NFL Nation: Tra Thomas
Tra Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowler in his 12-year career as a left tackle, is trying to be the exception. Thomas joined Chip Kelly’s staff through the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship. After a spring and summer of working alongside offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, Thomas was given a full-time job this week.
“He was here all through camp, extremely dedicated, one of the all-time great Eagles,” Kelly said. “I think the experience he brings -- not only as a player, he can relate to the offensive linemen.”
Thomas once told me his goal was to be named MVP of the league while playing left tackle. That never quite happened, but he was a big (6-foot-7, 350 pounds), agile blocker who protected Donovan McNabb’s blind side with a nasty streak in his style. It is no coincidence the Andy Reid era began its decline after 2008, the last year Thomas and Jon Runyan bookended the offensive line.
But it turns out Thomas was more than just a bigger, more athletically gifted guy.
“When you sit there and watch film with him, it’s just how much he’s studied tape on his own and what he learned about the game,” Kelly said. “I think he’s imparted that to a lot of the young linemen we have.”
Thomas, 38, said he consults with Stoutland before offering advice to a player.
“You try to teach them as much as they can,” Thomas said. “All you can do is give them the technique and then it’s up to them.”
Thomas said he hasn’t thought about long-term goals in coaching. He’s just enjoying this chance to stay in the game.
“The hours are a lot different,” Thomas said. “I learned that right away.”
SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers, with the benefit of solid protection, dropped back, scanned the field and let loose with what is very likely the NFL’s prettiest deep ball.
Galloping down the right sideline, Malcom Floyd skied high in double coverage and brought down a spectacular catch, breaking away from coverage and reaching the end zone. A large training camp crowd erupted. It was just another big play from the explosive San Diego Chargers offense during this camp.
The Chargers are not spending the early days of camp worrying about who isn't in attendance and how are they going to survive without them. Instead, the Chargers are acting like a team preparing for a Super Bowl run with the players who are in camp.
“We’re going every day and we’re going hard,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "Sure, we’d like everyone here, but they aren’t here and we feel good with what the guys who are here are doing. There is a calmness here.”
The Chargers could be excused if there was a sense of panic at camp. They are practicing without Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson, left tackle Marcus McNeill and linebacker Shawne Merriman, all of whom are holding out. Jackson and McNeill are expected to hold out well into the season. Merriman’s status is less clear.
The attitude in San Diego is not one of a season that is about to be lost. Training camp is being used as a time to get everyone ready for a long run.
“I’m not going to say we don’t miss those guys, because we do,” Rivers said. “I miss throwing the ball to Vincent and I miss standing on the sidelines jawing with Marcus. Those are important guys. But at the same time, we are moving forward. We feel very comfortable with the guys who are here. We’re getting a lot done.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
The key is San Diego’s tremendous depth. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith may get some grief for not giving in and signing the holdout veterans, but he also has his team in position to survive the losses. San Diego is deep at many key positions. Smith has been careful to mix proven veteran talent with intriguing young prospects.
Last year, the Chargers lost defensive tackle Jamal Williams for the entire season and center Nick Hardwick for virtually the entire regular season in Week 1. The Chargers plugged in people and went 13-3 in the regular season.
“We’ve been through this before in a lot of ways,” Turner said. “We feel good with the young players here.”
Jackson is being replaced by Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis, both of whom are having terrific camps. McNeill is being replaced by Brandyn Dombrowski. He was a valuable injury replacement at guard and right tackle last season. There is also veteran Tra Thomas, who can help as well. Merriman is being replaced by 2009 first-round pick Larry English, who was drafted to replace Merriman in case he departed through free agency. English appears to have made great strides this offseason after a lackluster rookie season.
2. Will Ryan Mathews be up for the challenge of replacing a legend? This is a landmark time in Chargers history. The team is moving away from the LaDainian Tomlinson era. He was cut in February after nine seasons in San Diego. Tomlinson had a Hall of Fame career, but he faltered the past two seasons.
While Tomlinson is still a respected figure in San Diego, it is clear that the Chargers are relieved to move on and help ignite the run game, which ranked No. 31 in the NFL last season.
It’s Mathews’ job in training camp to make the team feel comfortable that he is up to the task of bringing balance back to San Diego’s offense. Mathews was the No. 12 overall pick and people in the organization have been raving about him.
