3 JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

September 04, 2011

Looking for paydirt, they hit the free-agent market hard

High on a bookshelf in general manager Gene Smith's office at EverBank Field sits a framed aerial photo of a night home game between the Jaguars and the Colts. Dwarfing the players and the capacity crowd is a message writ large in white across the black sky: BUILD IT . . . THEY WILL COME. The Field of Dreams mantra might be a bit of a cliché, but it suits Smith, who has dedicated his entire career in pro football to painstakingly building the Jaguars into a contender. Smith has been with the team since its inception in 1994, starting as a combine scout and rising to his current post in 2009. But, he says, "The one thing I can never get away from is that I'm a scout. And the value of a team is in the evaluator."

Going into his third season as chief evaluator, Smith has completely overhauled the Jaguars' roster. Eighty of the 90 players on this year's training camp roster had no more than three years' experience with the team. The remaining 10 veterans (among them, quarterback David Garrard, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, center Brad Meester, cornerback Rashean Mathis and kicker Josh Scobee) are franchise cornerstones that Smith had a hand in scouting. That the Jaguars were as competitive as they were last season is astonishing. "We've basically overachieved," says coach Jack Del Rio. "People want to talk about last year's late collapse (the Jags were in first or tied for first from Week 11 through 15) and make it a negative. You're missing the point if that's all you're focusing on. In a rebuilding mode, we remained in the hunt."

Despite the personnel churn, Smith has, in fact, taken a rather conservative team-building approach, drafting in duplicate (especially on the line, where he used his first two picks in 2009 on offensive tackles and his first two in '10 on defensive tackles) while wading into free agency only occasionally. But this year he doubled down hard, trading two picks to the Redskins to select Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert 10th overall. The G.M. then signed a whopping nine unrestricted free agents with an eye toward reinforcing a defense that gave up the fifth-most passing yards (250.3) last season.

The additions are ones only a talent ferret such as Smith could love. Fifth-year linebacker Paul Posluszny, who has broken his arm twice in the past four seasons, played in relative obscurity in Buffalo but rates among the league's leading tacklers when healthy. Seventh-year end Matt Roth, a victim of injuries and 3--4 systems that often placed him at linebacker rather than on the line, his preferred position, has shown flashes of dominance and will benefit playing alongside Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman (who is coming off his second reconstructive knee surgery in as many seasons). Sixth-year nickelback Drew Coleman, formerly of the Jets, played in the shadows of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie but can be a top-line corner. Part of the reason he signed with the Jaguars, Coleman says, is that he was impressed by how closely Smith had followed his career. "It was kind of weird when he called me, and he knew about all this stuff that I did in high school, junior college and early in my career at TCU," says Coleman, who also considered the Cardinals and the Bengals. "He sees what his players can be in the future."

Smith has always been more partial to making stars than acquiring them. Still, he became a target for critics this off-season when, after losing top wideout Mike Sims-Walker to the Rams, he failed to add a comparable replacement during his free-agent spree. But there is talent in reserve. Mike Thomas, who led the Jaguars with 820 receiving yards in his second season, has the stout build (5'8", 198 pounds) and raw speed (4.3 in the 40) that recall a younger Steve Smith. Fifth-year man Jason Hill, whom the Jaguars picked up off waivers from the 49ers at midseason, averaged 22.5 yards per catch in 2010. Rookie Cecil Shorts III is a tall, smooth route-runner out of Division III Mount Union who's likely to stick as a third or fourth receiver.

The offense will continue to run through Jones-Drew, who with 1,324 rushing yards anchored the league's third-best ground attack despite missing the last two games of the season with a torn right meniscus; and tight end Marcedes Lewis, a punishing blocker and prolific receiver who went to his first Pro Bowl last year. "Our offense is one of those where if you get in your spot, the ball can go anywhere," says Lewis. "Gene's bringing in guys who want to win."

