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NFL team preview: Jacksonville Jaguars

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INSIDE SLANT

Jacksonville knew coming into training camp that if the offensive and defensive line play wasn't better in 2010, there wouldn't be much reason to think its record would be any better. After a month of training camp and three preseason games, what's been shown on the field at this point has not given reason to think a lot has changed from a year ago.

Some of the numbers on paper look better, such as the Jaguars having nine sacks in three games and only allowing quarterback David Garrard to get sacked three times. That's significantly different than the 14 total sacks the Jaguars recorded in 2009 and the 44 times they allowed their quarterback to get dropped trying to pass.

But Jacksonville has not played its starters enough in the three preseason games to conclude that there is a reversal of numbers coming in 2010. The offensive line could very well end up being the same group that started the majority of games a year ago. Granted the two tackles, Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, should be better after experiencing tough rookie seasons but the other three positions remain suspect.

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The play of the two guards and center was a concern last year and remains that way this season. With the regular-season opener less than two weeks away, the club is still uncertain who will start at which guard spot. Center Brad Meester has slimmed down from a year ago, but at 33, he's definitely loss a step and is most likely playing his final season.

The Jaguars did nothing to help the receiving corps. It's the same unit minus Torry Holt from a year ago when Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas combined for 111 receptions. But the next high total from that receiver group was Jarett Dillard who caught six passes. That leaves the Jaguars with two average receivers and a handful of youngsters trying to make the roster.

Defensively the line is young and full of energy for the most part. Tackles Terrance Knighton was a hit as a rookie and this year's first-round pick Tyson Alualu could be even better. But the two pass-rushing ends remain suspect. Aaron Kampman is one of the best in the league when he's at his prime, but after knee surgery in December, there's some doubt if he'll be at his best, less than a year removed from the surgery.

Derrick Harvey has not even been an average pass rusher in his two seasons. The team's first-round draft pick in 2008 has totaled just 5.5 sacks in two seasons. Coach Jack Del Rio said Harvey has had a strong camp and looks solid this year, but Harvey still only got to the quarterback once in the first three preseason games.

When there is a lack of pass rush, the secondary must work overtime and it did so in 2009. The hope was that this unit would also improve, hand-in-hand with the defensive line. But with one preseason game remaining, Del Rio still hasn't announced who has won the two starting jobs at safety. Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox will open at their familiar spots, but the safety spots are up for grabs among four players, none of whom made a lasting impression in training camp.

Following the team's third preseason game, Garrard proclaimed "this offense is ready to open the season," despite the fact that running back Maurice Jones-Drew was credited with minus-2 yards in six carries in his only action in two preseason games. Injuries, or the fear of getting players injured, have kept a number of starters either on the sidelines or seeing limited playing time in the preseason. Based on the numbers it's put up, the offense is not ready to play Denver in the regular-season opener Sept. 12.

The Jaguars have addressed their weak areas from a year ago with mixed results. Some appear to have gotten better like the defensive line and offensive tackles while others, like the secondary and receiving group, look to be the same people just trying to do a better job.

It's not the formula that will turn a 7-9 team a year ago into serious playoff contenders a year later. The team is on the right track with its draft picks the past two years and acquiring Pro Bowl talent in the likes of Kampman and Kassim Osgood. It's just that building a winner takes time and the Jaguars are not at that stage, not yet anyway.

COACHING: Jack Del Rio, 8th year, 8th with Jaguars (58-57).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 7-9 (4th in AFC South).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 8-8 (3rd in AFC South).

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Because the Jaguars are not required to disclose news about injuries that occur in training camp, it's been difficult to tell if the team is simply keeping certain key players on the sidelines not wanting to risk injury or that players actually are hurt and the club doesn't want further setbacks. Against Tampa Bay in the third preseason game, the one where most teams like to play their normal starters into the third quarter, the Jaguars kept seven players out of uniform, including four starters and possibly a fifth who could end up starting. None of the team's anticipated starting linebacker trio dressed for the game, nor did RB Maurice Jones-Drew. It's now questionable if any of the four will suit up for this week's final preseason game against Atlanta.

With John Estes placed on injured reserve and the Jaguars likely wanting to protect the only other two centers on the team, Brad Meester and Uche Nwaneri, the club brought in rookie center Bradley Vierling. He's a 6-foot-3, 290-pound undrafted rookie who was originally signed by Pittsburgh in late April but waived in mid-June. With Meester and Nwaneri seeing limited service this week, Vierling could be in line for extended playing time against Atlanta.

PLAYER NOTES

--C John Estes is being groomed to replace Brad Meester at the center spot but that will have to wait until at least next year as Estes was placed on IR this week with an ailing knee.

--FS Reggie Nelson got his first start of the season last week, looked solid and didn't have any mental meltdowns, all of which may have enabled him to retake his starting spot.