“He does not seem affected by having to replace LaDainian,” Rivers said. “He’s very humble and very confident. It doesn’t seem too big for him. We expect a very productive training camp from him.”
The Chargers are excited about the change. Cromartie had 10 interceptions in 2007, but he had a total of five in the next two seasons. Cromartie made many mental mistakes, he was poor against the run and he had some off-field concerns.
The Chargers believe they will be in better shape with Cason, who has been lauded for his intelligence and preparation. Cromartie may be a big name, but the Chargers believe Cason will continue to prove in camp that Cromartie isn’t a big loss.
You would think that the Chargers would be nervous about not having Jackson, McNeill and Merriman in camp. It doesn’t seem like they miss them at all. Practices have been crisp and dynamic. Players are very confident and replacements for each absent player don’t appear to be intimidated at all. The Chargers will surely miss these guys on the field if it gets to that point, but there is no wallowing in the early stages of camp. This team means business.
Merriman needs to be in camp. He is holding out because he wants assurances that the Chargers won’t trade him. He has been upset that he was the subject of trade talk during the past year. The Chargers won’t give him those assurances, but Smith has said he has no current plans to deal Merriman. Merriman really has no leverage here. We all know he’s going to play this year. This is a huge season for the rest of his career. He has to prove he can be a dominant pass-rusher again as he enters the final year of his contract. He is just wasting time by not being at camp.
- Quietly, many in San Diego think the offensive line is ready for a big season. The unit may be motivated by critical comments made by Tomlinson. Among his many excuses for his dramatic lack of production last season was the offensive line play. The line isn’t saying anything about it, but the word is this group is very inspired.
- The Chargers are excited about inside linebacker Brandon Siler. He came on strong last season and should have a big role on the defense this season.
- Look out for linebacker Antwan Applewhite. He was hurt last year, but the Chargers think he could be a secret weapon. He is a special-teams ace and could play a role as a pass-rusher. He is a fierce player.
- Turner is excited to have veteran tight end Randy McMichael. The two were together in Miami in 2002-03 and Turner thinks the veteran can help. Known as a good receiver, McMichael is an underrated blocker, Turner said. The Chargers are also high on backup tight end Kris Wilson.
- Undrafted rookie receiver Jeremy Williams from Tulane has had a good early camp and is the favorite to be the No. 5 receiver.
- While losing Rivers would be devastating, the Chargers have one of the best backups in the NFL in Billy Volek. The guy is a pro and has looked sharp.
- Expect big fullback Mike Tolbert to give San Diego a boost in the short-yardage game. The 5-foot-9, 243-pound Tolbert is a load.
- The Chargers were thrilled with the play of right guard Louis Vasquez last season as a rookie. The word is Vasquez is continuing to make strides and the Chargers think they have a real find.
And it may last awhile.
Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill are expected to hold out for an extended period. Linebacker Shawne Merriman could also hold out, but he is more likely to attend most of training camp.
Smith said he, at this point, is expecting that both McNeill and Jackson will hold out for the first 10 games of the regular season and then report to accrue an NFL season. Smith admits he is disappointed that both players are likely to hold out for the long-term. Still, Smith said because of the CBA uncertainty the Chargers are reluctant to give out long-term deals.
“I believe they are preparing to withhold their services,” Smith said. “We’re preparing for that. If we get that back after 10 games, then we’ll deal with that. Getting two Pro Bowl-caliber players with six games to go and then potentially the postseason is not a bad thing.
“Whether they come back as starters, role players, or as injury replacements, that remains to be seen and will be up to (coach) Norv Turner … But six games is still a significant part of the season.”
Smith indicated that the Chargers aren’t necessarily standing pat, either. He said the waiver wire will be watched. Plus, Smith has a history of being an active trader. If he sees a situation to help the receiver and tackle positions while these two players are out, I’d bet he’d pursue it. Smith already brought in tackle Tra Thomas and slot receiver Josh Reed to improve the two positions.
Despite the situations, Smith said doesn’t plan to get upset at Jackson or McNeill even if the holdouts drag on.
“It’s their right,” Smith said. “There are other people in their shoes, who are playing, but it is their professional right. I’m not going to say they are bad guys. It’s their decision if they end up staying away.”
I think Smith is taking the right tact by assuming Jackson and McNeill aren’t coming back soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if Merriman shows up soon because his situation is different. Merriman has to play a full season to show he is fully recovered from a 2008 knee injury.
