Help Found; Growth Needed
Just over a year ago, Pro Football Focus wrote an article entitled “Help Wanted: Jacksonville Jaguars” where they detailed the Jaguars’ team needs after the 2010-2011 season. It was short, general, and exactly to the point. The Jaguars desperately needed help at three positions – defensive end, wide receiver, and cornerback.
During the NFL draft just a few days later, the Jaguars drafted a total of two players at those three positions, both of whom were picked after the third round. Add the free agency acquisitions of Matt Roth and Drew Coleman to 2011 draftees Cecil Shorts III and Rod Isaac, and you have four total players added at those positions during the offseason – and none of whom, I might add, had the potential to be a star or even a playmaker during the 2012 season (a very diluted argument for Drew Coleman or Cecil Shorts III may potentially be had). One year later, one of those players now has two NFL catches to his name, two of them are searching for new teams to play on, and the fourth had made truly no impact last year. All in all, Gene Smith and the Jags didn’t really make a huge commitment to the positions of need in the 2011 offseason and have thus far missed on the small commitments they did make (the impact Cecil Shorts III and Rod Isaac will have is still very unclear, but the total impact of both Coleman and Roth has been set in stone, since neither will be back with the team next year).
One year later (just a few months ago), Pro Football Focus released another pre-draft/pre-free agency report detailing the Jaguars’ needs. Surprise, surprise. The top three needs on the list? Wide receiver, defensive end, and cornerback.
As bad as 2010-2011 had been for those positions, last year was arguably even worse. It certainly was worse at wide receiver, where the Jarett Dillard/Mike Thomas combination was an abomination as far as a 1-2 receiving punch goes. Defensive end was a bit better, as the Jaguars hit a three year high with 31 sacks on the year, and Jeremy Mincey broke out in a big way (a very timely breakout season, I may add). Like much of the defense, defensive end was hit hard with injuries. Aaron Kampman re-tore his ACL, and he, Matt Roth, and John Chick all ended up missing games due to injury during the season. Cornerback was a bit of a mixed bag, as the top three corners for the Jaguars (Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, and William Middleton) all had good years, but all of them also ended up missing significant time due to injury. Mathis will be fighting an uphill battle to return to form in the coming year, while Cox and Middleton will try to stay healthy and carry over their production (hopefully consistently) into the coming year.
However, Gene Smith’s approach this offseason has been different. The Jaguars were significantly less active in free agency, but focused hard on positions of need. WR Laurent Robinson, WR Lee Evans, and CB Aaron Ross were major free agent acquisitions, and re-signing DE Jeremy Mincey was key to maintaining (and perhaps upgrading) the defensive line. In addition to this, he drafted WR Justin Blackmon and DE Andre Branch in the first two rounds, bringing two blue chip prospects to help fix the Jaguars’major needs.
The difference in Gene Smith’s approach to the Jaguars’ needs the last two years brings up some questions as we try to evaluate our team’s progress over the last few years and specifically, evaluate his progress as a general manager. Why were our major needs more or less ignored during the offseason last year, while being a focus of this year’s offseason? Was it a question of availability? Was it a question of neglect? Was it a question of undue faith in his previous draft classes? Even more to the point – how much was Gene Smith responsible for our 5-11 season last year and the lack of development shown by the Jaguars at these key positions?
Perhaps there weren’t enough quality WRs, DEs, and CBs available in last year’s free agent class and draft. A quick look at the draft class last year suggests that perhaps there were some availability questions mixed in. Sure, we could’ve gotten Prince Amukamara, Adrian Clayborn, or Ryan Kerrigan (disclosure: who I wasn’t a fan of, by the way) at 16, but the chance to get a franchise quarterback (which was also a pretty big need) easily trumps impact players at these high need positions. In the third round, there were a number of WRs/DBs taken right after Rackley, but WRs Austin Pettis and Leonard Hankerson were the only ones I would’ve been comfortable taking there – and it’s not like offensive line wasn’t a pretty big need either. However, a look at the free agent class brings a few more questions. The free agent class was filled with young WRs that had shown consistent production (Santonio Holmes, Sidney Rice) and/or plenty of potential (Malcolm Floyd, Lance Moore). Oh, and Laurent Robinson. He signed with San Diego for the veteran minimum last year. If you look at last year’s free agent defensive end class, you’ll again see impressive combinations of youth, production, and potential – in its best forms in Charles Johnson, Tamba Hali, Jason Babin, and Mathias Kiwanuka. I’ll save you the time by just saying that the cornerback class was equally as impressive (Namdi Asomugha, Johnathan Joseph, Champ Bailey, Chris Carr, and Antonio Cromartie).
It wasn’t solely a question of availability. While the draft didn’t offer tons of potential to supplement our biggest needs, free agency certainly did. However, the problem with free agency is its cost. The contract numbers of the guys we’ve been talking about fall in the $40-50 million range with $20-30 million guaranteed. That’s a ton to pay for a player that doesn’t play quarterback, and if you’re going to shell out that kind of cash, he better be a cornerstone player and you should have no reservations about his production. Unfortunately, free agency didn’t really provide those kinds of players. Guys like Santonio Holmes, Sidney Rice, Jason Babin, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Champ Bailey all had questions of consistency, injury, character, or age. Guys that were relatively question-free, like Charles Johnson, Namdi Asomugha, Tamba Hali, and Johnathan Joseph all got signed to enormous contracts, ranging from $49 million with $25 million guaranteed (Joseph) to $76 million with $30 million guaranteed (Johnson).
All in all, I’m willing to throw Gene a bone here. I see why our key needs stayed the same between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 – we just didn’t have enough of an opportunity to change them. This year, we seized a few opportunities, and we have enough pieces to make huge strides at these positions. While some of the moves made this offseason (giving $34 million with $14 guaranteed to Laurent Robinson) were more questionable than others (signing Lee Evans, drafting Blackmon), Gene’s given the Jags the opportunity to succeed next year, and in the offseason, that’s all I can ask for.
– Zain Gowani