going to have to work extra hard to make the plays that you made. So be ready.

“Don’t let it go to your head. Stay humble. And just know you’re someone that they are going to talk about when they do their scouting report. You’re someone that they have their eyes on."