When Jaguars general manager Gene Smith observed his team during offseason workouts, he likely experienced a bit of déjà vu focusing on the offensive side of the ball.
After spending the offseason revamping the Jaguars' offensive line, the veteran personnel man has seemingly turned a position of weakness into the team's biggest strength. Buoyed by the additions of two draft picks, Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, and a savvy veteran, Tra Thomas, the Jaguars now sport a formidable front capable of dominating the line of scrimmage.
In an AFC South that features two defenses (Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans) ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in run defense and another (Tennessee Titans) reeling from the loss of its most dominating player, the Jaguars' ability to control the line of scrimmage could quickly reverse their fortunes in 2009.
Smith, who has been with the franchise since its inception in 1994, watched as a similar blueprint led the Jaguars to four straight playoff bids, including three division titles, in their first five seasons of existence. During that span, the team rode an offensive line anchored by two bookend tackles, Tony Boselli and Leon Searcy, who were widely regarded as the best tandem in the league.
Led by their dominant offensive line, the Jaguars overwhelmed opponents with a dynamic offense that could bludgeon opponents with the run or dazzle them with an aerial display from Pro Bowl quarterback Mark Brunell and Pro Bowl wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.
In 2007, the Jaguars used a similar formula to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs. The team's second-ranked rushing attack routinely battered defenses behind a powerful offensive line and an electrifying tailback tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. The team's rushing attack averaged 149.4 rushing yards per game and amassed 18 touchdowns.
Last season, however, the Jaguars' offensive line was ravaged by injuries, and the team failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher. In addition, the ground attack ranked 18th in the league, averaging just 110.9 yards per game.
Jacksonville entered the offseason intent on reconstructing the offensive line and adding juice to its running game. During the late stages of free agency, the team snapped up Thomas as a potential fill-in at left tackle. The 11-year veteran had been a hallmark of consistency during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles and gives the Jaguars a reliable presence on the edge.
Monroe, regarded by some teams as the most complete tackle prospect in the draft, was plucked with the eighth overall pick. An exceptional technician with outstanding skills, Monroe is adept at controlling the edge in the running game. Moreover, he possesses the quick feet and lateral quickness to handle elite rushers off the corner.
In Britton, the Jaguars have an athletic blocker with unlimited potential as a right tackle. Though he remains raw in some aspects, Britton gives the team a mobile presence on the edge and a promising option, although he would have to unseat Tony Pashos.
Throw in the healthy returns of Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams, and the Jaguars have an offensive line poised to return to its dominating ways.
While revamping their offensive line was an offseason emphasis, the Jaguars handed the keys to the running game to Jones-Drew, who has rushed for 2,533 yards and 34 touchdowns in three seasons. He replaces Fred Taylor as the team's featured back.
Jones-Drew, a fourth-year pro, has averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a rotational player and tallied seven 100-yard games in his career. As a small, compact runner with explosive power and pop, Jones-Drew pinballs off tacklers and routinely picks up yards after contact. With 18 career runs over 20 yards, he brings a much-needed big-play element to the Jaguars' offense.
Though some people question whether Jones-Drew is capable of carrying the load, he has been surprisingly durable throughout his career (only one missed game in three seasons). In the eight games in which he has rushed 19 or more times, Jones-Drew has averaged 101 yards per game.
If Jones-Drew is unable to carry the load completely, the Jaguars have a promising rookie runner, Rashad Jennings, with the potential to contribute as a rotational player. If the small-school standout continues to build on his impressive showings during on-field workouts, he could be a key contributor in his rookie season.
But the Jaguars' running game isn't the only phase of the offense that should see a dramatic improvement due to a fortified offensive line. The team's passing attack should also surge.
David Garrard, who has been the Jaguars' starting quarterback since 2006, is in line to be the biggest beneficiary from the team's rebuilt offensive line and ground attack. The eighth-year pro was the toast of the town in 2007 after completing 64.0 percent of his passes for 2,509 yards and 18 touchdowns with just three interceptions. His sensational passing proficiency was an excellent complement to Jacksonville's powerful running game.
Last season, however, Garrard was unable to replicate that success behind a patchwork offensive line that couldn't provide solid pass protection or create consistent running lanes. Forced to pass from long-yardage situations because of the Jaguars' inability to run, Garrard often was battered in the pocket (he was sacked 42 times in 2008) or harried into critical mistakes.
With the AFC South featuring a slew of Pro Bowl-caliber pass rushers (Houston's Mario Williams, Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch and Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis), it was imperative for the Jaguars to fix their offensive line.
The Jaguars were one of the league's biggest disappointments last season, but a rebuilt offensive line could make them one of the biggest surprises in 2009.