In January of 2009, Gene Smith became the general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since then he has been met with loads of scrutiny for several reasons. The team really hasn’t had anything to celebrate since the 2007 AFC Wildcard game when David Garrard and the Jags beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The fan base was furious for not drafting he-who-will-not-be-named. The overall identity of the team shifted from the rough and tough big bad new team on the block with a chip on the shoulder, to a second rate, least popular team in the league.
It seems as if every move Smith has made has been laughed at. Let’s face it folks, the entire NFL is laughing at the Jaguars. There’s only one thing that can change this, and you guessed it; winning football games.
Winning football games in the NFL is no easy task. Putting the right pieces on the field to create a competitive team can be tricky. I’ve been giving this team a lot of thought lately. I’ve been going back and looking at the moves that Smith has made and trying to see exactly what the method to his madness might be.
Win now. That’s the mentality of fans everywhere. Win now. I don’t think Smith ever had this kind of mentality because you can’t win now if you don’t have the right pieces. After looking at Smith’s drafts and free agent acquistions since 2009, I now know that he’s been putting together a core of football players to build a team around. In 2012, these players need to step up and be those core players.
*Maurice Jones-Drew, Josh Scobee, Mercedes Lewis and any other player Smith did not get himself will not be included on this list.
- Blaine Gabbert, Quarterback: In the first round of the 2011 draft, the Jaguars traded up to get their quarterback of the future. The future came pretty quick. It’s been thoroughly noted just how bad Gabbert’s rookie season was. His continued development and improvement in 2012 is key. Gabbert has to become the quarterback the Jaguars need. There is the least amount of patience with this position than other position on the field. If he doesn’t make strides in his first full NFL season, it’s quite possible we could go in another direction setting the team all the way back to square one.
- Justin Blackmon, Wide Receiver: Blaine’s first big weapon. Blackmon has all the makings of a big time wide receiver. In the 2012 draft, Smith moved up to get the top rated receiver. His tangibles are undeniable, but he obviously has some maturing to do. If he gets in any more trouble, struggles to learn the playbook, and doesn’t work as hard as the Jags need him to, this will just be another Gene Smith joke. Yes, rookie wide receivers struggle, but Blackmon has to show something this year. He has to be reliable at the very least; a target Blaine can count on.
- Laurent Robinson, Wide Receiver: You don’t pay someone like you pay Robinson without expect him to be a core member of your team. Robinson was a 3rd round draft pick in the 2009 draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Since then he has played for St. Louis, and just last year, Dallas where he had the season of his young career. If Blackmon and Robinson combine to be a great one-two punch, look for Blaine to make serious strides in 2012.
- Eugene Monroe, Left Tackle: With the first pick of the 2009 draft, Smith drafted LT Eugene Monroe. His development has been steady as well as his play. It’s so easy to criticize left tackles in the league by flashing up the number of sacks they’ve allowed, but Monroe’s play has been solid. It’s completely up to him to keep Gabbert upright this season so the ball can get to Blackmon and Robinson.
- Eben Britton, Right Tackle: Britton was taken in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft, but hit IR in 2011 along with 26 other players. It’s imperative that he comes back healthy as it seems like the main thing the team is counting on considering they didn’t get any offensive linemen in free agency or the draft. Both he and Monroe were drafted with the idea that they would become bookend tackles on the offensive line.
- Tyson Alualu, Defensive Tackle: With the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Jags selected DT Tyson Alualu, much to the shock of just about everyone. It’s not a glorious position. The defensive tackle position in a 4-3 isn’t meant to be flashy and rack up a ton of sacks. If they can get pressure, great, but more importantly they have to stuff up the middle and tie up blocks. The biggest knock on Alualu has been his health.
- Jeremy Mincey, Defensive End: Mincey was a 6th round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 2006. The Jaguars signed him as a free agent in 2010. He got a new contract in the offseason having led the team in sacks in 2011. He’ll have to do better than the 8 sacks he racked up in 2011. Hopefully he’s just now hitting his stride and will build on last season.
- Andre Branch, Defensive End: In the 2nd round of the 2012 draft, the Jags selected Andre Branch. This guy is athletic and is being counted on to provide a heavier pass rush. If he turns out to be as explosive as the team believes he can be, look for him and Mincey to wreak havok on opposite sides.
- Paul Posluszny, Middle Linebacker: Posluszny was taken in the 2nd round by the Buffalo Bills in the 2007 draft. He was signed by the Jaguars last season during free agency and had a very impressive first year with the team registering 119 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, and a forced fumble. He will be a key piece moving forward in Mel Tucker’s defense.
- Derek Cox, Cornerback: Taken in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft, he was another casualty of the 2011 season. Before that he was well on his way to becoming the team’s best cover corner, and could very well return to form this season if he remains healthy. He was even featured in PFF’s Secret Superstarsseries.
- Bryan Anger, Punter: When you take a punter in the 3rd round, he better be amazing and so far reports from camp are that he is just that. I hope to see teams pinned deep in their own territory on a regular basis. I’m over the fact we spent a 3rd round pick on the guy, and am very excited to see what he has to offer in the kicking game.
Quarterback, two wide receivers, bookend tackles, bookend rushers, a solid defensive tackle, a cover guy, and a field position weapon. Many would argue and say that these guys are average at best, but you have to keep in mind that besides Posluszny and Mincey, it takes three years for young football players to develop. Monroe, Britton, Robinson, and Cox were drafted in 2009. Alualu was drafted in 2010. Gabbert was drafted in 2011. Blackmon, Branch, and Anger are rookies. Maybe I’m just being overly optimistic…
Yes, there have been setbacks with injuries, the lockout, and an ownership and coaching change, but Gene Smith is building the core of this football team. This core is young. The average age is only 24 years old. Now keep in mind that’s just the average of these core players. If there’s anyone that’s not on this list that you believe should be, please let me know.
I’m not predicting that we’re going to the playoffs. I’m not even going to say that we’ll have a winning record. I’m just saying that the core of the team is still young, and if the core can stay healthy and continue to learn maybe we can begin seeing progress this year. Throw in the new coaching staff and the chances look even better.
-David R. Johns