Meanwhile, the Chargers’ top pick Ryan Mathews remains unsigned. I get the indication that the talks could take some time, but there aren’t any major concerns that Mathews will stay away from camp for an extended period of time. The same can’t be said for McNeill and Jackson, and San Diego is preparing for the holdouts to last until the stretch run of the regular season.
San Diego's Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson may stage contract holdouts. Is there a chance San Diego general manager A.J. Smith will cave in and give the two players new contracts to avoid the holdouts?
I think that is the big reason why there is such a dire feel here. I believe everyone involved realizes that Smith is ready to play hardball.
This is a man who doesn’t blink.
If we get to early September and McNeill, a standout left tackle, and Jackson, a Pro Bowl receiver, are still staying away, Smith will simply move forward.
Jackson is well aware that Smith is entrenched and knows if he does stay away from the team (which he plans to do) Smith will be ready for a fight.
There is little chance Smith will give McNeill and Jackson new contracts before training camp to avoid this mess. His stance: If these players don’t want to play for him, he doesn’t want them to play for him.
That’s why he signed Tra Thomas as insurance for a McNeill holdout and Josh Reed as insurance for a Jackson holdout. That’s why when McNeill and Jackson didn’t sign their restricted free-agency tenders by the deadline, Smith said things like “we lost two players today.” He acted as if McNeill and Smith left the league. And if they hold out, they might as well leave the league as far as Smith is concerned.
Smith is a calculated, smart man who is not going to be bullied. He is going to fight his fight.
So, if you think Smith will cave, think again. It won’t happen.
Can the Chargers still be a serious Super Bowl contender without Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill?
Earlier in this saga, I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. if he thought San Diego could make a deep playoff run without Jackson and McNeill. Williamson didn’t think so.
Still, if those two players really do hold out into November (the current expectation is that both McNeill and Jackson will hold out for the first 10 games of the season unless they unexpectedly get long-term deals), the Chargers will be tremendously challenged. But barring any major injuries, the team could still stay afloat and regroup for the stretch run.
San Diego (which added tackle Tra Thomas and reserve receiver Josh Reed as insurance for potential holdouts) is pretty loaded on offense. While Jackson is the team’s go-to receiver, quarterback Philip Rivers has plenty of options. He can lean on star tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee while Jackson is out. If Thomas is solid and he keeps Rivers upright, the Chargers can maintain. They won’t be as good as they would be with Jackson and McNeill, but, yes, they can survive.
San Diego plays only two teams (Arizona and New England) that made the playoffs in 2009 during the first 10 games of the season. Five of San Diego’s first 10 games are against teams that had losing records last season.
So, it’s manageable. Playing without Jackson and McNeill for the majority of the season is certainly not ideal, but it may not be devastating to San Diego, either.
Sorry, but I'm not there yet. Clayton points out that the addition of Brett Favre to the Vikings added 5.7 points per game and took them from 10 to 12 wins (and an NFC title game appearance).
My issue with that comparison is that McNabb won't have anywhere near the talent surrounding him Favre enjoyed. The Vikings had the best running back in the league heading into the 2009 season. The Redskins counter with a stable of running backs who each peaked about four years ago. I realize Clinton Portis was good in 2008 but he faded late.
Let's not act like drafting Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung in this month's draft is going to completely fix one of the worst offensive lines in the league. What, did you guys get excited about that Artis Hicks signing? He couldn't start for the Vikings last season but I guess he'll get the Redskins to the next level.
By trading for McNabb, Shanahan is acting as if the Redskins are prepared to win now. You don't pay an aging quarterback $11.2 million in 2010 to be a stopgap player. To me, this smacks of the old Dan Snyder way of doing business. McNabb is a blockbuster name like, say, Deion Sanders or Bruce Smith. It sounds like another expensive shortcut, albeit a highly-intriguing one.
But let's not forget McNabb finished his 2009 campaign by playing miserably in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys. Are the Redskins a better team with McNabb at quarterback? Of course they are. But it's hard to imagine him making a seven-win difference -- and that's what it would probably take to challenge for a division title. Clayton immediately has the Redskins passing the Eagles with this move.
