James Harris, Jaguars GM (AP/Joe Raymond)
As the Jaguars organization and their fans know well, the Indianapolis Colts have been the gold standard of the AFC South ever since it was formed back in 2002. The Colts have won every AFC South title since 2003, and the only year they didn’t win in 2002 they finished in second place.
Every spring since 2005, the Jaguars appear to make a few solid free agency splashes, and on paper they seem to narrow the gap on the division rival Colts. Then the draft comes and goes, the excitement around Jacksonville for Jaguars football heightens, 90% of the national sports news organizations pick the Colts to win the division again, and the Jaguars organization and their fans have proverbial chips on their shoulders right up until the regular season when the Colts start off fast and the Jaguars are left fighting for a wildcard berth.
So why haven’t the Jaguars been able to close the gap between these two teams despite the perception of improving their team every March, while the Colts stand pat and often let some of their own free agents walk? The easy answer is the quarterback position, as the Colts have had Peyton Manning, who is headed straight for the hall of fame, and will likely own every career passing record when he’s done playing. During Manning’s tenure, the Jaguars have countered with an aging Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich, who is currently out of the league, and David Garrard, who prior to 2007 couldn’t beat out Leftwich.
As vitally important as the quarterback position is, that’s only part of the formula for Indianapolis’ dominance. The main reason Indianapolis has been so good in recent years has been their drafting, especially early on. Bill Polian, Tony Dungy, and the rest of the Colts organization have made the most of their early draft picks every year since 1996.
The Colts initial draft picks from 1996-2007 include Marvin Harrison, Tarik Glenn, Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Rob Morris, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders, Marlin Jackson, Joseph Addai, and Anthony Gonzalez. All of those players have been or are currently starters with the team (with the exceptions of Glenn-retired, and James-Arizona), and 7 of the 12 players have been to multiple Pro Bowls. Although Pro Bowl appearances may not be the end all, be all of judging the best players in the NFL, those players mentioned above have compiled 31 Pro Bowl appearances while being members of the Colts franchise.
During the same period of time, the Jaguars first-round draft picks include Kevin Hardy, Renaldo Wynn, Fred Taylor, Fernando Bryant, R. Jay Soward, Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, Byron Leftwich, Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, Marcedes Lewis, and Reggie Nelson. Only half of those players are still with the team, and only two of the six that are no longer with the Jaguars are even currently in the league. The Jaguars first-round picks over the last 12 years have just six Pro Bowl appearances, which is a far cry from the Colts number of 31. Jaguars General Manager James "Shack" Harris spoke about the Jaguars first-round troubles--
"There aren't any guarantees. There are lots of variables: where you're drafting, decisions you make, what year you're drafting and what's available. Some drafts are stronger than others. Some have depth at certain positions. Sometimes, it takes guys [first-round picks] a long time to come around. Sometimes, you just miss."
Indianapolis’ early draft success has allowed the team to concentrate most of their off season business to locking up the contracts of their own players without having to “shop” for other NFL castoffs to fill their holes. The Colts have been able to draft star quality players and pay them low salaries on their initial contracts while allowing their older veterans that aren’t key to their success to find opportunities elsewhere, and thus keep a young roster.
Will 2008 be different for the Jaguars? Will they finally be able to grab the division title that the Indianapolis Colts have had a stranglehold upon for the last five years? It remains to be seen, but the Jaguars do begin 2008 in a much different position than in years past. Jacksonville will begin training camp without any kind of quarterback controversy for the first time in five years, thanks to the great play of David Garrard in 2007. The Jaguars seemingly have an upgraded passing game, with the additions of Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson, along with last season’s emergence of former first-round pick Reggie Williams, who set a franchise record with 10 touchdown receptions. Jacksonville added defensive back Drayton Florence to help bolster their secondary, and for the first time since 1999, the Jaguars may have finished the preceding season with a better team than the Colts.
If the Jaguars can find some Colts-like success in the first round of the 2008 draft, it is possible that there could be a transfer of power in the AFC South.
Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of JagNation.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius NFL Radio, MySpace Sports and Sportsillustrated.com. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.
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