Although we can’t know for sure when the lockout will finally end, even with the possibility of an agreement potential this week, there are still lingering concerns with the Jaguars for the upcoming season. All of these potential issues have the opportunity to ruin the team’s 2011 campaign and must be immediately tackled by the Jaguars’ front office and coaches, as soon as the lockout is lifted. Jeff Lageman said in a recent broadcast of “Jaguars This Week” that those around Everbank are probably not going to be getting much sleep once an agreement is made and it sounds to me like he’s dead on.
- Issue #1: Can the Jaguars acquire some real real difference makers for the defense?
This is the key issue, because the Jaguars’ back seven is in horrible shape right now. The Jaguars must sign two linebackers and two defensive backs (one free safety, one cornerback). In my opinion, one of the twoin each position must be a Kampman-caliber player. I hope Gene knows he must catch at least one big-name fish from the FA market, for many reasons. The Jaguars need real playmakers in the back seven. Right now I can’t name any. Daryl Smith comes close, but I think he is a very good, but not great player. The rest are very average players, other then Rashean Mathis, who’s coming off a dreadful 2010 campaign. Since January, the front office, Jack Del Rio, and even Wayne Weaver himself have spoken about being very active in free agency. Gene Smith said the Jaguars draft will make much more sense with the veteran players in place, acquired through free agency. I think the Jaguars could be well-set at linebacker by acquiring a good player or two for a reasonable or even low price (my candidate is Falcons LB Stephen Nicholas) and maybe bringing Kirk Morrison back for another year. In the backfield, they must get a player whose name is familiar for even the casual Jaguar fan, who will be an impact player from Day 1. There are two big problems for the Jaguars, here. First, many team have serious issues at DB (and especially safety), so the Jaguars must maybe overpay their target to get him. In addition, the current crop of free agent safeties isn’t very deep, so the 3rd or 4th guy best player available might not provide much boost to the secondary. If the Jaguars fail to get at least one big-name DB (or specifically, Eric Weddle), that could turn off the fanbase. They have to have at least one difference-maker and more than likely, need two to appease the fans. Time will be another problem, because Mel Tucker and Jack Del Rio will have to incorporate the new players into the Jaguars system as quickly as possible. I’m sure Gene Smith will try to acquire hard workers, who also have a high football IQ, but can he realistically sign two to four of these players? Will he and Wayne Weaver actually be willing to pay and pay big for at least one or two of them?
- Issue #2: Possible Holdouts
Speaking of “gettin’ PAID”, once the lockout ends the Jaguars must deal with two potential holdout issues. They have a top-10 pick quarterback with a very tough agent in Tom Condon and a top-tier tight end, who is not happy with his franchise tag and wants a long term deal. There are other issues with Adam Podlesh, who must be extended, and Rashean Mathis, who wanted new contract in 2010 and probably hasn’t changed his mind. Now Blaine Gabbert’s situation is very interesting. I would like to see him in camp from Day 1 and if there’s a rookie salary cap in the new CBA, that could help get the deal done in short order. But even if he holds out, the Jaguars have two capable starters at that position in Garrard and McCown, so this wouldn’t be a huge setback, assuming it doesn’t last long. In fact, it might even help by keeping training camp clear of a quarterback controversy and even if he holds out, I don’t think his popularity will suffer the way Byron Leftwich did. His holdout occurred when Mark Brunell (who was and is still an icon in Jacksonville) was still with the team. It’s always slightly uncomfortable when a quarterback of the future makes their way into the mix, but no one is expecting Gabbert to take over real soon and the classiness with which he and David have handled the situation makes this possible contract issue seem like a much smaller problem .
