Calling All Pass Rushers

Jack Del Rio (Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Entering the 2007 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars had the stigma of being a team with a ball-control, non-explosive offense, a stingy, physical defense, a shaky quarterback situation, and lackluster fan support. Times have changed.

By season's end, those stigmas became outright myths as the Jaguars offense set numerous franchise records for points scored, touchdowns, explosive plays, and throughout the second half of the season they scored the third-most points in the NFL. The Jaguars quarterback position was anything but shaky, as David Garrard finished with the third-highest quarterback rating in the NFL. Jaguars fans became invigorated as the team experienced some playoff success, and the team is currently ahead of last seasons pace in season ticket renewals. Unfortunately, the stingy, physical defense was also a myth, as the Jaguars couldn't get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and their season ended in record breaking fashion as Tom Brady threw more touchdowns than incompletions in the Patriots 31-20 dismissal of the Jaguars in the divisional playoffs.

At this point in the offseason, it appears that the only thing that can separate the Jaguars from being legitimate Super Bowl contenders is a pass rush. Free agency came and went (for the most part), and there were very few pass rushers available, and those that were available received nearly record-setting contracts from desperate suitors. The Jaguars decided not to throw outrageous money at the Justin Smith's, Antoine Odom's, and Calvin Pace's of the world, in the hopes that they would magically transform from above average guys into premiere rush-ends.

Jacksonville will likely choose to draft some help for their defensive line, but the Jaguars experienced just enough success in 2007 to likely keep them out of the running for an impact pass rusher early on in the draft, as they hold the 26th overall selection. Although the team received an extra third and fifth-round selection (71st and 143rd overall) for the rights to oft-injured defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, Jacksonville will still likely not have enough ammo to move up to select one of the impact defensive ends, such as Chris Long, Vernon Gholston, or Derrick Harvey.

"It's something we'll definitely be looking for, but not to the point where we overvalue the position," said James "Shack" Harris, the Jaguars' vice president of player personnel.

The possibility of a trade for an experienced pass rusher exists, as Miami will likely be shopping Pro Bowler and former Defensive Player of the Year, Jason Taylor, despite what Dolphins new Vice President Bill Parcells may currently say. At this point, it is nothing but pure speculation as to if Taylor is even on the trading block, or what the compensation will be, but it certainly makes sense that Miami wouldn't choose to rebuild around a 33-year old defensive end when they can use his value to get some much needed draft picks as they need help at nearly every position on the field.


Reggie Hayward
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
If training camp were to begin tomorrow, the Jaguars likely starters at defensive end would be Paul Spicer and Reggie Hayward. Spicer had a career year in 2007, as he was the only reliable player week in and week out on the Jaguars defensive line. The problem with Spicer is that he will be 33 years old during the preseason, and who knows if he can repeat his outstanding performance of a season ago. His opposite bookend, Reggie Hayward, was a fantastic pass rusher early in his career which enabled him to sign a sizeable free agent contract with the Jaguars prior to the 2005 season. Unfortunately for both Hayward and the team, he ruptured his Achilles tendon in the 2006 season opener, and although he played in 12 games in 2007, he didn't have anywhere near the explosion he showed prior to the injury, and it is anyone's guess whether or not he'll be able to return to his pre-2006 form.

The Jaguars have a host of others currently on the roster that are situational defensive lineman, and the team is hoping that they can catch "lightning in a bottle" with one or more of those players. Brent Hawkins, James Wyche, Brian Smith, Jeremy Mincey, Kenny Pettway, are the candidates, and you can even throw in Rob Meier who can fill in at defensive end as well. Between the first five candidates, they have a grand total of zero NFL starts, and 9.5 career sacks. Meier is one of the best situational defensive tackles in the game, but he may have to start on the inside due to the exportation of Marcus Stroud.

Assuming the Jaguars cannot make a deal for a Jason Taylor, and if they can't fill their needs on the end in the draft (which is looking more and more like a possibility), they will have to make due with what they currently have. We're now going to examine each player, beginning with Brent Hawkins. Hawkins is a classic tweener, a player who is very quick on the edge, but can't be an every downs defensive end due to his lack of size (6'2", 250 lbs.). Hawkins has a nice spin move, but can't play the run effectively, and hasn't experienced much success in two seasons (just 5.5 sacks while playing mostly in passing situations).

Next up is James Wyche. Wyche is a former seventh-round pick (2006) who certainly has the size 6'5", 275 lbs. to be the every downs defensive end that the team is looking for. Unfortunately for Wyche, he missed all of 2007 with a groin injury, and he hasn't played in any games in his two-year career. Although Wyche has looked solid in camps, he couldn't be much farther from a sure thing.

Brian Smith may be even more of an unknown than James Wyche. Smith was drafted in the fourth-round in 2007 out of the University of Missouri, where he was a prolific pass rusher (32 sacks in 44 games). Smith is another tweener, at 6'4", 239 lbs., but he missed all of 2007 as he was nursing a broken hip that he suffered in college. The team has high hopes for Smith, but he must first prove himself to be at the very least healthy enough to practice.

Jeremy Mincey and Kenny Pettway are two bargain basement type of players that the Jaguars signed as free agents. Mincey is a 6'3", 285 lb. University of Florida product who played in six games for the team in 2007 and registered 10 tackles and a sack. Pettway is another undersized OLB/DE at 6'4", 238 lbs. who played in 10 games with the team last year and recorded 9 tackles and a sack. Both Mincey and Pettway are young, high energy type of players who have more will than talent at this point in their respective careers.


Paul Spicer
(Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
The big question that the Jaguars and their fans both are wondering is who will step up and be a solid defensive end that can get to the quarterback? Paul Spicer certainly showed no signs of slowing down after his 32nd birthday last season, and the team will be leaning on him to have a repeat performance. Reggie Hayward will be two years removed from his ruptured Achilles and there is a possibility that he could regain some of his quickness and explosion, as the Cowboys Greg Ellis suffered a similar injury and made the Pro Bowl two years after. As for the rest of the group, Smith and his current health status are complete unknowns, and Hawkins will have to develop another move or two to go with his spin if he's going to be able to beat solid NFL offensive tackles. Mincey and Pettway are hard workers, but to be perfectly honest, they're just guys at this point in their careers. Wyche may be the diamond in the rough for the Jaguars. Although he hasn't accomplished much of anything as a pro (aside from collecting two years of salary), Wyche has shown flashes in his two camps as well as preseason, and has the size and physical abilities to become a legitimate starting defensive end. Wyche is also big enough to play on the inside in certain passing situations. He could be the man that the team is looking for, but Jaguars fans should temper their enthusiasm, being that he has as many NFL sacks as you and I.

The Jaguars certainly have some questions on the defensive line this year, but every team in the NFL has a question mark at some position or positions. Jacksonville strengthened its secondary and its offense even further, and if with the draft pending as well as some of the young unrefined talent currently on the roster, it is more than possible that someone could step up and be the consistent pass rusher that the Jaguars are looking for. If so, they could wrestle away the division title from the grasp of the Indianapolis Colts, just for starters.


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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