"As for the Eagles, who were 11-5 last season, the pressure falls on the unproven quarterback Kevin Kolb," writes Clayton. "With this being his first year as the full-time starter, we can expect a two- or three-win drop in the Eagles' record because first-year starters have difficulty winning close games. The Packers experienced that after they traded Favre to the New York Jets for a second-round choice in 2008. Even though Aaron Rodgers threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2008, he struggled in the fourth quarter of close games, and the Packers dropped from 13-3 to 6-10."
Again, the good news for Eagles fans is that McNabb isn't exactly inheriting the Fun Bunch. Santana Moss still has breakaway speed, but he needs time to get open. And let's not act like McNabb is the same guy who once kept a play alive for 14 seconds on "Monday Night Football" against the Cowboys. In Philadelphia, McNabb played the majority of his career with offensive tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan. He'll likely be breaking in a rookie on his blindside in 2010 and the pedestrian Stephon Heyer will man the right side.
This is certainly a fascinating trade in terms of its impact on two franchises, but to say that Washington and Dallas are the co-favorites in the division is a pretty big stretch.
In this post on March 9, we pointed to the nearly fearless (he’d be completely fearless if he used his name) AdamJT13 who said the Titans would get a third and three sevenths and the Jaguars would get a sixth.
Adam Schefter on Monday reported Tennessee officially got a third (97th overall), a sixth (207th), and a seventh (241st). Jacksonville got a sixth (203rd) and Indianapolis got two sevenths (240th and 246th).
These additional picks are awarded based on a formula that factors in free agents lost last year, their contracts and their production in their first year elsewhere.
A third-rounder is the highest possible. Picks in the seventh round basically allow teams to lock in players they would have pursued as undrafted rookies.
The picks cannot be traded.
From the league release that followed, here are the guys who factored in:
Lost: Darrell Reid, Hunter SmithJACKSONVILLE
Lost: Khalif Barnes, Mike Peterson, Gerald SensabaughTENNESSEE
Signed: Sean Considine, Tra Thomas
Lost: Chris Carr, Albert Haynesworth, Brandon Jones, Eric King, Daniel Loper, Chris Simms
Signed: Jovan Haye, Mark Jones, Nate Washington
I expect Raheem Brock and Keyunta Dawson will get a lot of early-down action. That would be a smart way to scale back work for their stars, who would benefit from less contact with Maurice Jones-Drew.
Only three inactive Colts were left to be determined after the team declared the status of its injured players on Tuesday. Because five guys were already declared out, there could be guys eligible or dressed tonight who hardly play -- that will be one of the story lines we’ll try to follow for you after kickoff.
For the Jaguars, Russell Allen will start at outside linebacker for Clint Ingram (shoulder) and Attiyah Ellison will move ahead of Quentin Groves for the start at defensive end. As expected, Montell Owens is the starting fullback with Greg Jones (ankle) placed on injured-reserve.
Here’s the full list for both teams.
- Offensive tackle Michael Toudouze
- Tight end Tom Santi
- Defensive end Ervin Baldwin
- Cornerback Jerraud Powers
- Running back Donald Brown
- Receiver Anthony Gonzalez
- Kicker Adam Vinatieri
- Defensive back Aaron Francisco
On the surface, a 5-3 record puts a team in the thick of the NFC playoff race. But it's safe to say the Eagles are at a critical juncture in the season.
In the decade since Andy Reid took over, the Eagles have been notoriously slow starters. Even when they were making annual visits to the NFC title game, there were slow starts. In 2003, the Eagles began the season 2-3 before finishing 12-4 and losing to the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game.
The 2004 Super Bowl team was the exception with a 7-0 start, and that may have been the most talented roster top to bottom in the organization's history. (Joe Banner prefers the '09 team).
A lot of us predicted great things for the '09 Eagles based on the arrival of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters and rookies Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy. But our point of reference -- an improbable trip to the '08 NFC title game -- is faulty at best. It's easy to forget that the '08 team dropped a road game to a bad Bears team and then had an embarrassing tie with the Bengals in November.
Controlling their destiny last December, the Eagles recorded a shameful loss to a Redskins team that had already imploded. That team needed a miracle on the final Sunday of the season, and that's exactly what the Raiders delivered with a win at Tampa Bay that put the Eagles back in playoff contention.
You think the Eagles might someday realize that wins in October and November might actually make life easier, but there are clear signs they haven't gotten the message. There's not a single excuse for how a team with this much talent can go on the road and lose to Tom Cable's Raiders.