The bigger issue to me is resigning Marcedes Lewis and I’m don’t really get why they haven’t already extended him. Gene Smith said he wants to reward his own with contract extensions; well Gene, one of your best players wants to play in Jacksonville for the next several years and is completely deserving. Lewis is a no-doubt top-5 tight end in the NFL and does not have the makings of a one year wonder, but player who has steadily progressed and has showcased what he is capable of in his prime years. How many Jaguars players can we actually say are one of the five best at their position? Maurice Jones-Drew – definitely. Montell Owens and Kassim Osgood on special teams – probably. Greg Jones at fullback – probably. Terrance Knighton – maybe. Marcedes is the definition of a building block, both as a player and a leader of the team. He’s done everything you expect from a player in his contract year, opposed to a lot of other recent Jaguars’ players – Clint Ingram, Justin Durant, Mike Sims Walker, to name a few. Lewis has earned a new long term contract with the Jaguars. Pay the man, Gene.
- Issue #3: A Quarterback Controversy is on the Horizon
This will happen sooner or later, so we must prepare ourselves. By now, we know that David Garrard will handle whatever happens with a lot of class and expect Blaine Gabbert, who has thus far appeared to be very mature, collected, and well-spoken with the press, to treat the matter as the future leader of the franchise should. We know what the fanbase wants – they want to move on with the new guy. But as I’ve already said in my articles, I’m just not ready to start digging Garrard’s grave here in Jacksonville. You can make your arguments about his perfomance in the last three seasons, but he was clearly not the Jaguars’ biggest problem last season and at least one of his teammates agrees – Maurice Jones-Drew. I doubt MJD has any negative feelings toward Blaine Gabbert, but he’s clearly backing Garrard as the team’s quarterback. For those who didn’t hear, Jones-Drew told NFL Network he was “shocked on Draft Day by the Gabbert pick” and added that “Gabbert was brought in to create a more competitive atmosphere a la ’07”. So despite the majority of the fanbase wanting to “pull the Band-Aid” and change captain, but the current face of the franchise thinks different. I agree with Warren Sapp’s reaction to Maurice: “You don’t draft a guy in the Top 10 (and trade away a 2nd rounder for the price of moving up) to sit on the bench too long.” I just hope the transition goes smoothly. I hope the fanbase doesn’t chant “We want Gabbert!”, when Garrard inevitably throws his first interception of the season. I hope the Jaguars coaches and front office handle this very important issue the way it should be, because the reason the Jaguars didn’t capitalize on their “Super Bowl window” was because of how poorly the first quarterback controversy was handled. If they repeat that mistake, that could be the death knell of the professional football in Jacksonville.
- Issue #4: Injuries to Key Players
The most important of all Jaguars players coming back from a major injury is Aaron Kampman. In just 8 games, he tallied 30 QB hits, 4 sacks, and was unmistakably, the was the most dangerous player on Jacksonville’s defense. Although he sounds confident and seems to have made a second successful recovery from ACL surgery in as many seasons, his knees will continue to be a potential danger and being over 30 years old now doesn’t help. Since the Jaguars chose not to draft a defensive end in the draft and it appears they won’t be signing any big pass rushers in free agency, Kampman’s and the oft-injured Jeremy Mincey’s health will be a huge issue for the Jaguars. Another defender who will be watched because of injury concerns is D’Anthony Smith- remember, he was drafted to be the “sixth man” for Alualu and Knighton, to keep everyone fresh during games.
On offense, all eyes will be on Maurice Jones-Drew and his repaired knee. Although he said just days ago that he feels himself at an 80-85% level and says he should be ready for the start of the season, his health is a top priority for the Jaguars. Although I respect what he did with an injured knee for most of the season last year, I’m still not 100% sold that he is a 16 game feature back. In ’09, he disappeared after Week 10, with only one great game after that. He had a slow start to 2010, followed by an amazing senond half, but finally caved to his knee pain when the Jaguars needed him the most. If he’s healthy this year, I need to see at least twelve above-average/great games from him.
The other two players I have injury concerns about are Eben Britton and Jarrett Dillard. Both of them have battled with multiple injuries. Both of them are needed by this offense in a bad way. After Britton went on IR last year, Jordan Black replaced him and played “so well” that he was one of the Jaguars first cuts this offseason. The departure of Mike Sims-Walker leaves the team desperate for another threat at the wideout position. Right now, there are many similarities between MSW and Dillard’s career, so hopefully Dillard follows in MSW’s shoes (for one year) and has a very productive and healthy third season in the pros.
– Zoltan Paksa