NFL Nation: Rob Meier
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|The Jaguars know they want to give the ball to Maurice Jones-Drew and run the ball often. Beyond that, however, Jacksonville is still searching for an identity. |
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars always intend to be physical.
Beyond that, coach Jack Del Rio isn't looking to shoehorn his team into a predetermined personality.
"What it was when we got here with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson was the Twin Towers," he said. "And that got talked up quite a bit, and now that's changing. Marcus is not here. That's kind of not been what we are. What we are gets described by other people. What I want us to be is a team that works at it, shows tremendous commitment, focus, unselfishness and then we see how people want to label it.
"I'm not concerned with putting a label on it now and then living up to it."
Still, the Jaguars must answer the most basic NFL questions, the ones that provide the fallback plan when things are difficult: Who are we? And what do we do?
They will be a run-centered team, keyed around trying to build big drives with good line play from a group that's healthy and has reinforcements and looks to spring feature back Maurice Jones-Drew. They will be a linebacker-centered team, looking for three athletes to start showing up as big playmakers.
Beyond that, a 5-11 team from 2008 that has a new general manager in Gene Smith and 32 new players on the roster is still feeling things out, and could be for a while.
That search isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's ultimately fruitful.
"The team identity right now, I really can't answer that question," said Greg Jones, the fullback who's expected to get carries behind Jones-Drew. "I think if you ask me a month from now, a week into the season, I probably can. I think we are still trying to find ourselves, we are still trying to get this train going. We still are working towards it, working hard. We're rejuvenated, and excited about a fresh start. New logo, new uniforms, new GM -- we're just trying to have a fresh start and a great year."
Del Rio's positive disposition comes from the roster turnover. Gone are the team's primary character issues and high-paid players who didn't live up to their contracts. Smith's worked with his coach to retool with high-character guys who have good football smarts, who will buy in and fight through tough times.
In a division where the other three teams won at a .688 clip in 2007, the Jaguars aren't expecting Tennessee, Indianapolis or Houston to come back to them. Ultimately, they will have to track those teams down.
"This team has been flipped upside-down," defensive tackle Derek Landri said. "Everybody is searching themselves for who they are, who they want to be and what they want to accomplish in this league. As a whole, our identity is yet to be made, yet to be found.
"Which is, I think, a scary thing but in a good way. Because nobody really knows what we're capable of. I think we've got something special here that is up and coming, and for a lot of people that's bad news. It's good news for us."
|Steve Mitchell/US Presswire|
|Can David Garrard prove this season he is the team's franchise quarterback?|
1. Is David Garrard the guy?
Two years into his tenure as the starter, the question is unresolved. In 2007, he was 9-3 as a starter with a 102.2 passer rating. Last year, behind a broken line and with shaky weapons, he was 5-11 with an 81.7 rating.
The Jaguars don't want him to try to carry the team, just to orchestrate things. He talks of getting the ball into his playmakers' hands. But at crucial moments, can he make the right decisions and throw the ball to the right spots?
If he can't, the franchise will be looking for a quarterback in 2010 and Tim Tebow's name will ring out in Jacksonville from just 115 miles away in Gainesville.
2. Where's the pass rush coming from?
The Jaguars traded up for Derrick Harvey at No. 8 in 2007 and drafted Quentin Groves in the second round. They are trying to spark Henderson back to form while sifting through the options for the rest of the defense tackles. Collectively, they must generate a consistent pass rush that alleviates pressure on the secondary and allows linebackers the team keeps praising to start making plays regularly.
Maybe there is a surprise contributor or two. Undrafted rookie Julius Williams out of UConn drew early raves.
3. How will J
ones-Drew do as the No. 1 guy?
In letting Fred Taylor go, Jacksonville was opening more possibilities for MJD. The Jaguars will work hard to get the most out of Jones-Drew, but they also must be conscious of monitoring his workload to maximize the chances of getting the same November and December production as they get in September and October.
That means Jones or rookie Rashard Jennings or another back must prove a viable second option who can take a share of the running back touches on a weekly basis.
The company line is that third-year free safety Reggie Nelson is entrenched as a starter and set to be a key cog in the defensive scheme. But there was a big drop from his first season to his second.
There is a growing buzz among some close to the team and scouts that Nelson isn't the player the team hoped he would be and could even slip out of the starting 11 if he underperforms once the season is under way. Gerald Alexander arrived recently in a trade from Detroit and could make a push for the job if Nelson doesn't recover and find better footing. Still, it's hard to imagine he doesn't get a third season to prove himself.
Newcomer to watch
The Jaguars gave the Patriots a 2010 second-rounder to take cornerback Derek Cox out of William & Mary in the third round. With no clear starter opposite Rashean Mathis on the outside in the secondary, Cox has an early opportunity to stake a claim.
