Entering training camp, there were three significant areas of concern the Jaguars felt had to be addressed. They included the group of wide receivers who had only one proven veteran, an offensive line where three positions were up for grabs with a fourth to be filled by a player who missed the entire 2008 season with an injury and a defensive line where there were question marks and concerns at all four positions.
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Have the questions been answered at wide receiver? Not really. Injuries have hampered the development of rookie Mike Thomas and have slowed Mike Sims-Walker‘s bid for a starting job. The latter has been trying to get into the starting lineup for three seasons but each time has been thwarted by injury. “I feel like I’m cursed,” Sims-Walker said this week.
The only two receivers who have played at a high level throughout training camp have been Torry Holt and Troy Williamson. They’ve earned the starting spots through dependable and consistent play during camp and preseason games.
The concern is with the rest of the group. Other than Nate Hughes, none of the newcomers has stepped forward. Dillard and Underwood have played well in streaks but there have been too many inconsistencies. Hughes has been a nice surprise but he’s yet to show he can perform under the pressure of a regular-season game. Bottom line is that there are still questions and concerns within this group. Holt is likely to be double-teamed on a regular basis as no one else poses a threat that requires anything more than single coverage.
The offensive line is a work-in-progress and will continue to be so through at least the first half of the schedule. Few teams would risk starting a pair of rookies at the tackle spots but that’s what the Jaguars appear ready to do. Everyone knew that rookie Eugene Monroe likely would beat out Tra Thomas at left tackle, but Eben Britton replacing Tony Pashos comes as a surprise. Pashos played well in two of the three preseason games and appeared to be holding off Britton’s challenge. If Britton doesn’t falter between now and then, he’ll keep the starting spot for the regular-season opener.
That still leaves the left guard spot. Uche Nwaneri and Maurice Williams have battled for the right to start since camp opened, but neither has distinguished himself. Coach Jack Del Rio originally downplayed the idea of moving Pashos to that spot, but told radio listeners Sept. 2 that Pashos would get a chance to compete for the starting spot.
Vince Manuwai appears ready to reclaim the job at left guard though he saw limited action in the preseason as he finished his rehab from his torn ACL suffered last year. Center Brad Meester is the lone holdover who has been in the lineup throughout camp.
Whatever its makeup, the starting group will be playing together for the first time in the regular-season opener. While most teams use the preseason to make sure the five linemen are working together smoothly as a group, the Jaguars will be forced to use the regular season to accomplish this, which could prove costly.
The defensive line is set at three of the four spots, but the starting spot adjacent to defensive tackle John Henderson is still up for grabs. Rookie Terrance Knighton started during the preseason, but is he ready to become a permanent fixture there? Fourth-year player Atiyyah Ellison has never played in an NFL game despite being with five different teams since 2004. One of them will get the starting nod as incumbents Derek Landri and Rob Meier haven’t proven they’re the answer.
Henderson had a strong training camp and solidified the middle the way the Jaguars wanted him to do. Defensive ends Derrick Harvey and Reggie Hayward still need to raise the level of their play. The Jaguars had only one sack in the first three preseason games as they failed to generate much of a pass rush from the end spots.
The defensive line group is improved over a year ago but still has a ways to go to be effective in pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
COACHING: Jack Del Rio, 7th year, 7th with Jaguars (50-46-0).
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 5-11 (4th in AFC South).
PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 7-9 (4th in AFC South).
Notes and Quotes
–The Jaguars brought back Todd Boeckman to compete with Todd Bouman for the backup quarterback spot behind David Garrard. The club originally signed Boeckman on June 17 but released him right before the start of training camp. Jacksonville released third-string QB Paul Smith last week to pave the way for Boeckman, the former Ohio State standout.
The next question is whether the Jaguars stay pat with Bouman as their backup or check the waiver wire for a released quarterback. When asked if the Jaguars plan to replace Bouman, coach Jack Del Rio said, “No, we like Todd.” There had been published reports out that the Jaguars were interested in some other backup quarterbacks, including Tyler Thigpen of Kansas City.
–Since 2000, Torry Holt leads the NFL with 1,361 passes thrown his way, resulting in 817 receptions. Buffalo’s Terrell Owens ranks second with 1,258 passes thrown his way. Holt has made at least one reception in 153 consecutive games, the fourth-longest streak among active players and the 10th longest in NFL history.
–Rashean Mathis ranks as the Jaguars‘ all-time leader in career interceptions with 25 and has a franchise-best three interception returns for touchdowns. He ranks fourth in the NFL from 2004-08 with 23 interceptions and tied for seventh with three TD returns.
–During training camp, Del Rio brought in several motivational speakers, the latest being Army Lt. Col. Donald Wolfe, whom Del Rio had befriended recently.
