The Jaguars’ problem with building via the draft


It is now clear that the Jaguars will not be big spenders in this free agency, and will not sign any high profile free agents (with respect to Laurent Robinson, he is not representing that category). Once again the team’s front office declared they will build this team via the draft, like the more successful franchises (Packers, Steelers). And that’s fine because that is a cheaper way to build a team rather than paying high priced free agents who are often underachiving (I’m looking at you, NFC East).  But to stick with this philosophy, a team must draft consistently well, often hitting the home run. And that’s the problem for the Jaguars under the Gene Smith era, because he’s not exactly doing that.

During his first 3 years as a General Manager (’09-’11), Smith has drafted 20 players. The sad truth is, that none of them have become a game changer or a real difference maker yet, including his best draft class (’09) after three full seasons in the NFL. Say what you want about the Shack Harris era (which I’m still not a big fan of), but three years after he took over in 2003, the Jaguars had an All-pro in Rashean Mathis (’05). While from the Gene Smith era I cannot name anybody who is close to a Top 5 player at his position yet…

And that is one of the big problems while Jaguars are still stuck in ‘rebuilding’ mode three years after they pushed the reset button at the end of the horrible ’08 season.  Among the 20 players I see only three who I consider (very) good (but not great) players, and all three of them has some issues. These players are Eugene Monroe, Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu.

  • Monroe’s problem is still consistency (which was huge issue in his first 2 seasons), although the very first pick of Gene Smith is starting to show signs why he was considered a potential 2nd pick in ’09. He had a good season in ’11, but still has plenty of room to grow. He may be at the bottom of the Top 10 among left tackles.
  • Knighton, who may be the best player selected by Gene Smith, has one big problem – his weight. Which is (after three seasons) still such a big issue that he received an ultimatum from the front office – stay in shape, and he will be rewarded, or continue to be in and out of shape and he will be a free agent next spring. ‘Pot Roast’  swore he’ll be in his best shape for this season (his contract is expiring after this season by the way…).
  • Tyson Alualu is a good player, sadly his knee kept back showing that in 2011. And the same knee was a problem for the DT in his rookie year too, when he injured it it during the Oklahoma Drill in training camp. He had surgery, and we all hope he’ll recover from that like Maurice Jones-Drew did in 2011.

These are the biggest impact players drafted by Smith. They are all considered good players, but because of different reasons, not  great.

Then there are some contributors, who were good selections, but from outsider observer’s view they just appear as “guys” because of diffferent reasons. Four players are in that category in my opinion: Rashad Jennings, Derek Cox, Eben Britton and Mike Thomas.

  • Jennings has only one setback, he spent his 3rd year on IR. He is (and that is another key sign why the rebuilding via draft plan ain’t working so well) the only late round pick, who became a hit. Maybe because Jennings was expected to get drafted even in the 2nd or the 3rd round (opposite to some  late Jaguars draft picks who nobody thought will be selected…)?
  • Derek Cox is getting better , but he dealt with confidence problems(thanks to Jack Del Rio) and injuries.
  • Right tackle Eben Britton is coming off a serious shoulder injury, and he is also entering the last year of his contract (just like Derek Cox, Jennings and Knighton by the way), so 2012 will be a big deal for him too.
  • Mike Thomas is a curious case.  He looked like a great multifunctional weapon for the team in 2009. He looked like this team’s Nr. 1 receiver in ’10. And around the middle of ’11, he was extended by the front office – and he became M.I. A. from that moment.  Still he can bounce back in this year, but he should remember, what happened with Jason Hill last year…

The other middle and late round picks turned out to be limited success(Zach Miller, Austen Lane, Jarett Dillard) or complete bust (Larry Hart, Tiquan Underwood, Deji Karim). The ’11 draft class is too early to judge, although they have the same (not too good) symptoms as the  ’10 bunch.  I know these are late round picks, and of course I know there are rarely great players coming out of that range, but still It’d be great selecting players like Rashad Jennings was (rated much higher compared to where he was really drafted), than a prospect who was unknown even for Mike Mayock (and basically anybody else except the Jaguars front office).

