Coach Del Rio (Getty Images)
The Jaguars have not been a team to shy away from risk in recent years. Jacksonville has selected a first-round pick with the intention of switching his position, given contract extensions to two players in their 30’s, and have been one of the most active teams in the league during the first weekend of free agency.
This year the team has a new general manager in Gene Smith who has a new off season strategy that’s focused primarily on drafting and developing players, rather than acquiring them in free agency.
“Gene is a strong draft guy and not a free agency guy. If you look at our batting average in free agency, we don’t have a stellar batting average,” Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said.
Although that anti-spendthrift philosophy may usually be the safer route, especially for a small market team that struggles with ticket sales, the Jaguars may be on the verge of making some big mistakes.
It is not much of a secret that the Jaguars new philosophy will revolve around letting many of their own free agents walk and thus saving money and eventually getting compensatory draft picks. Although it may make sense to cut ties with linebacker Mike Peterson, who will turn 33 years old before training camp begins and has clearly on the decline, the decisions to end relationships with starters Khalif Barnes and Gerald Sensabaugh may not be so clear cut.
Barnes has been the team’s starting left tackle since his rookie season of 2005, and although he may not have made any trips to the Pro Bowl, he is a more than serviceable left tackle. Aside from his solid level of play, Barnes is only 26 years old and there is simply no one currently on the Jaguars roster that is a viable replacement. Letting Barnes walk will almost certainly mean the Jaguars will be pigeonholed into selecting a left tackle early in the draft, which may certainly be a complete violation of the team’s new best available player drafting strategy.
“I think that is clearly something we have always espoused but haven’t always done,” Wayne Weaver said of the best available player drafting strategy. “We need to get back to that. That’s how you put impact players on your roster.”
JagNation asked Scout.com NFL Expert Chris Steuber about the Khalif Barnes situation and he weighed in—
“As talented as Barnes is, he’s been inconsistent throughout his young career. Physically, he has the talent to be a dominant tackle, but he has yet to put it all together. It’s a tough decision for the Jaguars, because they’re a team that’s desperate for offensive line help, and they may feel pressure to resign him. Barnes will be 26 years old at the start of the 2009 season and despite his struggles, he’s still young and hasn’t even reached the prime of his career. In the end, with other teams around the league desperate for a young offensive tackle with promise, Barnes may find a big money deal elsewhere, and it could price out the Jaguars. But if Barnes is willing to take a contract similar to the one Kwame Harris received from the Oakland Raiders last season – three years, $16 million – that’s a deal the Jaguars could live with.”
The Jaguars have another tough decision to make with safety Gerald Sensabaugh. After beginning the season on the bench, Sensabaugh forced his way into the Jaguars starting lineup and had the best year of his career. Sensabaugh is a player that the team selected in the fifth-round of the 2005 draft and developed into a solid starter.
We asked Chris Steuber about the Sensabaugh situation as well and what kind of contract he may be able to expect in free agency—
“This will be another tough decision for the Jaguars, because it all depends on how the front office views Sensabaugh, and that will determine the contract they offer. A good barometer on Sensabaugh’s side of the table will be the six-year, $33 million contract Madieu Williams signed last year with the Minnesota Vikings or the five-year, $31.5 million deal Deon Grant received in 2007 from the Seattle Seahawks. Sensabaugh’s breakout ’08 season compares well with Grant and Williams’ contract years. A good offer to Sensabaugh, who turns 26 in June, would be four years, $22.5 million. If he declines, it would allow him to test his value on the open market and request to have the opportunity to match a competitive offer.”
If the Jaguars were to let both Barnes and Sensabaugh walk in free agency, they would be giving up on a pair of 26 year old starters just a year after they spent better than $100 million in contracts locking up a career backup quarterback who had one solid season before reverting back to his old level of play (David Garrard), a disgruntled wide receiver who contributed all of 11 receptions in 2008 (Jerry Porter), and a cornerback who was handed a starting job, but had to hand it right back because he was so ineffective (Drayton Florence).
The Jaguars seem to be so intent on making amends for the mistakes made in the 2008 offseason that they may even make more errors in 2009 by doing a 180 degree philosophy change. Now that’s risky business.