Smith deflects the praise. "I'm just one part of the process," he says. Still, he has a picture in his head of what a winning Jaguars team looks like, and that picture is beginning to come into focus.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 15

QB DAVID GARRARD

ATT 366

COMP 236

PCT 64.5

YARDS 2,734

YD/ATT 7.47

TD 23

INT 15

RATING 90.8

RB MAURICE JONES-DREW

ATT 299

YARDS 1,324

REC 34

TTD 7

WR MIKE THOMAS

REC 66

YARDS 820

AVG 12.4

TTD 4

WR JASON HILL

REC 11

YARDS 248

AVG 22.5

TTD 1

WR JARETT DILLARD

REC 6

YARDS 106

AVG 17.7

TTD 0

TE MARCEDES LEWIS

REC 58

YARDS 700

AVG 12.1

TTD 10

LT EUGENE MONROE

G 15

SACKS 6½

HOLD 3

FALSE 4

LG WILL RACKLEY (R)

G 13

SACKS 1

HOLD 2

FALSE 0

C BRAD MEESTER

G 16

SACKS 1½

HOLD 4

FALSE 1

RG UCHE NWANERI

G 16

SACKS 3½

HOLD 0

FALSE 1

RT EBEN BRITTON

G 7

SACKS 3

HOLD 0

FALSE 1

RB RASHAD JENNINGS

ATT 84

YARDS 459

REC 26

TTD 4

FB GREG JONES

ATT 2

YARDS 4

REC 11

TTD 0

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 28

DE AARON KAMPMAN

TACKLES 25

SACKS 4

INT 0

DT TYSON ALUALU

TACKLES 38

SACKS 3½

INT 0

DT TERRANCE KNIGHTON

TACKLES 34

SACKS 4

INT 1

DE MATT ROTH

TACKLES 86

SACKS 3½

INT 0

LB CLINT SESSION

TACKLES 38

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB PAUL POSLUSZNY

TACKLES 151

SACKS 2

INT 0

LB DARYL SMITH

TACKLES 97

SACKS 3½

INT 1

CB DEREK COX

TACKLES 49

SACKS 0

INT 4

SS COURTNEY GREENE

TACKLES 76

SACKS 0

INT 1

FS DAWAN LANDRY

TACKLES 107

SACKS 1

INT 0

CB RASHEAN MATHIS

TACKLES 57

SACKS 0

INT 1

DB DREW COLEMAN

TACKLES 34

SACKS 4

INT 1

SPECIALISTS

K JOSH SCOBEE

FG 22

FGA 28

XP 41

PTS 107

P MATT TURK

PUNTS 63

GROSS 42.1

NET 36.8

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 8--8

September

11 Tennessee

18 at N.Y. Jets

25 at Carolina

October

2 New Orleans

9 Cincinnati

16 at Pittsburgh

24 Baltimore (Mon)

30 at Houston

November

6 BYE

13 at Indianapolis

20 at Cleveland

27 Houston

December

5 San Diego (Mon)

11 Tampa Bay

15 at Atlanta (Thu)

24 at Tennessee (Sat)

January

1 Indianapolis

COACH: JACK DEL RIO

AGE: 48

NINTH SEASON WITH THE JAGUARS (66--65)

The NFL's seventh-winningest active head coach—and third-longest-tenured—Del Rio has overseen a two-year rebuilding effort that has nonetheless produced 15 wins. Last season the Jaguars' offense tied a franchise record for touchdown passes, with 26. With rookie Blaine Gabbert as insurance for David Garrard, the passing attack, under coordinator Dirk Koetter, should be even more productive.

SPOTLIGHT

BLAINE GABBERT, Quarterback

Of all the reasons not to draft Gabbert, who fell to 10th overall after being projected as high as the top pick, the one that riles him most is the conviction that a spread quarterback can't adapt his skills to the pros. "It makes me think people really don't know what they're talking about," he says.

The antispread argument—which ignores, among other things, just how much spread concepts (think shotgun formations featuring four or more receivers) have been co-opted by the NFL—focuses most on the quarterback's inexperience playing under center, which Gabbert did sparingly at Missouri. He does, however, have fluid mechanics, a live arm and a sharp mind for reading defenses, all of which translates well to the pros. The other nuances (including, yes, the center snap exchange), he's picked up quickly—so quickly, in fact, that he's already threatening the job security of starter David Garrard. Last year Garrard set franchise records for touchdowns (23) and completion percentage (64.5), but he struggled to take care of the football and was beset by injuries that persisted into this summer. If his health or performance slips, the Jags won't hesitate to put the rookie under center—or back in the shotgun. "We take about half of our snaps in the gun," says coach Jack Del Rio. "Some of the things he did in college are things we do here all the time."

PHOTOTIM HEITMAN/US PRESSWIRE (THOMAS)LEAP YEAR The Jags held off on making a major move for a receiver, instead counting on third-year man Thomas (66 catches in '10) to rise to the challenge. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (DEL RIO) PHOTOBILL FRAKES (GABBERT)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)