He was carrying himself with confidence early in camp and already working to break a habit he brought from college: a tendency to refocus on the quarterback too soon, giving a receiver a chance to break away.
Kicker Josh Scobee was hitting the ball great in the first week of camp, a good sign for a team likely to win close when it wins. ... Of the three rookie receivers, seventh-rounder Tiquan Underwood has been the most impressive. Meanwhile, fifth-rounder Jarret Dillard has struggled with drops. ... Tackle Tony Pashos reacted just the way a team that drafted two tackles and brought in a free agent (Tra Thomas) would want him to. He lost weight, re-committed and looks quite good. ... Defensive tackle Rob Meier will give great effort, but the team realizes it overextended him last season and will limit him to 20-25 plays a game. ... Left guard Vince Manuwai didn't have a full load early in camp but will be ready to go in the opener. The loss of the line's best run-blocker to a torn ACL in last year's opener began the team's downfall. ... Justin Durant has moved to middle linebacker and it's time for him. Between him, and the outside backers, Clint Ingram and Daryl Smith, a defensive leader must emerge and set a tone. ... While they know they can shift him to safety if they need to, the Jaguars are working Brian Williams at cornerback and nickel and expecting him to be in one of those spots or provide depth there. ... Receiver Mike Walker worked in the weight room on his legs and is confident he can keep them healthy. Now the question is whether he gave up any of his shiftiness by bulking up below the waist. ... Marcedes Lewis is best on routes where he can track the ball the whole way instead of having to find it. If he can catch more consistently, he can do some things after the reception. And yards after the catch may be key for this team considering deep balls aren't Garrard's specialty.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars think John Henderson can return to the form he showed in back in 2006. Whether he can or can't, defensive tackle may be the Jaguars biggest question mark.
I'm sure they hate when we harp on ancient history. But when the Jaguars had Henderson and Marcus Stroud side by side, teams knew they were in for a physical battle. The duo provided the identity not just of the defense, but of the team.
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|The Jaguars are looking to tackle John Henderson to anchor the defensive line.|
Can they get it back?
If they do it'll be because Henderson rebounds and a collection of lesser known players combine to be productive around him. Last year Rob Meier was the second starter, but the team has since concluded less is more with him in terms of snaps.
I talked with defensive line coach Ted Monachino and asked him to share an assessment of the interior guys beyond Henderson:
Derek Landri: "His dominant traits are his effort and his quickness. When you tie those things together, he can change plays to help your defense win games. Some of the things that he needs to continue to work on and improve on are just lining up across from a guy and whopping him physically in the run game. But we did enough with Derek that he can still be an effective run player. I think his chances are excellent to be a big player in what we do."
Meier: "What we'd like to do with Rob is get him enough snaps so that he can be effective for every one of them. Rob has a tendency to go in there and spend himself in a hurry. If we try to get 50 snaps out of a guy who plays best when he only plays 30, then that's our fault. We don't ever have to worry about Rob not playing the best he can play when he puts his hand down. Does he have some liabilities? Sure he does. There are things he can get better at. He's similar to Derek. He's got a bigger body and a bigger frame than Derek does, but he's still more of an edgy, penetrating, disrupting defensive tackle. We think he's got plenty of gas left in the tank to contribute. I think the number is 25 to 30 plays."
Atiyyah Ellison: "He's got to be in the right system to perform well. Being in an attacking front that involves some movement and allows for some flexibility in his charges, I think, makes a difference with him. If he had to line up head up and two-gap somebody, which is what they were doing with him in San Francisco, he did a great job at giving great effort to do that, but I think he's more suited to do what we do here. He has been a very pleasant surprise. We didn't have low expectations, but for him to come in and put in the body of work he's put in, that's a very pleasant surprise. Very strong and explosive, a real thick body, but has some legitimate quickness and athletic ability as a pass rusher." [More on Ellison sometime soon.]
Terrance Knighton: "He's a young guy that needs to do some things physically to get himself into position where he can play as hard as he can for as long as possible. We need to get him into a manageable area when it comes to body weight. [He's listed at 325.] I'm talking about what is the best weight that he plays at? We've got to figure that out, we've got to figure out can he play a 60-snap game at the weight he's at? Right now we're seeing great things out of him as far as being able to physically whip blockers, his ability to get off and make some athletic plays in the run game and he's also got a little bit of sneaky pass rush ability."
Will any of those guys be Stroud in his prime? That would be a big surprise. Is there enough there to piece together effective play? The Jaguars sure believe so.
Said GM Gene Smith: "We may have some unknown guys or some unproven guys in that group, but there are some talented guys and it's a very competitive group right now. So, it's going to be interesting to see the cream rise to the top. There is still an evaluation period that needs to take place. We think we've got strength in numbers. We'd like for a couple guys to emerge, guys that take three and four hands to block."
