JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars are a very refreshing team to watch as they develop a personality heading into the 2009 season. The players seem to embrace the long, hard, physical practices and they are out to remedy the poor season they finished months ago.
Quarterback David Garrard is down 20 pounds, veteran receiver Torry Holt has spring in his legs and the defense is led by three run-and-hit linebackers that will cover up some of the concerns surrounding them. There could be close to 15 players on the opening-day roster with one or less years of experience. It is possible that Jack Del Rio will extend the preseason playing time of young pivotal players such as WR Nate Hughes, TE Zach Miller, RB Rashad Jennings, NT Terrance Knighton and CB Derek Cox, because he has to get them ready to contribute early in their careers.
1. The Eugene Monroe situation: There is a logjam among the remaining unsigned first-rounders because of the Michael Crabtree situation and possibly the Darrius Heyward-Bey contract. Consequently, Eugene Monroe still is not in camp. Monroe faces an uphill battle when he finally gets here because Tra Thomas is the talk of the camp with the way he protects the blind side for Garrard. From what I can gather while in camp, the Jaguars will not budge on the Monroe deal and give into some of the things other first-rounders received.
2. Some changes with the defense: Look for the Jags to use some variations of the 3-4 defense along with their base 4-3 defense. The 3-4 gives the team a chance to get Quentin Groves, Derrick Harvey and Reggie Hayward on the field together. Early reports on third-round nose tackle Knighton are very positive and if he develops quickly, then it means John Henderson is freed up to get after the QB. Keep an eye on DB Derek Cox, a third-round pick who is poised to push CB Brian Williams, with the loser taking over the nickel duties.
3. A look at the running backs: Maurice Jones-Drew is now the "bell cow" back in Jacksonville, but don't expect him to get 30 carries a game. His touches should be much closer to 20 and that begs the question: Who else gets the ball? Greg Jones, the powerful fullback, would be the second choice; even though he plays fullback, he is capable of 5-10 carries a game. Keep an eye on Jennings, the rookie seventh-round pick from Liberty. The linebackers tell me he more than answers the bell with his physical style. Jones-Drew is working hard to get Jennings ready and with the improved run-blocking line, this team will grind out the tough yardage.
The Jags are all business in 2009. Last season's 5-11 finish was a major disappointment and as I watched a very spirited full-padded practice that included a live goal-line period, it took me by surprise how lively it was considering how their week is going. What made it different from what most teams are doing was the fact that it was the third live full-contact practice in a row and the fourth in the last five practices.
Monroe, the first-round pick, still isn't signed, so he's a non-factor -- and with the way Tra Thomas looks on the field, Monroe may not see the field in 2009. The best rookie story involves the other offensive tackle drafted, second-round pick Eben Britton. He is having a good camp and really has been competitive. Defensive players claim he likes to finish his blocks and learns quickly from his mistakes. Britton told me his number-one project is developing a better hand punch. Right now, you would have to consider him the swing tackle and he could line up on the left as well as the right.
The image that sticks in my mind is how hard and how good Torry Holt looks at practice. His route-running is as good as ever, he had burst to close on a few deep balls and had time on the practice field to run over and say hello between plays. What struck me was that in the blazing heat of Florida, he looked like a 25-year-old receiver, not an old guy (he's 33) nearing the end of his career.
The defensive players I sat down and talked with are all excited about what Sean Considine brings to the table. The former Eagles safety is paired up with Reggie Nelson and they really complement each other. Nelson told me it is great working with Considine. "He's tough and real smart and not afraid to stick his nose in on a tackle," said Nelson.
The Jags are preparing like a heavyweight fighter. They're involved in heavy contact and seem to like it. They are mad about what happened in 2008 and are focused on turning things around. They look like a team capable of an 8-8 season and if they stay healthy at QB, they could finish with a winning record.