When people point fingers at Shack Harris’ draft mistakes, they immediately point fingers to the first round misses and the especially terrible ’08 and ’04 drafts. But sadly, we know what we have now in the 2007 draft class and it amounts to yet another justification for moving on from Harris and into the Gene Smith era. Jacksonville had eleven picks in this draft and after just four seasons, there are only two players left with team – offensive guard Uche Nwaneri and punter Adam Podlesh. Let’s relive the draft, pick by pick…
The 1st round of the ’07 draft will be remembered in the Jaguars’ point of view as the night that the Jaguars passed on Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn not once, but twice. Reminder, David Garrard had quite an ugly end to the 2007 and Byron Leftwich was falling quickly out of favor with the coaches. Some still believe Quinn was the Jaguars’ (or Jack Del Rio’s) guy, but Michael C. Wright suggested that it was actually Kevin Kolb who the Jaguars had their eye on. According to Vic Ketchman, there was a trade deal in place with the Steelers for Jacksonville to move into position for Darrelle Revis. Imagine how the secondary would look now with him on board. But the New York Jets somehow got this news and traded ahead of Pittsburgh and stole Revis from the Jaguars’ clutches. Switching to Plan B, the Jaguars targeted a safety with Deon Grant packing for Seattle and Donovan Darius injured and declining. Reggie Nelson of UF was the best safety on the board when it came time for Shack Harris’ pick and his fantastic rookie year gave fans plenty of optimism. He played in all 16 games, finished with 5 interceptions, 63 tackles, and 11 passes defensed – he was a no brainer selection for the All-Rookie team. Some still don’t get how he went from a star-on-the rise into a punchline so quickly. It’s my contention that Sammy Knight’s veteran savvy made the perfect match for Nelson. After Knight left and the pass rush disappeared with him, Reggie begun to struggle…epically. In ’08 he registered just two picks and picked up a bad habit of egregious missed tackles. In 2009, it was pretty much guaranteed that every time the secondary got torched with a long play, Nelson would be seen on the replay out of position and catching up only to make a tackle that wouldn’t even be flagged in a Powder Puff game. Right before the 2010 season, Gene Smith made a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals, exchanging Nelson for David Jones and a draft pick that never materialized. Jones had a good opening game against the Broncos and a decent half in San Diego, but the rest was plenty disappointing – why the Jaguars extended his contract is beyond me. As for Nelson, he improved admirably after a rough start in Cincy, even finding his way into the starting lineup. He started on six games, including five of the last six of the season. With two interceptions, including a 53-yard return on one of them, you have to wonder if the 2007 Reggie Nelson was returning to form. If so, the Jaguars are left looking rather foolish. But if this was just another flash in the pan and Reggie Nelson remain his “major bust” status, the Jaguars look wise for getting “something for nothing”.
The 2nd and 3rd round selections, LB Justin Durant and WR Mike Sims-Walker, have stayed with the team until this offseason, but from the way the coaches and front office have spoken about them, there is almost no chance of seeing them in Jaguars’ uniform next year. The reason why Gene Smith will not extend them is their failure to realize the generous upside they were drafted for. It’s not necessarily a clear-cut situation – Justin Durant is still the fastest and most athletic of the Jaguars’ linebackers and despite the potential of Jason Hill and Jarrett Dillard, Sims-Walker has proven that he could be a dangerous target. For both players, the biggest issue was staying healthy. Sims-Walker spent his rookie season on IR and in played only 9 games in ’08 (16 catches, 217 yards) – alarmingly similar to Jarrett Dillard’s c career so far – and even in 2010, he was injured and missing time or playing at less than 100% in many of the games later in the season. Justin Durant never played in all 16 games during his first four years as a pro. His major issue lately has become a very familiar problem to the NFL – concussions. What it comes down to with both players is they failed to take the next step and become the elite players they had the capability of becoming. MSW came close to that level in 2009, but without a big-name decoy by the name of Terry Holt for defensive coordinators to hone in on, the focus was shifted to shutting down #11. He failed to prove to the personnel decision-makers that he could be a threat on his own. As for Justin Durant, he looked like he might become the Jaguars’ next unknown star linebacker next to Daryl Smith. He looked very promising in ’07-’08 and in 2009, played at a level above the other Jacksonville LBs. Things broke down in his contract year and injuries hurt in a big way – even when he was on the field, he often looked out of sync with the rest of the defense. Unlike Sims-Walker’s case, where Dillard and Hill are legitimate candidates to replace him, I don’t exactly understand why the Jaguars dismissed Durant so abruptly with such a gaping hole at the position. It’s anyone’s guess how Durant’s and Sims-Walker’s careers will turn out after their stint with the Jaguars, but don’t believe that letting them walk away for free was the best decision on GM Gene’s part.
