For the most part, Jaguar fans were pretty happy with Shad Khan’s decision to let go of former Jaguars general manager Gene Smith. Of all the uncaptivating qualities Gene Smith had, perhaps the one that discouraged Jaguar fans the most was his inability to draft usable talent – a pretty vital part of being a general manager. For as much disdain as fans have for draftniks, Smith’s decisions to continuously take lesser known prospects over well-known ones, such as those sitting atop Mel Kiper’s draft board, frustrated many Jaguar fans to no end. Whether it was “small school players” or simply Smith’s picks not hitting, the Jaguars were more than ready for a new regime.
Although Smith followed a “best available player” approach to drafting and was often able to match this ranking with positional need, ultimately too many of Smith’s picks simply didn’t work out. Only 12 out of Smith’s 26 draft picks over the last four drafts remain on the roster, but 2/3 of those were drafted in the past two years and are likely still being evaluated. Of the players that were cut, few made an impact on the Jaguars and even fewer, if any, have re-signed with another team and made an impact. Even players that showed flashes of potential and momentarily excited the fan-base have become but an afterthought; this includes players such as Rashad Jennings, Mike Thomas, Zach Miller, Eben Britton, and others.
Some of the most promising players from Smith’s drafts are no longer with the Jaguars as of quite recently. Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton and Derek Cox, who were taken back-to-back in 2009 and pegged as cornerstones of the Jaguars rebuild, left as free agents this offseason. Mike Thomas, who was once envisioned as the Jaguars’ slot receiver and versatile offensive weapon for years to come, is now coming off of his first half-year with the Lions. Yet, all these players showcased talent and potential during their time with the Jaguars, and despite their weaknesses (eg Cox’s predilection to injury or Pot Roast’s inability to consistently maintain weight), they were seen as key parts of the rebuilding process, much like Cecil Shorts III, Justin Blackon, and… Bryan Anger(?) are now.
When thinking about such players, it makes you wonder how much of their failure with the Jaguars was truly Smith’s fault as a drafter? How much of it had to do with the team itself – the flux in coaching staff, the turmoil at the quarterback position, and the relative lack of veteran leadership on the team? These may all be weaknesses of Smith as a manager, but not as a drafter. Could these players have succeeded on a better team? With more talent around them, more stable coaching philosophies, and more veteran leadership? Instead of speculating on this, keep an eye out over the next year or two and see how those players end up doing, because each of them has a great second opportunity to succeed in the situation they’ve found themselves in – eg Knighton on a talented Bronco’s D-line and Thomas roaming free while coverages roll to Calvin Johnson’s side.
This is not to say that Gene Smith was a great drafter. I think anytime you pick in the top 10 four straight years, you’re probably doing something wrong (though, to be fair, we were actually 16th overall the year we traded up for Blaine). He’s gotten sub-par play from every round of players that he’s picked – from the first rounders to the seventh rounders. Whiffed picks like Chris Prosinski, Rod Isaac, and Larry Hart provided little inspiration to the Jaguar masses. But how much of the drafting was actually his fault? How much should we actually blame on injuries – Tyson Alualu, Will Rackley, D’Anthony Smith, Derek Cox, Terrance Knighton, Austen Lane, Eben Britton, Zach Miller, and Rashad Jennings all missed significant portions of seasons with major (and some, career-altering) injuries (of course, the corollary to that question is how many of those players were labeled as “injury prone” before they came into the NFL?). What becomes Gene’s legacy if Blaine turns out to be a franchise quarterback, Blackmon and Shorts turn out to be the second coming of Thunder and Lightning, Will Rackley turns out to be the answer at guard, and Bryan Anger becomes the best punter of all time? What about the ex-Jaguars? What becomes of Gene’s legacy if Knighton, Cox, and Thomas all succeed at their new destinations? The bottom line is, despite being an advocate for Smith’s firing, I don’t think we can truly evaluate Smith’s time with the Jaguars as a drafter until we see what the next few years brings. He was below-average GM and likely a below-average drafter, but until we reach a consensus on the pieces we have right now, we won’t know how bad he actually was. Hopefully by then, we won’t need to. We’ll be looking ahead, not behind, with Caldwell and Bradley leading the charge – but it sure would be nice if Smith left us the parting gift of a franchise quarterback in Blaine Gabbert.
– Zain Gowani