Reid will finish his career as one of the winningest coaches in league history, but that doesn't cancel out the fact that his teams play with a remarkable lack of focus at times. Even with all of his West Coast genius, Reid still makes stunningly poor decisions in managing games. After losses, he always mutters something about needing to put his team in better positions to succeed. But he almost never offers actual explanations for why his teams seem to have at least one or two disastrous losses in the first three months of the season.
And because you can only beat your head against the wall so many times after Reid news conferences, let me float a theory that may or may not hold water. During all those runs to NFC title games earlier this decade, Reid had enough veteran leaders in the locker room who could seemingly flip a switch at the midway point and help lead the Eagles to NFC titles.
Players such as Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent, Brian Dawkins and Jon Runyan helped Reid create an atmosphere devoid of panic. But you'll notice that two names from that list -- Dawkins and Runyan -- played their final seasons with the Eagles in '08. And longtime left tackle Tra Thomas was allowed to enter free agency, making room for the celebrated trade for Peters. A former team leader, Jeremiah Trotter, has returned to the team but a lot players in the locker room aren't familiar with his previous work.
The current leaders of this team -- Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Quintin Mikell -- are doing the best they can, but they find themselves surrounded by youngsters. Some of that's a good thing because it's obvious that DeSean Jackson, Maclin and McCoy are the future of this team. But because of injuries at some key spots, the Eagles are being forced to get even younger. We haven't seen cornerback Dimitri Patterson in weeks because of injuries, but he's probably about to become the nickel cornerback in the absence of the suspended Joselio Hanson.
The Eagles have had an abundance of injuries along the offensive line and at linebacker, but other teams are dealing with similar situations. I think, more than ever, the Eagles need a coach who constantly stays on top of his players. Is Reid that guy? Well, I don't think he has much choice right now.
I've heard former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson say that there are a handful of players in every NFL locker room who are capable of motivating themselves. Johnson says that coaches have to take care of the other 48 players on the roster each week.
It's not too late for the Eagles to make one of their patented runs toward the playoffs. But they can't afford to wait as long as they usually do.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky
A lost fumble early in Buffalo was enough for Gary Kubiak, who promptly decided Slaton could have the rest of the afternoon off because his ball security issues had become too big.
Reliable as a pass protector and a route runner, those qualities won’t mean much if Slaton can’t re-win the coaches’ confidence and earn chances with the ball in his hands.
2. Titans and Jaguars tackling.
Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson are dangerous backs capable of hitting home runs that demoralize a defense. That’s even more the case when MJD chugs out of what appears a sure tackle by Kyle Vanden Bosch or Johnson bounces right off Brian Russell.
The two defenses are sure to hear a lot about sure tackling as they return to work.
The Jaguars offensive line has been inconsistent and some players have been upset about the musical chairs feel to the lineup. Not all the changes have been dictated by injuries.
Jack Del Rio went with Tra Thomas as the starter in Nashville, and Vanden Bosch had his most productive game and first sack. The Jaguars remain high on Monroe, but shouldn’t he be far enough along at this point that they are reluctant not to play him?
Given 23 carries after the early benching of fumble-prone Slaton, Moats was outstanding in Buffalo. He ran for 126 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
How Gary Kubiak distributes the carries from here is to be determined, but it would be hard for him not to give Moats a significant opportunity in Indianapolis on Sunday in what qualifies as the franchise's biggest game ever.
2. Colts’ third-down defense.
Indianapolis went into the game against San Francisco allowing opponents to convert 43.5 percent of their third down opportunities, which ranked 27th in the league.
But the 49ers often wound up in third-and-long and managed only two conversions in 12 attempts. That’s 16.6 percent. An improvement they hope to build on Sunday against the team hoping to challenge them atop the AFC South, Houston.
3. Titans offensive line.
A group that had an excellent season in 2008 has not been the same in a follow-up campaign. The Titans O-line helped Vince Young make a successful start, and his mobility helped his blocker too, and punched enough holes for Johnson to set a new single-game rushing mark.
No sacks, 228 ground yards for Johnson and 305 rushing yards overall mean Michael Roos, Eugene Amano, Kevin Mawae, Jake Scott and David Stewart had a good day.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky
The suspension of receiver Mike Sims-Walker for a violation of team rules was a setback for the Jaguars.