Keeping track of the developments here may be as significant as any in camp.
|Bill Baptist/Getty Images|
|A healthy Chris Brown could be a big plus for Houston.|
Training camp site: Houston, Texas
Campfires: Weakside linebacker appears to be the biggest battle for a starting spot. Xavier Adibi has bulked up in an effort to become more rugged and withstand the 16-game pounding. Zach Diles appears to be an underdog here, as does veteran Cato June, who signed up after spending time in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.
Finding a back to complement Steve Slaton is a big priority, but the Texans didn't spend much to increase their options. A healthy Chris Brown could do well in the role, but Houston is living on the edge if it's counting on 16 games from him. Undrafted rookies Jeremiah Johnson and Arian Foster are in the mix along with Ryan Moats and Clifton Dawson
Camp will be a downer if: Anything bad happens to Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson or Slaton. This is an offensive team keyed around that trio, and the loss of any of them for any extended time will be a huge setback.
Schaub's been labeled as injury prone, but it's really been more about being unlucky. It's not as if other quarterbacks would have played through some of the things he's faced. Still, Gary Kubiak's talked about how players can learn how to stay on the field, and he needs his signal-caller to do that.
Camp will be a success if: A defensive identity develops under new coordinator Frank Bush, who's pledged to be more aggressive.
The Texans need some preseason success on both sides of the ball to carry into the regular season, because another shaky start will be cause for concern based on the team's history. If Houston is to plot a course to its first playoff berth, it needs to avoid a poor start.
Second time around: Slaton was a revelation as a rookie, and while there is uncertainty about who else will get carries, the line should be better. It's the second year for the group under Alex Gibbs running his scheme, which should mean better and more consistent play.
Additionally, not only does the unit have Gibbs and John Benton as coaching resources, but can look to assistant Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Famer who's now part of the staff.
Training camp site: Terre Haute, Ind.
|Donald Miralle/Getty Images|
|Peyton Manning's receiving corps will be without Marvin Harrison this year.|
icamp, with Hall not generating much buzz.
Returning defensive tackles Keyunta Dawson, Eric Foster, Raheem Brock (an end on early downs) and Antonio Johnson will be fighting for roles at a position that welcomed back Ed Johnson and has two young, thick additions from the draft in Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. Getting bigger inside while maintaining athleticism was a priority for the Colts.
The plan at linebacker is for Clint Session to play on the weakside and Philip Wheeler to replace him on the strongside. But guys with starting experience like Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler will be looking to take the team away from that blueprint.
Camp will be a downer if: Left guard Ryan Lilja, perhaps the team's best run blocker, can't make it back after the knee injury that cost him all of 2008. Trouble on the return path for cornerback Marlin Jackson (knee) would also be a bad thing.
With those injuries, the two surgeries on Manning's knee, a dinged Joseph Addai and a bunch of additional problems for the offensive line, the Colts got to show that they could survive. It's not anything they want to be in position to prove again.
Camp will be a success if: New head coach Jim Caldwell sets an early tone that gives the team no room for doubt about the transfer of power from his mentor, Tony Dungy. The players also must take to the thinking of new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer (a bit more aggressive) and new, fiery special teams coach Ray Rychleski.
It also would be great if Manning develops increased rapport with Anthony Gonzalez, who's graduated to No. 2 receiver with Marvin Harrison gone. Manning also needs to gain a real feel for the guy who wins the battle for No. 3 as well as the young tight ends, Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi.
Off the record: Even with a new coach and changes on his staff, it's unlikely there will be any different emphasis on preseason results. Indianapolis is 3-15 in the preseason over the last four years and 51-13 in the regular seasons that followed.
The Colts have a good feel for how to get ready and don't have to worry about building fan enthusiasm with preseason wins. Everyone knows to look at smaller things early in the game to gauge the team's readiness.
Jack Del Rio is pulling out some old coaching standards, and quite frankly they feel a bit high-schoolish: shuffling lockers, sending a player home, scolding laughter at inappropriate times, indicating that he thinks the locker room music is too loud.
|Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|The chemistry of Jack Del Rio's Jaguars has been off this year -- leading to some unusual choices by the coach.|
Early this week in response to a question about team chemistry not matching last year's, he called it the $64 million question. It seems reasonable to expect that a coach who got a deal with $20 million guaranteed through 2012 would have the answer. Perhaps behind the scenes he does. What he's shown publicly and other details that have trickled out suggest he doesn't.
With his underachieving team stuck at 3-5 and its season in jeopardy, scrambling name plates on locker stalls and turning down the stereo aren't going to fix a broken team with questionable construction.
And the head coach is the guy in charge of facilitating quality chemistry, an issue that seems a little late to address now, though I guess he's got to continually try to address it. Put it on the list of things that need to be better forged in training camp 2009, when he's certain to still be in place no matter how badly the second half may go.
The Jaguars' issues interconnect on several levels, creating uncertainty regarding their identity, their patience and their makeup, both mentally and in personnel.