Jags look to build on last season's success

With a strong finish in 2003 the Jaguars head into 2004 with plenty of optimism.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:50 AM ET
By Vito Stellino | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Head coach Jack Del Rio and QB Byron Leftwich went through the growing pains of their rookie seasons together last year.

Now they hope to reap the dividends.

"Byron and I both went through very difficult rookie seasons," Del Rio said. "We both share a common vision of leading this franchise to greener pastures and to much better days. We do have a common bond of having a vision of bringing Jacksonville a winner and being a part of it."

In his first season as a head coach, Del Rio's inexperience -- he had been an assistant coach only six years -- showed as the team started out 1-7. Even the motivational ploy of putting an ax in the locker room backfired when P Chris Hanson hit his leg instead of the tree stump and was lost for the season.

But Del Rio held the players together through the rough start, and the team responded to finish 4-4 in the second half. Del Rio isn't shy about saying the playoffs are the goal this year.

Leftwich was supposed to sit behind Mark Brunell last year, but he was thrust into the starting lineup for the final 13 games when Brunell suffered an elbow injury. Leftwich was guilty of 25 turnovers last year while going 5-8, but Del Rio is confident he'll learn from the experience and have a big season this year.

Del Rio also drafted Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford to improve the receiving corps and give Leftwich more targets.

Quarterbacks: The Jaguars will go as far as Leftwich can carry them. He's got all the intangibles and is a leader, but the big question is whether he can avoid the turnovers. David Garrard, in his third season, has rebounded from surgery for Crohn's Disease to keep the backup job. He's more mobile than Leftwich and can step in if the need arises. Quinn Gray appeared to be winning the third-string job over Doug Johnson at presstime. Grade: C-plus.

Running backs: The Jaguars had a scare when Fred Taylor suffered a foot strain late in camp and missed the third preseason game. The Jaguars hope he'll be back to start the regular season because he's one player they can't afford to have going at less than 100 percent. He's started 32 straight games and rushed for 1,572 yards last year. The team was 5-1 when he had 24 or more carries last year and 0-10 when he didn't. He has a nifty cut-back style and can break the long run. The Jaguars drafted Greg Jones in the second round to complement Taylor, but he may turn out to be more of a fullback than a tailback. LaBrandon Toefield was the backup last year but missed much of camp with a high ankle sprain. Grade: A-minus.

Receivers: Jimmy Smith had his string of seven consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons snapped last year, when he missed the first four games with a suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. But at age 35, he's shown no signs of slowing down. Smith appears ready to rebound with another Pro Bowl appearance. The problem is finding a solid No. 2 receiver. The Jaguars reached for Williams with the ninth pick in the draft, and he got off to a slow start in camp. His lack of speed may be a problem. Troy Edwards returned as the No. 2 receiver, but he's also off to a slow start. Fourth-round pick Wilford has shown promise. Kyle Brady returns at tight end, but he's more of a blocker than receiver. Young TE George Wrighster shows promise as a receiver. Grade: B-minus.

Offensive linemen: This is one of the strengths of the team. All five starters return from a unit that allowed only 28 sacks last year, the fewest in team history. The right side, with C Brad Meester, OG Chris Naeole and OT Maurice Williams, is particularly strong in pass protection. Vince Manuwai is quickly developing into a force at left guard. Mike Pearson is the question mark at left tackle after allowing his share of sacks. The Jaguars thought they improved their depth by signing free agents Ephraim Salaam and Mike Compton, but both have been slowed by injuries. They may not need depth since the five starters missed a total of two starts last year. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive linemen: The Jaguars have half a line. Their DT tandem of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson is one of the best in the league and the main reason why the Jaguars were No. 2 against the run last year. But they have major question marks at end this year. Hugh Douglas was a bust after getting a $6 million signing bonus last year and was released Aug. 30, leaving rookie Bobby McCray and second-year DE Brandon Green to compete for the starting spot. Paul Spicer will start at the other end for Tony Brackens, who couldn't stay healthy and was waived. Spicer is an overachiever but not noted as a pass rusher. LB Akin Ayodele may be counted on as a pass rusher on passing downs. Grade: B-minus.

Linebackers: This unit got a makeover on the outside this year. The Jaguars drafted Daryl Smith in the second round and signed Tommy Hendricks and Greg Favors as free agents. Smith has been their most productive draft pick and is challenging Ayodele, who is likely to play end on passing downs, for the weak-side job. Hendricks and Favors are dueling for the strong-side position. Mike Peterson returns as the team's top tackler in the middle. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive backs: This is another unit that got a makeover with SS Donovin Darius the only player returning to play the same position he did last year. Rashean Mathis has moved in his second season from the right to left side to replace departed Fernando Bryant at corner. Free agent Dewayne Washington is currently ahead of another free agent, Juran Bolden, in the battle for Mathis' old spot. Free agent Deon Grant has replaced Deke Cooper at free safety, but Cooper gives them depth and can play on passing downs. Grade: B-minus.

Special teams: This unit was the worst in the league last year, which is why Del Rio fired his good friend, Bill Bates, as the special-teams coach. Del Rio hired Pete Rodriguez and agreed to match the $350,000 he was being paid in Seattle. Rodriguez will make the coverage teams better with his attention to detail, but he's having problems finding a kicker. Rookie Josh Scobee was the team's kicker when camp ended after Jeff Chandler was waived. But Scobee missed 3-of-4 field-goal attempts in the first two exhibition games, which led to the team signing veteran Steve Christie. Scobee rallied in the third preseason game, though, nailing all three attempts. Hanson is returning to his Pro Bowl punting form after being sidelined in the ax incident last year, but top returner David Allen has been slowed with a high ankle sprain. Grade: C-plus.

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