But even before losing one of their top playmakers, things didn’t figure to go well for the Jaguars Sunday in Seattle: A young team coming off consecutive division wins traveled cross country to play in unfamiliar territory against an unfamiliar opponent getting its starting quarterback back from injury.
Still a 41-0 loss at Seattle was uglier than could have been expected in most any two-steps-forward, one-step-back scenario.
It was the second-worst lose in the franchise’s history, trailing only a 44-point loss to Detroit on Dec. 17, 1995.
Jacksonville’s offensive line was a big issue. Eben Britton returned from injury to start at right tackle and Uche Nwaneri remained at right guard, pushing Mo Williams to the bench. Tra Thomas started at left tackle but Eugene Monroe saw time too.
David Garrard wasn’t good and held the ball far too long at time behind shaky protection. Five sacks (one was of Luke McCown) and two lost fumbles didn’t do much to offset four touchdown passes by Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck in his return to action.
I watched the early part of the Jaguars' 12-9 loss in Miami Monday night looking for what jumped out, and one predominant theme wasn't hard to find at the start.
New general manager Gene Smith wants to build inside out and considers the lines the foundation, The Jaguars offensive line has gotten healthy and been reinforced with two high draft picks, tackle Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton. But the initial performance of the starters was not good.
The starting offensive line included Uche Nwaneri at left guard, not the scratched Vince Manuwai, as well as Tra Thomas at left tackle and Tony Pashos at right tackle. The group got pushed back by Miami's top defensive linemen, who also had some blitz help.
Randy Starks beat Nwaneri and hit quarterback David Garrard low on the last play of the Jags' first possession. Garrard limped off after taking the hit. On the second series, fullback Greg Jones stepped over to pick up charging Channing Crowder, but Crowder pushed Jones back into Garrard who threw incomplete before landing hard.
Not long later, under pressure from a blitzing Nate Jones and with Jason Taylor arriving to help bring him down, Garrard tried to flip the ball forward, apparently to Nwaneri, and was lucky it wasn't intercepted by Starks.
In three possessions with Garrard at quarterback, the Jaguars managed just one first down and netted 18 yards. Under fire, he managed just four completions in seven attempts for 22 yards.
The frontline offensive line would appear to have a way to go.
A contract for the Jaguars' top draft pick, tackle Eugene Monroe, has fallen in line quickly on the heels of B.J. Raji's deal with Green Bay Thursday night, reports Michael C. Wright. Monroe's agent is en route to Jacksonville to finalize language on a five-year contract.
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|The Jaguars appear to have a deal wrapped up with first-round pick Eugene Monroe.|
I confirmed the report with a source who said Monroe could practice Friday night.
The Jaguars endured an even longer contract dispute with defensive end Derrick Harvey a year ago. Harvey missed all of camp and never caught up.
This time, while dealing with the eighth pick in the draft again, the team had a quality contingency in place.
While Monroe may be in the starting lineup at some point this season, no one with the Jaguars is uncomfortable with the idea of veteran Tra Thomas being in the starting lineup. Thomas and safety Sean Considine, both former Philadelphia Eagles, were the two most notable free-agent additions in the first offseason under general manager Gene Smith.
Thomas was regarded as a better pass protection player than run-blocker in Philly, which led to questions about how he would fit with the Jaguars who will continue to be a run-first team.
"That's what we did," he said of the Eagles' offense. "We would go into a game and pass the ball 50, 60 times. I came from Florida State where we ran no-huddle and I was in a two-point stance the whole game. So I was bred to be a pass-protector, and that's usually what your left tackle is anyway.
"But I'm open to it. I've been working on getting my run game going. [Offensive line coach] Juan Castillo did a lot of work with me in Philly trying to get my run game better so it's good for me to come down here to an actual run team and have a coach that really forces the run."
While Monroe works to catch up, Thomas said he will work on his steps, which can key an improvement in run blocking. He said he doesn't always get his foot down to complete his second step as quickly as he should.
The Jaguars don't open their preseason schedule until Monday night, when they play at Miami.
|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.
The AFC South's overall success in 2008 came in good part to its interconference matchups. They were a collective 11-5 against the NFC North with no team worse than 2-2.
What awaits the division when it faces the NFC West this season?
Last year doesn't give us too much information, but at this point in time it's hard to say anything but the matchups look favorable. In 2008 the NFC West was a collective 20 games under .500 while the AFC South was 12 games over.
