|John Raoux / Associated Press|
|After surviving a third consecutive non-playoff season, Jack Del Rio faces yet another must-win year.|
The Jacksonville Jaguars ended the last few seasons with pretty much the same unanswered questions they have now: Who and what are they? Can they ever leapfrog the Colts? How much longer will Jack Del Rio last as coach? Is quarterback David Garrard the answer?
Over the past two seasons, the Jags have been stuck in neutral and they haven't had a winning season since going 11-5 in 2007. Last season was unusually cruel, though. They seemed to finally put mediocrity behind them after jumping to an 8-5 mark in Week 14. They'd already beaten AFC South frontrunners Indianapolis and Houston, and both of those teams were reeling.
That is when the Jaguars lost control of their season; losing their last three and failing to reach the playoffs again. Injuries and inconsistency hurt, and the late-season slide once again put Del Rio's future on shaky ground. He's back for the 2011 season, but is there any way Jacksonville can finally turn the corner?
Fans in the region strongly supported the team last season, showing that they don't want to see the Jaguars relocate. Can the team reciprocate the love with a playoff berth? Let's see:
1. Can Garrard take next step?
Garrard actually had a decent season (236 of 366 for 2,734 yards, 23 TDs, 15 interceptions), but it can't be overlooked that he didn't get into the swing of things until after he was benched in Week 2 for throwing four picks against San Diego. Not long after that game, Jacksonville acquired former Buffalo starter Trent Edwards off waivers. Garrard's ability to push through when he was challenged was a good sign, but the inability to win down the stretch -- especially when running back Maurice Jones-Drew got hurt -- puts the onus back on him. Garrard is going to have to be better than ever -- and that means more consistent -- if the Jags plan to get back on the plus side of .500.
Jacksonville could try again to put pressure on Garrard by bringing in another quarterback to compete, but with so many teams in the quarterback market it might be hard to find a threat to usurp him.
2. Can team fill holes on defense?
It's never fun to have to play the Colts and Texans twice a season, but Jacksonville split with both in 2010. Still, it allowed 26.2 points per game (27th in the NFL) and had just 26 sacks. There are problems on the back end, there are problems with pressure up front and the success, or failure, in both areas go hand-in-hand.
In addition, as productive as linebacker Kirk Morrison was, Jacksonville wants more of a thumper and a replacement could be in order. The Jags aren't big players in free agency, but they aren't stagnant either, as they showed last season when they acquired defensive Aaron Kampman. Too bad Kampman played in just eight games before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.
If Kampman can play at his disruptive level, he'll help. The Jags are fine on the interior with tackles Tyson Alualu (3.5 sacks) and Terrance Knighton (four sacks), but help is needed in a lot of other places. Once again, Jacksonville will be trying to find pass rushers, safeties and cornerbacks. Doesn't it seem like the Jaguars are always in the market for players at those positions?
3. Is this a must-win year for Del Rio?
Is there a coach who has lasted this long who routinely gets asked about this more than Del Rio? Every season it seems as if he's on thin ice and he survives. Things are different now, though. This seriously could be the make-or-break season for Del Rio, who just finished his eighth season. Going four straight seasons without making the playoffs usually is what it takes for the head coach to get shown the gate and that's the likely outcome for Del Rio if he can't get Jacksonville back into the postseason.
Del Rio plied his trade -- both as player and as an assistant coach -- on the defensive side, but that's been the side of the ball that has struggled in Jacksonville. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker could be given more authority with a young defense that has shown promise in some spots, but is woeful in the secondary.
The Jags (and the AFC South) play the AFC North and NFC South for their non-conference schedule. That is a gauntlet.
4. Are there two more underrated players?
Another big season like 2010 and tight end Marcedes Lewis (58 catches, 700 yards, 10 TDs) and Knighton (34 tackles) might finally get noticed. Lewis was already established as a run blocker, but he blew up last season as a serious receiving threat. He is a free agent, but there is no shot the Jags let him hit the market, even if it requires using the franchise tag.
Knighton, in his second season, is a serious load in the middle of the defensive line who, if he were to get into and remain in optimum condition, could develop into one of the better interior players in the NFL.
Besides those two, wide receivers Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker are also legit. They combined for 109 catches, 1,382 yards and 11 touchdowns with Thomas leading the way with 66 catches. Thomas just finished his second season, Sims-Walker his fourth, Lewis his fifth. That's a young nucleus of receivers to build around.
5. Can MJD hit 1,300 yards again?
"Pocket Hercules" is as good as they come and he was in the MVP discussion until missing the final two games with a knee injury. In 14 games he totaled 1,324 yards (4.4 per carry). He is playing behind an improving, young offensive line that loves to block for him. The odd thing about last season, though, is Jones-Drew only had five touchdowns after being a touchdown machine for most of his career.
Before his career-low scoring total in 2010, Jones-Drew totaled 49 touchdowns in four seasons. Part of the decrease came because of the lack of longer runs. His longest run last season was 37 yards. In his previous four, he had at least one touchdown run of 46 yards or more.
MJD's backup, Rashad Jennings only had four rushing touchdowns, so it wasn't like Jones-Drew was losing significant carries when Jacksonville got close to the goal line. All the yards are nice, but getting the ball in the end zone more on the ground would not only help Jones-Drew, but also make Jacksonville a more dangerous scoring team in the red zone.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.