“He talked about the need to have selflessness and the fact that armed forces aren’t a whole lot different than what we do as a football team in terms of building a team, working together for common cause and the willingness to sacrifice and the willingness to be accountable when the situation calls for it to,” Del Rio said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “He caught like 65 balls in high school. A 260-pound wideout. Can you imagine playing corner and looking across and seeing that guy?” – Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio talking about rookie DT Terrance Knighton (now 322 pounds), who played as a wide receiver at times in high school.
Strategy and Personnel
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio surprised local media when he revealed on a radio show Sept. 2 that rookie Eben Britton would get the start at right tackle over veteran Tony Pashos and that Pashos would move inside to a right guard position where he’ll challenge a couple of incumbents for the starting spot there. Del Rio had indicated earlier in the week that he hoped the lineup he intended to start for the final preseason game against the Redskins would be his starting unit for the season opener in Indianapolis.
The shifting of Pashos, a seven-year veteran, to guard after he had only played right tackle in the NFL and in college (Illinois) comes as a surprise. Britton had seen limited time with the first unit in preseason games, but apparently he showed enough to earn a spot in the starting lineup. He’s one of five potential starters among the Jaguars‘ nine-man rookie class, which would make this draft class one of the best the club has ever produced.
–LT Tra Thomas drew raves for his play in training camp and in preseason games, but it wasn’t enough to fight off the challenge of rookie Eugene Monroe.
–Brian Iwuh removed any doubt about making the Jaguars roster for a fourth consecutive season with a strong showing as a starter in the Philadelphia game that included a 91-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
–Long snapper Joe Zelenka has played in all 16 Jaguars games for nine consecutive seasons. That could come to a screeching halt this year as Zelenka is in a tight battle with Jeremy Cain for the long snapper job. With both players firing bullets back to the punter and on place-kicks, the roster spot could be decided by who has the better game on punt returns and making tackles.
–Steve Weatherford filled in for Adam Podlesh last year after Podlesh was sidelined with a knee injury in the 11th game. Now Weatherford is trying to win Podlesh’s job permanently. Both have eight punts in the first three preseason games with Podlesh’s 45.8-yard average slightly better than Weatherford’s 43.4. Podlesh has a bigger lead in net average, however, 45.5 to 35.6.
–The Jaguars‘ experiment of moving college quarterback Zach Miller to tight end may be put off a year as Miller’s knee injury may require that he be placed on IR.
–With Maurice Jones-Drew (seven carries, 18 yards) seeing limited action to prevent injury in the first three preseason games, backup Chauncey Washington made the most of his opportunities to lead the team in rushing with 69 yards on 18 carries.
–Rookie Tiquan Underwood has just two pass receptions for 39 yards in the first three preseason games, but has helped his roster bid by returning five kickoffs for 114 yards.
PLAYER TO WATCH: DT Atiyyah Ellison – Has bounced around the league with five clubs on his resume but he’s yet to get into an NFL game. That could change this season as he has impressed the coaching staff with his physical play. He’s in the rotation of tackles for game action and could eventually earn a starting spot.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/8, OT Eugene Monroe, Virginia – Had he not been a 12-day holdout, Monroe would have been a lock for a starting spot. He’s made up some lost time with his physical talent and he’ll likely push Tra Thomas to the sidelines.
Rd. 2/39, OT Eben Britton, Arizona – He also started slow but has played a lot in the first three preseason games and was slated to start the fourth, an indication he’ll be in the starting lineup against Indianapolis on Sept. 13.
Rd. 3/72, DT Terrance Knighton, Temple – Has been a pleasant surprise and is in line to win a starting spot. Good athleticism for a big man who has put good pressure on quarterbacks. Only thing he’s lacking now is game experience.
Rd. 3/73, CB Derek Cox, William & Mary – Had Cox been healthy from the start he might have won a starting job, but injuries have held him back. Still, once he’s healthy, it will just be a matter of time until he moves into the starting lineup.
Rd. 4/107, WR Mike Thomas, Arizona – Did not see action in the team’s first three preseason games due to a hamstring injury but returned to action in time for the team’s final game against Washington. The lost time cost Thomas a chance to contend for playing time. If the hamstring flares up again, Thomas could land in IR.
Rd. 5/144, WR Jarett Dillard, Rice – With Sims-Walker and Thomas battling injuries during the preseason, Dillard could have moved up the charts, but too many dropped passes hurt his cause. Still, he’s likely to make the roster and could develop into a threat with more experience.
Rd. 6/180, TE Zach Miller, Nebraska-Omaha – The converted quarterback showed good promise early in camp, but a lingering knee injury made him a non-factor. The club likes his talent, however, and he could land on IR just to get a year to develop and learn the new position.