--C Brad Meester who dropped 20 pounds during the offseason and reported to camp at 300 pounds, his lowest total since he arrived in Jacksonville as a rookie in 2000, appears to have held off all challengers to his starting spot.

--WR John Matthews left his feet and made a diving grab of a pass for a touchdown from Luke McCown in the Tampa Bay game. Matthews ranks third on the team with seven receptions for 75 yards in the first three games, but may be relegated to the practice squad.

--RB Rashad Jennings has seen increased playing time with Maurice Jones-Drew being held out of most of the preseason. Jennings may have shown the most improvement from a year ago and should easily surpass the 39 carries he had in his rookie season.

--DE Aaron Morgan is an undrafted rookie who has had a strong training camp and appears to be on even terms with fifth-round draft choices Larry Hart and Austen Lane, who are also at the end spots. Morgan has an outside shot of beating out either Hart or Lane for a roster spot.

--DT Leger Douzable was brought in when D'Anthony Smith suffered his season-ending Achilles injury. Douzable was just filling a spot back then but he's come on strong and is now making a strong bid to claim a roster spot.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/10, DT Tyson Alualu, California -- Fortunately, Alualu was only a five-day holdout and got enough work in training camp to be ready for the season-opener, unlike the Jaguars' first-round pick the previous two years. He's in the starting lineup and will likely be there for a number of years.

Rd. 3/74, DT D'Anthony Smith, Louisiana Tech -- Placed on injured reserve. Would have been in the D-tackle rotation had he been healthy.

Rd. 5/143, DE Larry Hart, Central Arkansas -- Extremely quick coming off the end spot but is a liability on running plays. He'll serve as a backup and will mostly be used in 3rd and long situations.

Rd. 5/153, DE Austen Lane, Murray State -- Had a good camp and will be in the DE rotation. A physical player but has a lot to learn yet.

Rd. 6/180, RB/KR Deji Karim, Southern Illinois -- Was an unexpected surprise with his ability as a kick returner in the first two games. How much the thumb surgery that he had last week will affect his ability to return kickoffs remains to be seen.

Rd. 6/203, CB/RS Scotty McGee, James Madison -- Was slated to be the team's punt returner and now may handle kickoff duties as well with the injury to Karim. Has a long way to go before he can be counted on to provide help as a defensive back.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- David Garrard. Backup -- Luke McCown.

Garrard must play better in 2010 if the Jaguars are to have any hopes of making the playoffs this year. That was the message first sent out by team owner Wayne Weaver shortly after the 2009 season ended. Garrard's QB rating the last two years has been in the low 80s and that has stymied the offense. He's vowed to be more assertive this year, chew out teammates when needed and be a stronger leader. But he's first got to show he can perform at an elite level on the field like he did in 2007 (102.2 QB rating for the year) but has failed to do the last two seasons. McCown has had an inconsistent training camp, but has performed well in the preseason games. The talent is there but he has to show it on a consistent basis during the practices, not just in games against backup players.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Maurice Jones-Drew, FB Greg Jones. Backups -- RB Rashad Jennings, FB Montel Owens, FB Brock Bolin.

Will Jones-Drew be 100 percent for the regular-season opener? It's tough to determine because he's only carried the ball six times in the first two preseason games and then was held out the last two. Is he hurt or are the Jaguars just being cautious that he doesn't get banged up before the opener? Hard to say because neither the Jaguars nor Jones-Drew will say. Both do deny that he's had any knee surgery in the last 10 days. While he watches, Jennings has gotten plenty of time and attention, such that he'll only see limited action in the team's final preseason game. The biggest question left to be answered is will undrafted rookie Bolin unseat the more experienced but more expensive Jones (due to make $3 million this year)? Bolin has looked good, but he can't match Jones' blocking talents.

TIGHT END: Starter -- Marcedes Lewis. Backups -- Ernest Wilford, Zach Miller, Zach Potter.

Lewis may be the most improved veteran on the team. He's catching everything thrown his way, has vastly improved his blocking technique and has joined Garrard as the outspoken leaders of the offense. The coaching staff has been waiting for this type of production from the 5-year pro out of UCLA. He's likely to exceed his personal high of 41 catches in his career and could finish as the team's No. 2 receiver behind wideout Mike Sims-Walker. When healthy, Miller can be a dangerous threat utilized as a wide receiver at the tight end position. He's got speed, the knack of getting open and great hands, but his blocking is a drawback. Wilford and Potter are backups and little more than that.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Mike Sims-Walker, Mike Thomas. Backups -- Jarett Dillard, Troy Williamson, Tiquan Underwood, Kassim Osgood.

