At this time last year, Jaguars fans were bemoaning our toothless defense, who finished the 2010 season as the #28 overall unit and #28 passing defense and was clearly costing the team victories by allowing opposing offenses to march up and down the field at will. Gene Smith and his team of player evaluators injected solid free agent talent into the mix and in just one season, improved the unit to the #6 overall defense and #8 versus the pass (and these numbers were somewhat skewed by the last several games of the season where opposing quarterbacks had a much easier time with cornerbacks: Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, William Middleton, and Ashton Youboty all lost to injury). In the 2012 offseason, they will undoubtedly be pursuing an injection of talent on the offensive side of the ball, especially the passing game (BIG SURPRISE), and with their previous track record, there’s plenty of reason to believe the offense will improve. In fact, since the Jaguars offense finished dead-last in the league in total offense and passing makes improvement almost a guarantee! Fun! But the offense’s rise from the ashes starts with the players we already have on the roster; there are a lot of 3rd and 4th year players who are headed into their contract year and need to show us something to stay with the team. Let’s take a look at a position-by-position breakdown and see who needs to PROVE IT OR ELSE…
- Blaine Gabbert – For as much flak as he’s received, Gabbert’s rookie season should not be much of a surprise or disappointment to anyone. We’ve already heard the arguments – raw, youngest starting QB in the league, extremely shortened offseason, drafted with the intention of sitting out at least one year – but none of that matters now. Gabbert will do what we expect him to do: he’ll come to work, he’ll learn the new system, and he’ll improve in his second year as a pro. What he needs to show next year to start quelling the masses is a vastly-improved pocket presence – this is what everyone has latched on to as his biggest weakness and showing more confidence on the field and in the pocket is essential to his maturity. Other than that, I’d like to see Blaine make more of the shorter routine throws, improving his touch on these passes, and continue to become a leader in the locker room and on the field. He did a good job of protecting the football and not making bad decisions and we should all expect more of the same.
Running Back: There’s really not much to say about this group. Maurice Jones-Drew was obviously dominant, taking home the NFL rushing crown and voted to be both an all-Pro and a starter at the Pro Bowl. Rashad Jennings is supposedly close to full speed already and he and DuJuan Harris will be good depth behind Mojo. Deji Karim will likely be fighting for a roster spot…if he hasn’t lost it already.
Fullback: Greg Jones is still one of the best in the business and has had no health concerns in recent years. Mike Mularkey used Ovie Mughelli plenty in Atlanta, so it’s unlikely Jones will be phased out anytime in the immediate future. Montell Owens is the heart of the special teams and is capable in relief duty. Not much to prove from this group either.
Wide Receiver: Well, well, well…this group, to the shock of exactly no one, is in the dog house. Big time. Collectively, the entire wideout corps needs to demonstrate much better hands and route running. The sloppiness and drops this year were frankly despicable. Routine plays need to be just that – routine. This group had almost no moments of overacheivement either, so in 2012, we need to see receivers occasionally making plays that they weren’t supposed to make – fighting for the ball in the air, making tacklers miss and racking up yards after the catch, one-handed catches, etc. – these guys are supposed to be the playmakers, so it’s not asking too much to occasionally expect them to do something special.
- Mike Thomas: After an impressive 2010 campaign in which he gained over 800 yards, Thomas was awarded a new contract (5 years, $19 mil, $9 mil guaranteed) on October 6th, had 53 yards in his next game, and never topped 36 yards the rest of the season. He’s already received most of his guaranteed money, so he’ll need to prove he’s worth the rest of his contract in 2012. He’s not an ideal outside receiver and he’s not the type of guy who can do it alone, so hopefully with a decent supporting cast, he returns to being the multidimensional weapon he appeared to be in his first two seasons.
- Jarrett Dillard: He struggled to stay healthy in his first two seasons and did little to standout in his first full season last year. Dillard will likely need to stay healthy through all offseason practices and showcase early and often in camp and the preseason the hands, route-running, and vertical ability that Gene Smith drafted him for to make the roster.
- Cecil Shorts: A disappointing rookie season and perhaps expectations were too high for a player transitioning from D-III after receiving lots of hype from Oehser and the rest of the Jaguars through summer practices. Shorts is likely not on the roster bubble but needs to show improvement this year and that the NFL is not too big for him.
- Taylor Price, Brian Robiskie, Kassim Osgood: These guys are all on the roster bubble and have not proven to be legitimate NFL receiving threats with their first teams. As GM Gene and Co. are very likely to inject more talent into the position, they will have to do something very special to make the roster. In Osgood’s case, he was brought here to be a special teams ace and may have less value as the Jaguars roster has filled out and younger, cheaper players who can fill the void if the Jaguars decide to move on.
- Marcedes Lewis: Another player who had an especially disappointing season following his new contract. Marcedes was considered a top “all round” tight end coming into 2011 and while he kept up his superb blocking, his failures in the receiving game were quite pronounced. The TE is supposed to be a young quarterback’s go-to guy and Marcedes’ season was riddled with stone-handed drops, especially in crucial spots. He needs to become that go-to guy for Gabbert, especially in the Red Zone where his size and athleticism can be a major asset.
- Zach Miller: Another one of GM Gene’s 2009 draft class who’s struggled with injuries, Miller is in pretty much the same boat as Dillard. He’s shown flashes of being the speedy, athletic type of mismatch that can be very hard for a defense to scheme for, but he’s barely been on the field. If Miller doesn’t stay healthy throughout the offseason, it’s likely the Jaguars will part ways.
- Eugene Monroe: Had a quietly impressive season. Starting to look like the franchise left tackle the Jaguars hoped he could be, but needs to continue to eliminating the occasionally blown assignments and could play with a little more nastiness. If Monroe continues to steadily improve and posts another consistent season, he will be firmly supplanted as the long-term protector of Gabbert’s blindside.
- Eben Britton: Has only started 10 games in the past two season due to injuries to knee, shoulder, and back injuries. Reports have said that these injuries are not of the variety to threaten his career, but Britton’s contract is up at the end of this season, so he’s certainly got something to prove if he wants to remain a Jaguar. He has shown some tendency to get beat around the edge by the pass rush and needs to improve his technique to become the aggressive road grater team drafted him to be. Britton surrendered some time at RT to Guy Whimper last year and was played at LG in a few games. His future may be at guard if he continues to be out-played at tackle and either Nwaneri or Rackley shifts to center to replace the aging Brad Meester.
- Uche Nwaneri: Had a great year blocking for Maurice Jones-Drew and is a steady, consistent performer with a long-term contract. Keep doing what you’re doing, Uch.
- Will Rackley: Came on a little slow at first, but had a nice finish to the season. Showed good maturity and technique for a small-schooler and can be a dominant physical force. A good worker and good learner, so expect to see further improvement in 2012. Should become a fixture in the interior for many years to come.
- Brad Meester: Had a solid 2011 campaign. As long as he keeps holding off Father Time and the Jags don’t have an equally-capable player ready to step in and replace him, he’ll be here.
What do you guys think? Who’s got the most to prove? Who’s got to really turn it on in training camp and the preseason to make the 2012 roster?
– Andrew Hofheimer