- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 26
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The 2009 Jacksonville Jaguars were a fourth-place team that lost its final four games.
Seems to me the logical goal would be trying to move out of the basement and establish some upward mobility in a tough division. But Jack Del Rio and his troops aren’t thinking that way, and who does, really?
They are thinking bigger.
Jack Del Rio has talked to them about contending for a championship.
“I kind of cut my teeth in Baltimore on the same staff with Rex Ryan [under] Brian Billick,” Del Rio said. “You can’t tiptoe in and hope you don’t wake the guy up and you’re going to sneak up on somebody and, ‘Oh, shh, here we come and be quiet.’ In many respects in the NFL, you’ve got to take what you want. You’ve got to set some goals and then go after them. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a goal of being champs.”
“Now the reality is, we’ve got to cover a lot of ground. I’m not unrealistic with that. But I’m not going to concede anything. We’re going to work our tails off to maximize our potential. We can say this is our goal, this is our mission to do these things, but our focus has to be on squeezing what we can out of every day.”
Or as Maurice Jones-Drew said, you never run a race you once lost aiming to finish second-to-last.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Are the safeties enough? They have faith in Gerald Alexander at strong safety, though he’s not a guarantee to lock down a spot all season. But free safety is a huge issue. Reggie Nelson struggled badly last season with botched coverages and missed tackles and Anthony Smith didn’t do a lot to displace Nelson last year. Word is Nelson has been better, but neither guy has made a big impression in practices I’ve seen so far.
They need the free safety to consistently play a reliable center field. And if he can’t make a tackle, he at least has to hold the ball carrier up long enough for help to arrive.
With two games against Peyton Manning and two against Matt Schaub, if one of those guys can’t provide help to corners Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox -- even if there is a vastly better pass rush -- the Jaguars could have some long AFC South afternoons.
They could look for an additional option on waivers.
2. Is there enough weaponry to go with Jones-Drew and Mike Sims-Walker? Jones-Drew is a top-flight weapon taking handoffs or running under short passes and Sims-Walker did well establishing himself as a go-to guy for David Garrard. But beyond them, do the Jaguars have the playmakers to take the next step?
They certainly have a large pool of candidates. Marcedes Lewis averaged 16.2 yards per catch last season, the best number in the league for a tight end, and another tight end, Zach Miller, is a potential big-play option.
Troy Williamson hasn’t created buzz yet as he did last camp, but I still think they’d like him to secure the starting role opposite Sims-Walker because of his field-stretching speed. The three receivers from the 2009 draft -- Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard and Tiquan Underwood -- are an intriguing pool. I anticipate Thomas can really grow into a nifty slot option.
They also like sixth-round pick Deji Karim from Southern Illinois, a quick back who could earn some touches and can win the kick return job. He’ll probably have to get past Rashad Jennings to be a factor on offense, and I feel like they still like Jennings plenty too.
3. Do they have sufficient leadership? While they are relying on a load of young talent, particularly on defense, the two significant veteran imports -- free-agent defensive end Aaron Kampman and trade-acquisition middle linebacker Kirk Morrison -- need to lead the way.
“You want to give the young guys everything that you’ve seen in the league,” Morrison said. “I’ve been in the league five years already. I’ve seen what losing can do, how it can separate a team. I’m saying this is what needs to be done, if you want to go out and win games, you’ve got to work like this. Losing was not fun. There are things I can bring over here like my toughness. I’ve never missed a game in the National Football League.”
The best way to lead is to produce. Morrison can be a tackling machine, and if Kampman returns healthy to a 4-3 defense a year after major knee surgery, he’s a constant threat to the quarterback.
Defensive end Jeremy Mincey has been productive on a daily basis so far. With a crowd at defensive end including Kampman, Derrick Harvey and rookies Austen Lane and Larry Hart, can Mincey stay healthy and wedge himself onto the roster? The line overall is a young bunch, but its new position coach, Joe Cullen, has the group absolutely flying around and setting a tone the entire team would be wise to follow.
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton’s got a good head on his shoulders and has time to get where he needs to be. But he was 346 pounds on Monday, and the team would like him close to 330. If his play drops off, they could be in trouble in the middle no matter how good first-round pick Tyson Alualu is, and he’s been real good from what I’ve seen of him at OTAs and in his debut camp practice. The team can’t move into Knighton’s house and feed him, but how did his weight get so out of hand?
Vince Manuwai’s flipped from left to right guard and the Jaguars will make that their power side for the run game. But if he doesn’t bounce back from a poor 2009, when he was coming off reconstructive right knee surgery, the team could look to Kynan Forney as the next best interior run blocker.
Undrafted running back Chad Kackert catches everything and can turn and go… Are there too many guys on this team who can play good to great special teams but not contribute on offense or defense?
I like the way Ted Monken teaches receivers on the field -- with pointed-but-encouraging detail. I watched him spell out to Roren Thomas how and why he needed to be patient and allow a play to develop for his quarterback after he'd run a short route way too quickly.
Harvey and Hart have created some buzz. Are they off to really good starts, or is a slow start by right tackle Eben Britton contributing?
The Jaguars really like second-year corner Don Carey, and it would seem he’d make sense to be the nickel. But Del Rio left the door open that Carey could even earn a starting spot. Left unsaid is whether Del Rio thinks that would impact veteran Mathis or second-year man Cox, whom they loved as a rookie. Or perhaps he’s just looking to light fires.
I hope offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter runs some option with tight end Zach Miller taking snaps. It’d create excitement and a wrinkle for a team that can be limited on offense and wouldn’t suffer for taking some snaps from Garrard.