Maurice Jones-Drew (Getty Images)
Prior to the 2008 season, several NFL experts and media members questioned whether this 2008 version of the Jaguars was the best in franchise history. Those thoughts were obviously extinguished early in the season, and the only thing that’s arguable about the ’08 Jaguars is if they’re the most disappointing team in franchise history following their 5-11 season.
Despite an abundance of offensive and defensive ineptitude that was displayed this year, the Jaguars and their fans should still have hope entering the future. The near future. A couple easy examples are this year’s Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons, who appeared to be about as dead as franchises could look a year before their epic turnarounds. Sure, those teams had complete overhauls in their front office, but the Jaguars will likely have plenty of their staff replaced before the start of next summer’s training camp as well.
“Decisions that we make going forward with our roster will be made, as I said, after we’ve evaluated,” Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think the one thing that you can be assured of is that we’re never going to settle. We’re all here to get ourselves into the playoffs and compete for a championship. That’s what we’re here for, so everything that we do is going to be with that end result in mind.”
The Jaguars have pieces to build upon, more pieces than the Falcons and Dolphins did at the end of last season. They will also be armed with a fourth-place schedule which includes non-division games against the AFC East as well as matchups with Cleveland and Kansas City, not to mention four games against the 2008’s worst division in football, the NFC West.
The Jaguars have a dynamic star at running back in Maurice Jones-Drew, a player who will likely rewrite all of the franchise rushing and certainly scoring records by the time he’s done playing. They have a solid offensive line which played better than most gave them credit for this season. The Jaguars have one of the best blocking tight ends in football in Marcedes Lewis, and although at this point it doesn’t appear that he’s lived up to his first-round draft status, he’s still a productive player. The wide receiver position was a disappointment in 2008, but there were flashes from Dennis Northcutt, Mike Walker, and a career saving season from Matt Jones, who appears to be living up to his lofty draft status.
Defensively, Jaguars fans saw good things at the end of the season from first-round pick Derrick Harvey, and younger players such as Tony McDaniel and Derek Landri could be contributors. Veteran defensive end Reggie Hayward played well in spots, and the linebacking corps of Daryl Smith, Justin Durant, and Clint Ingram are more than serviceable. The secondary returns Rashean Mathis, who played very well before injuring his knee, and Brian Williams is an above average corner.
The Jaguars special teams coverage units were stellar last season and they have a big game kicker with a big leg in Josh Scobee. Montell Owens is a legitimate special teams star, and Brian Witherspoon has the potential to be a game-breaking return man.
Still, the Jaguars have some decisions to make in this year’s offseason. The team must decide whether to retain the services of left tackle Khalif Barnes, who played very well in 2008, and Gerald Sensabaugh, who had his finest year as a pro. Both will demand a large payday as they hit free agency. The Jaguars will have to find a defensive coordinator who can maximize the current talent on that side of the ball, and they will have to come to terms with special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who is among the very best at his job.
“I think if you’ve been in the NFL and you’ve covered the NFL long enough you understand that change is part of this landscape,” Jack Del Rio explained. “It’s constant. This is a production business and players, coaches, scouts, everything, we’re always looking to find the right combination and you’re always wanting to be part of that right combination.”
The Jaguars offseason moves in 2008 helped turn an 11-5 team to a 5-11 team, and they can’t afford to have another offseason of free agent busts. Now Gene Smith is in charge of personnel and they will have the eighth overall pick in April’s draft without having to trade up.
“I think Gene (Smith) is a very sharp guy, a bright guy with a lot of energy,” Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said following the move to replace James “Shack” Harris with Smith.
The team must make the right moves in the spring if they’re going to be productive next fall.