Jaguars Pre-Camp Analysis: Secondary

Rashean Mathis (Getty Images)

Entering mini-camp, the Jaguars have upgraded what was seemingly a maligned position last season in the secondary, as a whole.

The 2007 season began with young starting strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh going down with two torn labrums in his shoulders. Not only did Jacksonville lose their starting safety, but they also had a rookie starting at the other safety position (Reggie Nelson). With the Sensabaugh injury, they were forced to start veteran Sammy Knight, who played surprisingly well, and continued to play much maligned and aging corner Terry Cousin at the nickel corner position. On top of all of that, former All-Pro cornerback Rashean Mathis battled nagging injuries all season. Because of the lack of talent the Jaguars were forced to play with, the secondary was picked on all year and it was magnified by the lack of a pass rush from the defensive line, which is a whole other story all together.

Fast forward to today and the Jaguars secondary could be seen as a unit of strength. The Jaguars signed former San Diego Chargers starting cornerback Drayton Florence in free agency, who will come in and compete for a starting cornerback position. They also have Gerald Sensabaugh coming off surgery for his shoulders, and University of South Florida rookie cornerback Trae Williams. Unlike last season, this unit has an injection of youth rather than age. This unit also has the potential for tremendous flexibility for certain situations on defense. With the addition of Florence, rumors have been rampant that incumbent starter Brian Williams will move to the strong safety position and compete with Gerald Sensabaugh. We are not sure that move would be in the teams' best interest. First of all, Brian Williams has never played strong safety. He did play free safety for a bit earlier in his career when he was with the Minnesota Vikings, but he lacks the size to play the strong safety position. Brian Williams weighs in at roughly 198 pounds, which by NFL standards is very small for a strong safety. There are a few strong safeties in the NFL at that size in Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu, but those players both have had issues with staying healthy throughout the duration of the season, and they are both superior athletes compared to Williams.

When the dust settles, the likely starters will be the same as last year with a slight wrinkle thrown in. When the Jaguars face teams like the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, and other teams who routinely spread the field on offense, Drayton Florence will play the outside corner position with Brian Williams sliding to the inside to play the nickel back position. What this does is puts a more physical corner in Williams on the inside covering the third wide receiver or a flexed out tight end like someone such as Dallas Clark or Kellen Winslow. Williams is also a good tackler for a cornerback, which is very important at the nickel back position, who is often called upon to support the run.

Many will argue that doing this with Drayton Florence and not making him the outright starter begs to question the rich contract the team gave him, however as it's been noted before, the Jacksonville Jaguars played in the nickel formation more than 60% of the time last season. If a player is on the field over 60% of the time, they're a starter on the team, even if their name is not announced in pre-game introductions. There are more and more teams that value corner as the Jaguars have, as more and more teams go the way of spreading the field, thus teams will need better players at their cornerback positions. Florence is a better pure cover corner than Brian Williams and he is faster. Williams has shown he can be beat over the top, and while that may have been attributed some to having a rookie safety on top of him, it is still an issue. The bigger issue however is the fact that Reggie Wayne routinely beats Brian Williams like a drum when the Jaguars play the Colts.

After the "starters" in Mathis, B. Williams, Florence, Nelson, and Sensabaugh, there will be a fierce battle for the back up positions. One of the contenders are fifth-round pick Trae Williams, who is described by scouts as a perfect nickel cornerback prospect. Trae Williams and Scott Starks will battle it out for the fourth corner position with the loser possible being the fifth corner, or cut if the Jaguars choose not to keep 5 corners. At the safety position the team has Jacksonville native and pre-season superstar Jamaal Fudge, special teams ace Chad Nkang, and newly acquired veteran Pierson Prioleau. There is also undrafted rookies Isaiah Gardner, Michael Grant, and speedster Brian Witherspoon who will all compete with Rashard Moulton who made the Jaguars practice squad last season. The chances either of these players make the team is slim, as the will need to show they can contribute right away on special teams. Don't be surprised either to see someone like Isaiah Gardner to make a position switch to safety, as the Jaguars are slim at that position.

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