- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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By the end of 2007, the Jacksonville Jaguars seemed to be one of those up-and-coming, safe AFC playoff teams, not quite on par with Peyton Manning and the division rival Indianapolis Colts, but certainly a franchise to be reckoned with. Coach Jack Del Rio hadn't had a losing season since debuting in 2003, and the Jaguars were so confident 2008 would be their year they spent big money on free agents, notably Jerry Porter, and talked as if they were Super Bowl contenders.
Then they went out and won a mere five contests. Del Rio didn't get all the blame, obviously, as he's still around, but another year like the last one and he likely won't be. The Jaguars suddenly became a team in dissension on and off the field, and there were many offseason changes in an effort to get the franchise back on track. Front-office members are gone, the wide receiver corps and offensive line look a lot different, and the team's all-time leading rusher is now plying his trade for another AFC playoff hopeful, setting up Maurice Jones-Drew to become a fantasy monster.
One could argue the Jaguars have nowhere to go but up after a very disappointing season, but then again, with so much pressure on so many key figures, from quarterback David Garrard to other skill players on offense to the coach, maybe that's just not true.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Torry Holt is 33 years old and would tell his detractors he's far from through, even though years of high-level productivity seemingly hit a wall (along with his Rams career) in 2008. Holt might be a Jaguar for only one season, and it's not like he's heading to a team known for its passing game. However, on a team that suffered through numerous chemistry problems a year ago, adding a veteran character influence can't hurt, even if he can't match his somewhat pedestrian 2008 stats. What should be interesting is who steps up along with Holt, if anyone. The names have certainly changed.
Talented Matt Jones was released due to his questionable off-field activities, even though he led the team in receptions and yards. Free-agent bust Jerry Porter caught only 11 passes in 10 games, and now he's looking for work. Dennis Northcutt had a probable starting role next to Holt locked up, but the team decided he was too old and too expensive, and exiled him to Detroit. And Reggie Williams, the fellow who actually led the team in receiving touchdowns with a grand total of three, was not re-signed.
This all means the Jaguars really are looking to start over with a depressed receiving corps that hasn't been productive since Jimmy Smith retired. Third-year man Mike Walker should see extensive playing time, but keep an eye on how the influx of rookie talent is used, because there is definitely opportunity for someone to emerge. Mike Thomas was productive at the University of Arizona, and the team also likes Jarett Dillard and Tiquan Underwood. Troy Williamson is also still around, but there are rumors he might not be for long. The Jaguars need the threat of a passing game if they are going to have a successful offense.
Fitting in: Maurice Jones-Drew has been a fantasy fixture since joining the NFL, but he's never been a guy who got all the carries, so he'll be dealing with a whole new set of expectations. While the Jaguars worked diligently to rid themselves of last season's group of receivers and bring in newcomers, the running game basically went from a Jones-Drew timeshare with franchise rushing leader Fred Taylor to merely one guy. On a team that still pays the bills by running the ball, Jones-Drew should be a very busy man, especially near the goal line, where he was already a star. Alvin Pearman and Chauncey Washington are no threat to Jones-Drew's carries, and one has to wonder what would happen if Jones-Drew gets hurt. Jones-Drew has proven to be durable so far, but fantasy owners will want to know who is next in line.
On the line: The mobile Garrard saw his sack total double from the previous season, and his interception total went way up. Clearly the offensive line was no longer a strength after a tough Week 1 loss to the Titans in which three linemen were hurt. The Jaguars made it a priority in the offseason, signing Tra Thomas from the Eagles and spending early draft picks on Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton to handle the tackle spots. The Jaguars still aren't likely to be a passing team, but Jones-Drew won't be able to average 5 yards per carry without improvement from the line.
On the mend: Garrard's confidence could certainly use a bit of bolstering after he took steps backward in 2008. Remember, Del Rio and the Jaguars made a controversial decision to make this Garrard's offense and cut an in-his-prime Byron Leftwich, a move that looked wise when Garrard tossed a mere three interceptions in 2007, but not so wise last season. Whether the offensive line was the culprit or Garrard couldn't handle the role in 2008, the pressure is clearly on him to rebound. Look for the Jaguars to give him more opportunity to run and improvise, since it doesn't seem like having Garrard throw the ball another 500-plus times is a strong game plan. There are no other quarterbacks threatening him on the roster at this point, but it's a crossroads season for Garrard anyway.
The bottom line
Jones-Drew is going to be a top-5 draft pick in many fantasy leagues, and judging by how he should be used, that appears to make perfect sense. The Jaguars, however, are going to need help from others if they are to return to double-digit wins and a playoff spot, meaning a whole bunch of individuals are on the spot. How Del Rio, Garrard, Holt and others handle that pressure will be telling.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
12hEthan Sherwood Strauss