Rd. 7/250, RB Rashad Jennings, Liberty – Another promising rookie who’s been hit with the injury bug (strained groin). The Jaguars like his size and speed but he’s seen limited action with only five carries for 9 yards in the first three preseason games. He’ll likely end up on the practice squad.
Rd. 7/253, WR Tiquan Underwood – The third of the drafted wide receivers, Underwood also missed out on a chance to secure a roster spot when injuries sidelined some of the other receivers. A couple drops in games hurt his chances.
Which Garrard will show up, the one who threw only three interceptions and had a 102.2 QB rating two years ago, or the one from last year who had 13 picks and a QB rating of 81.7? Garrard lost close to 20 pounds in the offseason to give him more mobility. He’s been average at best in the first three preseason games with just an 86.7 rating. The line must protect Garrard, as neither Bouman nor Boeckman is ready to play full time. Look for the Jaguars to go after another QB once teams start making cuts to reach the 53-man roster.
Jones-Drew was handed the starting job when Fred Taylor was released. MJD saw limited time in the first three preseason games with just seven carries for 18 yards. There’s concern whether he can handle 20-24 carries a game for an entire season, though he says he can. Jones-Drew has become the face of the franchise. As he goes, so will go the Jaguars‘ offense. He must remain healthy as there’s a considerable drop off behind him. Jones may see some time at the RB spot as the club wants him to have more carries this year.
Lewis’ production has gone improved each year but the Jaguars will be looking for even higher catch and yardage totals in this, his fourth season. He had 41 grabs for 489 yards but just two TDs. At 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, the Jaguars need to use his size more, especially on third-down situations and in the red zone. Lewis has good hands but has yet to prove his worth of a first-round pick. The Jaguars brought back Wilford to compete for a backup spot when a knee injury shelved Miller.
The most unsettled position on the team entering training camp remains in flux, mostly because injuries didn’t allow Sims-Walker and Thomas to display their talents. Holt saw limited action in the preseason but he has nothing to prove with his credentials. Williamson may have been the most pleasant surprise. His reputation for dropping passes did not carry over into this training camp but he’ll still need to prove himself in the regular season. Sims-Walker’s return at 100 percent is crucial as the rookies are not ready to be major contributors.
Entering the final preseason game, three of the five starting spots were still in doubt. Both tackle positions and right guard were in question though Del Rio indicated it would be resolved after that game. The line will have depth if everyone stays healthy, unlike a year ago when the club was forced to go with unproven backups by the second game. Monroe looks to have won his battle with the veteran Thomas, who could wind up on the right side if neither Pashos nor Britton shows he can do the job there. Pashos is a strong run-blocker but has struggled with pass protection. Britton was scheduled to start the last preseason game and will keep the job depending on his play, likely pushing Pashos to a guard spot. Nwaneri is the bet to beat out Williams at RG, which could cost Williams a roster spot.
Another major question entering camp was who would line up adjacent to Henderson at DT. It’s still unresolved but the emergence of Ellison and the surprise strong showing by the rookie Knighton has eased some of the concern. Henderson’s training camp was reminiscent of the form that earned him trips to the Pro Bowl in 2004 and ’06. There’s still concern at the DE spots. There was some QB pressure applied by the ends, but as a team, the Jaguars recorded just one sack in the first three games. Harvey especially must turn his game up a level to justify the lucrative contract he signed a year ago.
The Jaguars feel they strengthened this unit by interchanging Smith and Durant. Smith has started each season on the outside, but has finished in the middle as a replacement for injured players. Now Durant gets the job in the middle to take advantage of his speed to roam to the sidelines. As a group, it ranks among the league’s best, but they must stay healthy. Only Iwuh has proven NFL experience with 43 games the last three years. Allen may be the best undrafted newcomer to the team and has been a standout on special teams.
On the whole, this group appears to be better than it was last year, but it wasn’t very good in 2008. Williams may be hanging onto his starting spot by a thread as rookie Derek Cox has been impressive when healthy. That’s been the problem. He’s had a groin injury much of training camp and has fallen behind in his bid to overtake Williams. Considine has been a steady influence on Nelson who sometimes gets lost in the secondary. Mathis has had a strong training camp and looks to return to the Pro Bowl status he enjoyed several years ago. Starks and McCree are solid and will battle for the nickel spot.
One of the better training camp battles was between Podlesh and Weatherford. The Jaguars have not been enthralled with Podlesh’s consistency or his ability to drop punts inside the 30. Weatherford came in midway last season when Podlesh suffered a knee injury in November and missed the final five games. Too close to call who gets this job with the loser likely off the roster. Scobee is among the league’s best and should have another strong season. The LS spot is up in the air with the younger Cain a good bet to win the job over the higher-priced Zelenka. Witherspoon has been fairly consistent on his returns but had a major slipup when he stepped out of bounds on his own 3-yard line on a KO return.