This may have been the area of most concern at the conclusion of the 2009 season. Osgood is the only new addition to the group from a year ago, but the staff likes the way the others have developed into above average receivers. Sims-Walker could be ready for a breakout season if the others pose enough of a presence to take some of the pressure and attention away from him. Thomas has grabbed hold of the No. 2 spot and looked solid in the preseason games. The No. 3 spot, the speed receiver position, is still up for grabs among Dillard, Williamson and Underwood. Osgood hasn't panned out in his big as a receiver, but everyone is so enamored with his skills as a special teams player, he'll make the roster just for that.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Eugene Monroe, LG Kynan Forney, C Brad Meester, RG Uche Nwaneri, RT Eben Britton. Backups -- T Jordan Black, T Paul McQuistan, G Justin Smiley, G Vince Manuwai.

Four of the five spots are settled after veteran Meester held off all challenges to win the right to play an 11th -- and likely final -- season with the Jaguars. The lone remaining spot to fill is at guard where Forney, Smiley and Manuwai are still battling. All are veterans, which means one will start, one will be a backup and one will not make the roster. Best guess is that it will be Manuwai, Forney and Smiley in that order. All have had trouble staying healthy in training camp with Smiley missing the most time. Black will likely beat out McQuistan for the backup tackle spot with the latter headed to the practice squad. Black has seen some time at the tight end spot but only as a blocker.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Derrick Harvey, DT Tyson Alualu, DT Terrance Knighton, RE Aaron Kampman. Backups -- LE Jeremy Mincey, DT Atiyyah Ellison, DT Walter Curry, RE Larry Hart, DE Austen Lane, DT Leger Douzable, DE Aaron Morgan.

More question marks with this group than the coaches would like. The starting unit seems solid but it hasn't spent a lot of time together as the staff has been hesitant to have them on the field too much and risking injury. Alualu appears to be the perfect fit for Knighton and those two should clog the middle and apply a formidable pass rush. Bigger questions come at the end spots where Kampman has shown the ability to wreak havoc on QBs but that was before he had ACL surgery on his knee last December. Harvey was said to have had a strong training camp, but in the first three preseason games, he recorded just six total tackles and one sack. Smith's Achilles injury, which sent him to IR was a big loss as he was set to be the No. 3 DT. Who will fill that spot will come from Ellison, Curry and Douzable, all of whom may now make the final roster. Hart and Lane are promising rookies and will likely stick with the club. That could leave Mincey on the fence although he's looked good in camp.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Daryl Smith, MLB Kirk Morrison, SLB Justin Durant. Backups -- LB Russell Allen, LB Tony Gilbert, LB Kyle Bosworth, LB Teddy Lehman.

The only question among who would start was a battle between Durant and Allen with the former winning out. If one of the three would go down, Allen would be the replacement though there may be a shift in positions. If Morrison can maintain the high energy level he showed in Oakland the last five years, the Jaguars will have made a steal in getting him from the Raiders during the draft without having to give up players or draft picks. Morrison is a vocal leader, but bottom line is he's yet to play on a winning team in either college or the NFL. Smith is back to his more natural spot on the outside and should be a force there. Durant is athletic but has a tendency to over-react and miss out on the play. While Allen could fill in without any noticeable difference in the starters, there's a significant drop-off after that. If two starters go down for the Jaguars, this will be a vulnerable area for opponents to exploit.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Rashean Mathis, CB Derek Cox, SS Anthony Smith, FS Gerald Alexander. Backups -- CB Don Carey, CB Scott Starks, CB Michael Coe, SS Sean Considine, FS Reggie Nelson, FS Tyron Brackenridge.

Two months of OTAs in the spring and summer, two weeks of training camp and three preseason games and no one knows for sure who will start at either safety spot in the secondary. The corners are set with Mathis and Cox though once again, both fell victim to allowing some big completions in preseason games. Smith appears to have won the strong safety job as Considine did nothing to show that he's ready to reclaim a starting job in the NFL. Alexander and Nelson have both started in the preseason, but neither has stood out in training camp to make a claim as the starter. This likely won't be known until the week of the regular-season opener. Carey and Coe continue to make strides in developing as corners and will see time as a nickel back along with Starks. This unit was a weak area a year ago and it doesn't appear to be a lot stronger a year later.

SPECIAL TEAMS: P Adam Podlesh, PK Josh Scobee, LS Jeremy Cain, PR Scotty McGee, PR Mike Thomas, KR Deji Karim, KR Scotty McGee.

The kicking game looks to be better than it was in 2009. Scobee, who suffered through his worst of six seasons with the Jaguars a year ago, connected on all seven of his field goal attempts in the first three preseason games. Even his kickoffs seem to higher and deeper than before. Podlesh was strong in the punting department, averaging better than 42.5 yards a kick in the first three games. He's not being pushed by anyone and has improved on his directional kicks, placing five of his 12 punts inside the 20 yard line including two inside the 5-yard line.

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