Moving into the middle rounds, we find the two players who are still with the Jaguars (assuming Adam Podlesh is re-signed once the lockout ends). Podlesh was selected in the 4th round, which for a punter is usually indicative of incredible talent (right, Zoltan Meskó?). In his first two years, Podlesh struggled often and was on the verge of being declared a certified bust. With Adam sidelined for several games in 2008 because of injury, Stephen Weatherford made a push to become the Jaguars punter of the future After training camp, Gene Smith and the front office decided to stick with the Maryland graduate and allow Weatherford to go to the New York Jets. Podlesh, in turn, started showing positive signs that year and was so good in Jaguar losses that fans would start worrying if his first punt of the game was a good one. He finally played like a 4th round pick in 2010, playing almost completely mistake-free and showing his talent in more than just rare flashes. He even became Pro Bowl alternate for the AFC for being a major force on the Jaguars Special Teams. Gene Smith and the Jaguars have made it clear they wish to resign him and that sounds like a solid plan to me.
The other remaining member of the ’07 Jaguars draft class, Uche Nwaneri, already got his big extension. The 5th rounder from Purdue has slowly evolved from one of the Jaguars’ “jars on the shelf” into one of the building block of the revamped O-line. Everyone remembers the rash of O-linemen the Jags lost before the end of season opener in 2008; Uche stepped in and has been steadily contributing ever since. Although he’s capable of playing center, I hope he sticks at guard to build on his momentum at the position, rather than re-learning and honing his skill at a different position. With a contract keeping him in Jacksonville until 2015, Uche will join Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton and Will Rackley as 80% of the starting O-line for the foreseeable future. Clearly, Nwaneri has more than proven his value as a 5th round pick.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Jaguars’ draftees that year failed to prove that they even belong at the pro level (except for Derek Landri, who had some success last year in Carolina). Brian Smith, a 4th round DE from Missouri went to the Physically Unable to Perform list in his rookie year, was waived in 2008, and never went on to play in an NFL game. Let’s hope that the next Jaguar draftee from Missouri turns out to be much, much more successful. Another 5th round pick, Wake Forest safety Josh Gettis, was waived before the ’07 season even started. After four games on the Chicago Bears squad that season, he never played another snap in the NFL. The Jaguars selected two players in the 7th round, who at first showed a lot of upside, but quickly fizzled. John Broussard, the fast, skinny deep threat from San Diego State, made a big splash in his first NFL game, catching a 47-yard bomb for a touchdown in the opening week against the Titans. That was his first catch in the pros and subsequently, his only momentum as an NFL player. He managed three more receptions, before being benched (despite the incredibly weak ’07 WR corps) and was waived in ’08. He spent some time with the Giants, Bears and Lions, mostly on their practice squads, and hasn’t worked in the NFL since ’09. Chad Nkang from D-III Elon University was a safety whose role was mostly as a backup and special teams “gunner” for the team. After a stellar special teams campaign in 2007, in which he played in all 16 games, many thought he would continue to be an ace on the coverage teams. After some injuries and time on the PUP list, however, Nkang faded and never carved out a permanent role for himself. he was waived in summer of 2009 and has been playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL. The last pick of the Jaguars’ picks was Andrew Carnahan, OT from Ariziona State, who was with the Jaguars for 2 seasons, but only was a practice squad member. After that, he spent time with the Chiefs and the Giants, but he never made it into a regular season game.
So of these five players, the Jaguars got one good season of special teams play from Nkang) and one long-range touchdown from Broussard; the rest never even played a snap for Jacksonville during the regular season.
Last but not least I want to write about Derek Landri, an undersized DT from Notre Dame and a 5th round pick in 2007, whose departure gives me bittersweet feelings. He was named one of the “Top 10 Draft Steals” by Sports Illustrated. He was a hard worker, who often showed promising flashes and had big moments in the ’07 playoff games. His development went slower than expected in the following years, but I think Gene Smith made a mistake when he released Landri in late 2009. He was immediately picked up by the Carolina Panthers, indicating at least some trade value, had he been shopped around. Landri started and played in every game for the Panthers in 2010 and tallied 43 tackles and 3 sacks. I know the Jaguars are now looking secure at DT with Knighton and Alualu, but with Landri on board, along with D’Anthony Smith and Leger Duazable, the Jaguars would have been fully stacked at the position and able to keep the starters fresh by rotating in capable and dangerous backups.
I will keep my eye on Derek – and Reggie and Justin and MSW, for that matter. These four players are employed in the NFL with time to redefine their career elsewhere. If they become legitimate starters for more than a few years, then the Jaguars may have made a mistake by releasing them. But the bigger mistake was how they wasted the vast majority of their eleven draft picks in 2007. Just imagine the Jaguars roster now, if just a couple more of them had turned out to have an Uche Nwaneri kind of career.
– Zoltan Paksa