Here are seven interesting storylines or factors that will come into play in AFC South against NFC West this season.
1. Slowing top receivers: Teams in the AFC South are built on the thinking that they have to be able to matchup with some pretty good receivers. Yes, Marvin Harrison is gone, but Indianapolis still has Reggie Wayne, and Anthony Gonzalez could evolve into a tough matchup. And the Colts, Titans and Jaguars know they have to try to slow the excellent Andre Johnson twice a season. Now the division also has to contend with Torry Holt. How does such defensive construction translate against a division featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Isaac Bruce and rookie Michael Crabtree?
2. Super rushers in big-time matchups: Preparing for the AFC South means preparing for a big-time edge rusher off the right side. Houston's Mario Williams, Indy's Dwight Freeney and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch are relentless in their quarterback pursuit. Their matchups with Seattle's Walter Jones and San Francisco's Joe Staley should be something to see, and the ability or inability of Arizona's Mike Gandy and St. Louis' Alex Barron to slow them will be critical storylines in those games. And are AFC South left tackles assigned to stop those big rushers in two games a year -- Michael Roos, Tra Thomas/Eugene Monroe, Tony Ugoh and Duane Brown -- also equipped to handle Justin Smith, Chris Long and Bertrand Berry?
|Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMI|
|The Colts' Peyton Manning could have big days against the NFC West's pass coverages.|
3. Unfamiliar defenses vs. Peyton Manning: No, rank against the pass isn't a tell-all stat. But St. Louis ranked 19th against the pass last year, and that was tops among NFC West teams. The Rams, 49ers (20th), Cardinals (22nd) and Seahawks (32nd) are going to have to show they're much better and can be resourceful if they have a chance to minimize the damage inflicted by Manning. Otherwise, he may well pick them apart.
4. Getting to know Jim Mora: Mora is the new coach of the Seahawks. None of the AFC South teams played against the Mora-coached Atlanta Falcons teams in the regular season while he coached that franchise from 2004-06. But Jeff Fisher's 1999 Titans lost to a San Francisco team that had Mora as its defensive coordinator. The Jaguars beat the Niners that same year on opening day, but don't have a player or coach left from that team, so aren't likely to find any help in it. Indy will have a little organizational recall of Mora's defense from a loss to the 49ers in 2001. The AFC South doesn't have a lot to go on, either, as it prepares to face three other coaches who have not been with their teams long. Fisher does know Mike Singletary -- they were teammates on the Bears.
5. How will two teams from the Eastern
time zone and two from the Central travel West: Including the playoffs, AFC South teams are 5-16 in games at Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, San Diego and Oakland since realignment in 2002. That includes 0-7 for the Titans, whose playoff fate could come down their first trip to Qwest Field, a Jan. 3 regular-season finale.
6. Will the Cardinals draw in North Florida: Things are not looking good for the Jaguars in the ticket sales department, and a visit by St. Louis combines with home games against Kansas City, Buffalo and Miami outside the division to make for a less-than-stellar slate to market. But the defending NFC Champion Cardinals are in Jacksonville on Sept. 20. If the combination of the Jaguars' home opener and Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin coming to town doesn't produce a buzz and a sellout, it won't bode well for what's ahead.
7. Battle of the rookie running backs: Colts president Bill Polian once passed on Ricky Williams in favor of Edgerrin James, and came out looking very smart. In April, with Knowshon Moreno long gone, Polian tabbed Donald Brown ahead of Beanie Wells. This season the Colts head to Arizona Week 3 and will use Brown against a team that took the back Polian passed on in the first round. The Cardinals preferred Brown to Wells as well. Here we get close looks at both the backs from late in the first round in a game pitting the teams many rate as the favorites in these two divisions.
1:00 PM ET San Diego Buffalo 1:00 PM ET Dallas St. Louis 1:00 PM ET Washington Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Houston New York 1:00 PM ET Minnesota New Orleans 1:00 PM ET Tennessee Cincinnati 1:00 PM ET Baltimore Cleveland 1:00 PM ET Green Bay Detroit 1:00 PM ET Indianapolis Jacksonville 1:00 PM ET Oakland New England 4:05 PM ET San Francisco Arizona 4:25 PM ET Denver Seattle 4:25 PM ET Kansas City Miami 8:30 PM ET Pittsburgh Carolina