This is my first blog for the site, and I’ll start by saying I hope this becomes a great place for Jaguar fans to frequent, where fun is had, ideas are shared (I welcome feedback and commentary from readers), and quality team insight and news is provided.
With that said, we are now nearly 24 hours away from Jacksonville’s opening kickoff to the pre-season. We, thus, have a lot to discuss, as the team has some areas of major and minor concern, some positions up for grabs, and obvious hopes of making the playoffs after posting a relatively disappointing 7-9 record in 2009. Below I take a look at a few of the storylines I believe are most significant and that Jaguar fans should pay particular attention to during the 2010 pre-season, and also do my best to acknowledge some of the team’s most intense battles at certain positions. Without further ado, here’s my first look at Jaguar football, pre-season 2010.
Identifying more on offense: There are no doubt a few known quantities on offense in Jacksonville this season. We know, barring injury, that Maurice Jones-Drew is going to deliver at least 1,000 yards and 10 scores. We know Mike Sims-Walker provides the team with a big (6-2, 214 pounds), legitimate threat as a No. 1 receiver, and we know quarterback David Garrard will have at least a passable season (though he does need to become more consistent for the Jags to have optimum success).
Much of the team’s success, however, may be determined by what it gets from some peripheral characters on offense, and pre-season ball will be a decent chance to see who among those may step up when the regular season rolls around. Jacksonville, which ranked 19th-overall in passing offense last year, could clearly benefit from identifying some pass catchers outside of Sims-Walker, and it looks like that may happen, to an extent. Based on reports from camp, fifth-year tight end Marcedes Lewis is ready to have a breakout season, and fellow tight end Zach Miller is a potential big-play guy as well.
Finding a second receiver may not be as easy, though. Some are still intrigued by the speed and big-play threat Troy Williamson provides, but call me a cynic for having absolutely no confidence in a guy that has done next to nothing in five NFL seasons. My best guess is that 2009 draft pick Mike Thomas will emerge as a consistent playmaker, as the second-year receiver out of Arizona had a nice rookie season, hauling in 48 passes for 453 yards and a score, and has impressed thus far in camp.
Finally, it will be interesting to see who proves capable of spelling Jones-Drew when the dominant back isn’t on the field. Promising options are certainly there, with Rashad Jennings looking ready to take on a more substantial role this year and rookie Deji Karim pushing for time as well.
One should always temper their emotions when watching pre-season action, but all of the aforementioned “sidekicks” have a vested interest in putting their best feet forward – as opposed to most veterans, who are looking to merely escape pre-season ball without injury – and should, thus, tell us at least something about what types of seasons they are set to have.
Getting to the Quarterback: If you’re a true Jaguar fan, and watched the team at all last season, you surely know how painfully bad it was at putting pressure on the quarterback. In fact, out of the league’s 32 teams, Jacksonville ranked dead last when it came to sacking QBs, and, to make matters worse, it wasn’t even close: The Jaguars had a pitiful 14 sacks in 16 games (that’s less than one a game for all the non-math majors out there), eight less than the number put up by the league’s second-worst sack unit, which was sported by Kansas City.
We know for a fact that Jack Del Rio and company were watching, though, and they did their best to improve the situation in the offseason, though I’m not sure they’ve done enough. The team likes what rookie defensive ends Austen Lane and Larry Hart bring to the table, but neither was a high a draft pick and it would be a risky idea to count on getting much from either guy. Third-year end Jeremy Mincy has had a very good summer with the team, but has recorded only two sacks in two years. The same can be said about top 2008 draft pick Derrick Harvey, who has impressive measurables, but has managed to record only 5.5 sacks in his first two years in the league. All four guys will look to the team’s four pre-season games to get into a rhythm and establish a role.
There’s no doubt, however, that the team is looking to free-agent acquisition Aaron Kampman to not only provide the position with its biggest shot of adrenaline, but to also serve as a veteran leader both on and off the field. Kampman, 30, has been a really solid player in the league for a really long time – posting a career-high 15.5 sacks in 2006 – but is coming off a down year for sure, posting just 3.5 sacks and appearing in only nine games. Still, his ability to both rush the passer and stop the run should prove invaluable to Jacksonville’s defense in 2010, even if the pre-season isn’t exactly the vet’s “time of year.”
Becoming less sieve-like in the secondary: This concern can almost be considered a result of the one discussed directly above, though to an extent that might be an oversimplification of the problem. What can be said for sure, though, is that the team’s overall inability to pressure the quarterback certainly did nothing to help those responsible for coverage in the secondary, and that a better pass rush would benefit all. What also can be said with 100-percent certainty is that Jacksonville yielded the 27th-most yards through the air last year, a number that must be improved upon with divisional matchups against Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub looming.
At strong safety, both Gerald Alexander and Sean Considine are about sufficient, but problems must be sorted out at free safety before games start to really count beginning September 12. Despite a stellar college career, free safety Reggie Nelson has been a huge disappointment in his first three seasons in the league. He has reportedly looked more motivated during summer camp, and his pre-season battle for a starting spot with fellow free safety Anthony Smith should be among the most interesting on the team. Their success, or lack thereof, will also go a long way in determining what the Jags accomplish this season.
At the cornerback position, Jacksonville is surprisingly strong considering the less-than-favorable stats mentioned above. Veteran Rashean Mathis is a better-than-good option at one spot – though he does take an awful lot of risks – second-year corner Derek Cox is also more than adequate, and fellow second-year player Don Carey has reportedly been playing really strong ball of late.
Call me crazy, but the Jaguar corners should be more than good enough to get by in 2010 should their safeties provide reasonable help along the way.
We’ve already taken a pretty good look at what the addition of defensive end Aaron Kampman could mean to what was an underwhelming unit last season. Third-round draft pick, defensive tackle D’Anthony Smith, suffered an injury to his Achilles in camp and will be sidelined for the foreseeable future, but fellow rookie defensive tackle and the team’s first-round pick Tyson Alualu has been very impressive to date and could prove to be a true impact player in just his first season; though not mentioned above, Alualu’s presence could also go a long way in helping the team generate more of a pass rush in 2010.
The Jaguars also inked a deal with veteran inside linebacker Kirk Morrison, and the team knows exactly what it’s getting in the 6-2, 240-pound tackling machine; Morrison has totaled 632 tackles in his five NFL seasons, an average of 126.4 per year. The additions of Kampman, Morrison and Alualu, and what they collectively contribute, will be a significant storyline throughout the 2010 season and all three should be integral members in the charge to improve what was the NFL’s 23rd-ranked defense overall last season.
That’s unfortunately all the time I’ve got for today, be but sure to check back here over the weekend when I take a look at what transpired during the team’s first pres-season game, and do my best to find some significance in Friday-night’s action.
Until then, be good and keep reading.
Janovitz can be reached at Scott.Janovitz@gmail.com
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Written by Scott Janovitz