Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the 16th of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
TOM'S TAKE: The day Jimmy Smith retired was probably the worst day of Byron Leftiwch's still-young NFL career.
The Jaguars' offense has always bordered on anemic, even with a rapport between Leftwich and Smith. With Smith gone, Leftwich now has to depend on a young group of receivers -- Matt Jones, Ernest Wilford, Reggie Wlilliams -- to move the offense. This core is talented but flawed. Williams hasn't shown signs he's worthy of a roster spot, let alone the acclaim that comes with being the ninth overall pick in an NFL draft. Jones and Wilford both showed flashes of brilliance last year, and they're both gigantic targets for Leftwich, but both will need to develop.
If not, Lord Byron will be depending quite an awful lot on rookie first-rounder Marcedes Lewis, quite possibly the best all-around tight end in the draft. Lewis has size, speed, and incredible hands, and he's athletic enough to line up at wide receiver. The Jags will probably use him in a multitude of fronts to keep opposing defenses honest. He could jump ahead of Jones, Wilford, and Williams as Leftwich's go-to guy soon.
Either way, the Jaguars will probably have to hang the fate of their offense on the passing game. The Jags have a deep group of running back with no true #1. Greg Jones is a running back who was converted to a fullback and will now probably be taking over the starting role. The Jags still have Fred Taylor, but after managing to stay injury-free in '02 and '03, Taylor regained his "Fraud" nickname by missing 7 games in the last two years. He's skipped the Jags' offseason programs, has a history of groin problems, and is signed to a bloated contract. None of this bodes well for his future in Jacksonville. Even if he is able to stay on the team, the law of averages indicates he'll miss a handful of games at least. Jones, who is an adequate temporary fill-in but who can't be depended on over 16 games, will probably have to step in at one point. Whoever gets the bulk of the carries will be spelled by Maurice Drew, a small, shifty back out of UCLA. Drew is a high-character guy with skill, but he lacks size and has already had durability issues in college. He can't stand up to blitzes, and he's too small and fragile to be an every-down back in a vertical running game like the Jags'.
As poor as the Jags' offense has been over the years, their defense has made up for it in spades. Under Del Rio, the team has fielded a dominant defense annually, and that probably won't change this year. The team lost Jamie Winborn and Akin Ayodele, two valauble linebackers. In Ayodele's case, the loss was huge. A good defensive line can make an average group of linebackers look great, and in John Henderson and Marcus Stroud the middle three have a solid set of bodyguards. The addition of Brian Williams will make the secondary better. The Jags' top three cornerbacks -- Rashean Mathis, Williams, and Terry Cousin -- are ball-hawks.
Is this the year the Jaguars overtake the Colts? If the receivers can live up to the big shoes left by Smith, it's possible. I still wouldn't bet on it. Still, the Jaguars defense is elite, and the offense has enough playmaking ability to break double-digit wins and grab a wild card. In playoffs, defense wins games, and it's possible that the Jaguars could very well surprise some teams come January.
KYLE'S TAKE: It's funny. People yearly need to be reminded that the Jacksonville Jaguars exist. Maybe it's because they aren't in big market areas like Miami or even Tampa Bay. It's not as if we're all forgetting a horrible team. The Texans are more well-known than the Jags. We're forgetting a yearly playoff threat with a nice young offense and a strong defense.
Byron Leftwich, the Jags first round pick in 2003 out of Marshall, again enters the season as the starting quarterback I was looking around YouTube to find the game against Akron where he injured his leg, but came back into the game to score another touchdown later on. His leg was so messed up, his linemen needed to carry him downfield after each play. Look for Keenan Thompson to play him in the movie.
Leftwich was sidelined the last six games last year with an ankle injury and some started to wonder if backup David Garrard was better than Leftwich. He was great as a replacement for Leftwich, but it didn't hurt that most of those games were against Arizona, Cleveland, Houston, San Fransisco, and Tennessee. Although they did lose to Indy, he did have a 103.3 passer rating that game. None the less, it's Leftwich's team. Leftwich is a tough guy-- a great fit for tough guy coach Jack Del Rio. Unfortunately for Leftwich, the scenery is changing around him. Jimmy Smith retired in the offseason after having another impressive season. Smith was Leftwich's go-to guy. Without him, Byron will have to rely on Matt Jones and Ernest Wilford. Wilford had what you can consider a breakout year last year with 681 yards and 7 TDs. Those numbers may not blow you away, but keep in mind he was second to Jimmy Smith. The third receiver is Reggie Williams, who had a better year than starter Matt Jones.
Kyle Brady is the Jags tight end, but I want you all to watch for rookie Marcedes Lewis, who is really impressing the Jags coaches. He was a record-breaking tight end in UCLA and was drafted to help give Leftwich some receivers since Jimmy Smith has retired. Fred Taylor is still their running back and I always thought he was a tad overrated. He never put up fantastic numbers, but that can be because he's part of a rather conservative offense.
Jacksonville has a gritty defense too. They have a defense that has kept them in games when their offense was faltering. No opponent scored more than 28 points against them last year. That's pretty impressive when you think about it. How often has your favorite team had at least one game where they got themselves hurt? They held the Colts to 10 points in a 10-3 loss.
They have a beast of a linebacker in Mike Peterson. He had 132 total tackles 6 sacks and 3 ints and Len Pasquarelli called him the best defender you don't know about. Anyone surprised he's on the team you don't know about?
I don't know if the new look of the offense can click in time for the Jags to make a fast run to the playoffs. They're still in a division with Indy; however, without Ederrign James, Indy will be easier to defense and Jax has the defense to do it. They'll be in the hunt until the end, but I'm not sure the wild card will be coming out of the South with two strong teams in the East and North as well. Nonetheless, if the defense can keep the Jags in the game, the can be vying for the wild card by the end of the season.