Then there is the “charater” factor with his signings and picks. Don’t get me wrong , I don’t want to see lazy guys or troublemakers whose mugshots will appear in the evening news, but while Shack Harris cared too little about the player’s personality, it seems the current regime rates it too highly. Nate Collins committed a relatively small crime, he’s now a free agent basically for that. Smith’s comment about Laurent Robinson and Chad Henne being married is a good thing still makes my head scratch… Why does Smith thinks being married is a sign that the player is more mature?

And now we have arrived at the elephant in the room. The selection that will make Gene Smith and this whole (long) rebuilding phase sink or swim: Blaine Gabbert.

I must be clear about one thing, I still think he can be ‘The Man’ for this franchise. I know some part of the national media and even members of the Jaguars fanbase declared him a bust already. It seems these people forgot how Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, and the reigning Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning (together they won eight Superbowls by the way) started their professional careers. Another factor which I give a pass for is that he was the youngest player of the entire roster, and he must be the leader of the an NFL team at the age of 22.  Also let’s not forget that a perfect storm hit the Jaguars passing game in ’11. David Garrard got hurt. After he was cut, his replacement, Luke McCown, had a terrible game against the Jets. Marcedes Lewis all of sudden can’t catch the ball, even when he was wide open.  Oh and none of the Jaguars WRs could get themselves open. The result couldn’t have been worse. Finishing 32 in passing and total offense.

There are serious concerns about Gabbert – pocket presence and footwork to name a few. I hope Mike Mularkey, Bob Bratkowski and Greg Olson can help correct it, but there are oher bigger issues as well. One of which is why Smith (who is often accused by his critics of staying away from risky players) gambled at the most important position with a player who was clearly not ready to start in the NFL (in fact Smith recently stated that Gabbert’s real rookie season will coming up next). Why didn’t he select a more NFL-ready prospect like Christian Ponder or Andy Dalton?

The answer is, he ‘fell in love’ in Gabbert as a prospect. I guess everybody knows that Smith wanted to scout then Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi in the Independent Bowl, yet he ended up scouting Gabbert and him only during that game. And you can sense that kind of (sentimental) attitude toward several players he has brought to the team (Derek Cox, Tyson Alualu, Cecil Shorts, and, although he was not drafted by the Jaguars, Don Carey). Which is interesting , because he also cuts people more frequently than people change socks.

But I have a much bigger issue than Gabbert himself. This passing offense is carrying the Smith blueprint. He brought every WR into the team, a theoretically pass catching tight end (Zach Miller), three out five starting linemen, and he drafted the QB too.  Yet his pass offense finished 32nd last year. That really worries me.

I don’t think the Jaguars will draft a wide receiver in the 1st round.  If I’m right, Smith must draft at least 2 more receivers and maybe a tight end as well. Although to be fair, I think last year’s offensive coaching staff must take a big part of the blame too. This is a new era now.  How will Mike Mularkey (a head coach selected by Smith) and his staff will progress with the talent the Jaguars have on offense?

As you can see, I have a lot of issues and questions about the draft philosophy of Gene Smith. He obviously needs to improve, and he should do it quick. I think the GM knows he is tied to Gabbert the way Garrard was tied to Jack Del Rio after their big contract extensions back In ’08. If the young QB doesn’t show signs that he is ‘The Man’ within 1 & 1/2 – 2 seasons, I think we know what will happen with him and Gene Smith.  Quite frankly he needs to produce an even better draft then he had in 2009 (and like in ’09 it must be an offense heavy draft). The new owner or the Jaguars, Shahid Khan has already said he will not be as patient as Wayne Weaver was. Which means the clocking is ticking for the General Manager.  That means he must bring out his A game in the end of April if he doesn’t want to face the wrather of Khan.

– Zoltan Paksa