The Jags rolled out the red carpet for my visit. I spent time with head coach Jack Del Rio, GM James Harris, 17 players, a number of assistant coaches and even had a chance for a short conversation with owner Wayne Weaver. There is some genuine excitement about the new offense under the direction of coordinator Dirk Koetter, and the special teams will improve under Joe DeCamillis.
It's easy to see what you want to see when you visit with the Jaguars. They can look as impressive as any team in the NFL. There is talent everywhere, yet they are also capable of finishing a season 8-8. As I travel around the NFL this summer there are teams that have similar traits, and as I think about it the Jaguars remind me more of the Carolina Panthers than any other team I have visited with in 2007. The talent is in place, the expectations from the media and fans are lower than last year, and the players really do have a chip on their shoulder.
The Jaguars still have the reality of playing in the same division as Peyton Manning and the Colts. Jacksonville players respect the world champions but they certainly don't fear them. Last year they split with Indianapolis and outscored them by 20 points in the two games. But the dilemma with the Jags is best exemplified by their play within the division last year. They went 2-4 in the AFC South, but averaged 150 yards rushing per game and outscored division opponents 129-109. They were capable of putting 44 points on the Colts, but lost both games to the Houston Texans and only generated 17 points in eight quarters.
After my camp stop in Jacksonville I think I have an idea of which Jaguars team is going to show up this season. With Leftwich back under center, I would be very surprised if this team scores 41 points one week like -- they did last year against the Jets -- only to come back the next week and only manage 7 points, which they did against the Texans.
1. BYRON LEFTWICH -- Leftwich is in the last year of his contract and has never completed a 16-game season. He knows there's risk trying to stay healthy for a whole season and getting the contract he wants for the future. He is in the best shape of his life, his weight is down, and he's not worried about his contract. The risk in this situation could switch to the club if Leftwich gets off to a fast start.
2. THE NEW OFFENSE -- First and foremost, the Jaguars are a running team. They were third in the NFL in rushing yards per game last year and there's no reason to think they will falter in '07. Fred Taylor looks great and Maurice Jones Drew should give them a solid chance to have two 1,000 yard backs. The Jags will not replace the run blocking of tight end Kyle Brady, but they will get more out of tight end Mercedes Lewis, who only caught 13 passes last year. Look for more spread sets with Lewis lined up away from the tackle.
3.STAYING HEALTHY -- Last year the Jags finished the season with 15 players on the injured reserve, third-most in the NFL. The worst injury of all was to Leftwich, so I asked Del Rio if he made any changes to the team schedule in an effort to reduce injuries. Del Rio said they reviewed everything they did in 2006, and there were changes to the offseason training program because he felt there were too many hamstring issues last year. Coach described it as getting back to some old school principles. In talking with the players, they all confirmed things were different.
1. DENNIS NORTHCUTT -- Northcutt is the talk of the camp. He immediately fixes the punt return game and has pressed the receiver group so much that he is currently listed as the starter. Leftwich has known him a long time and the trust is already there. The Jaguars defense is going to stop more opponents than the Cleveland defense did last year, so Northcutt will get many more chances to work on his 11.1 yard punt return average. He will easily surpass his 22 receptions for 228 yards.
2. TONY PASHOS -- In order for the Jags to work a vertical passing attack and protect Leftwich, Pashos has to pass block well. It's one of the biggest questions that have to be answered this fall.
3. REGGIE NELSON -- Del Rio has Nelson listed as a backup, but he has all the rookies listed as backups. The former player in coach Del Rio knows better than to hand an unproven kid a starting job. According to Leftwich, 'Reggie has an amazing ability to close on a deep ball.' Donavan Darius was released and Deon Grant left in free agency so it's only a matter of time before Nelson locks down a starting spot.
4. JUSTIN DURANT -- A young talented linebacker drafted in the second round, Durant has real speed and at times looks like a blur on video tape. He has several areas of fundamentals he needs to improve upon, but he reminds one coach of a young Derrick Brooks.
OFFENSE -- Every opponent has to drop a safety down into the box and defend the Jacksonville running game. With a healthy Leftwich there's a real good chance the offense will take more shots down the field when the defense is in a run-mode. With the play of Northcutt, and draft pick Mike Walker impressing everyone at practice, former first-round pick Reggie Williams found himself on the third string when the first depth chart came out. Williams did grab 52 passes last year, but the team clearly wants more out of him in 2007 if he's still here when the final roster is completed. Keep in mind this team averaged 26.5 points per game in their final seven games last year without Leftwich, and it should be even better this year.
DEFENSE -- Jacksonville does have the best defensive tackle tandem in the NFL with Stroud and Henderson. They shutout the Steelers and Jets last year and the healthy return of defensive end Reggie Hayward will help the pass rush. Solid linebackers and a pair of good corners led by all pro Rasheen Mathis should put this defense in the upper echelon of the league once again. Time will tell if the young safeties can hold up when they are confronted by different personnel groupings and formations.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- Northcutt and Jones-Drew will change the field position game a defensive-minded head coach like Del Rio wants to play. The punting has to improve, and the only direction is up after finishing at the bottom of the league last year. The rookie class will add at least four core players to the special teams and its DeCamillis' job to get them ready. Speaking of rookies, the Jags should have a rookie punter on the field this season.
The Jaguars are a team that needs Leftwich to have his first 16 game season, the young tight ends to come through and most importantly the safeties (Gerald Sensabaugh and Nelson) to deliver.
The Jaguars let me run the interviews in groups of three players at a time and the results were very interesting as the real personalities came out quickly.
1. Jon Henderson, Marcus Stroud, and Mike Peterson -- Stroud brings out the personality of the normally quiet Henderson, and I found out big Jon cries at weddings (his own), Peterson hates talking about the past -- especially the Houston loses -- and Stroud is real happy the defensive ends are back on the field.
2. Dennis Northcutt, Justin Durant, Clint Ingram -- Durant can sing, Ingram is all business and Northcutt looks out for the young players and is always giving advice to the defensive players about why he runs certain routes against them.
3. Byron Leftwich, Kalif Barnes, Matt Jones -- Barnes is confident he can block the pass rushers in this league without help from a back or tight end, Jones is excited to be a slot receiver and Byron has clearly regained the leadership of this team.
I think the Jaguars, like the Panthers, are set to have a very good season. Double-digit wins is a realistic goal. The Colts may be the world champions, but they have lost a number of players to injuries and free agency. Jacksonville will give them a run for the division title. I don't believe Del Rio is on a "hot seat" like some believe he is. Quite the contrary, he's on solid ground. Barring injuries this summer the Jags may have a running back and a receiver to deal before the regular season starts.