The Jaguars are one of the teams I'm most intrigued to watch next week during the NFL draft. Quite simply, I love the way general manager Gene Smith operates, looking for value in areas others might gloss over, sticking to his philosophy and being willing to make deals for players, regardless of what the reaction might be.
Smith has quietly amassed a stable of talent in the past two drafts and perhaps will get the Jags over their late-season swoons with this 2011 class. His two drafts in Jacksonville have been sublime, and given his unpredictable nature, I can't help but wonder if the Jags have a surprise or two to come.
I tend to think they won't take a quarterback in the first round, but I wouldn't be shocked if they did. If recent trends hold true, however, Smith will continue rebuilding the team from the inside out, focusing on under-valued linemen.
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Smith has made five picks in the first three rounds over the last two drafts and all have been either offensive or defensive linemen -- decidedly not from major football factories. The Jags are a small-market team that won't be able to outbid teams for players in free agency, so the draft must be their lifeblood. And with Smith it has been.
Smith's 2009 draft could prove epic. He took tackles with the first two picks, finding Eugene Monroe (Virginia) to try to replace Tony Boselli and getting versatile Eben Britton (Arizona) in the second round. Terrance Knighton (Temple) was a steal in the third round, developing into one of the elite young defensive tackles in the game and filling the void left by guys like John Henderson and Marcus Stroud.
Smith traded up to get cornerback Derek Cox (William & Mary), who has toggled in and out of the starting lineup but already has eight interceptions through two seasons. Mike Thomas (Arizona, fourth round) gives the team a starting-caliber receiver and legit deep threat. Injuries have derailed fifth-round pick Jarett Dillard (Rice), but he could develop into a Kennan McCardell-type position receiver. Converted quarterback Zach Miller (Nebraska-Omaha, sixth round) has contributed as a tight end. Seventh-round pick Rashad Jennings (Liberty) is the perfect complement to Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield, and fellow seventh-rounder Tiquan Underwood (Rutgers) has been a depth receiver with some speed.
No one did a better job of finding value in virtually every round in 2009 than Smith did. That's quite a nucleus right there.
In 2010, Smith resisted the local calls to draft Tim Tebow but parted with a fourth-round pick to land key veteran linebacker Kirk Morrison to fill one need. He also followed his instincts to take defensive lineman Tyson Alualu (Cal) 10th overall, higher than many projected. Alualu proved a great fit and made a considerable impact as a rookie. Defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith (Louisiana Tech) missed all of the season on injured reserve but could make an impact in 2011. Fifth-round defensive ends Larry Hart (Central Arkansas) and Austen Lane (Murray State) both played as rookies despite their modest college programs -- Lane started nine games, while sixth-rounder Deji Karim (Southern Illinois) appeared in 11 games as well.
If Smith puts together one more draft like these two -- or comes close, at least -- look for the Jags to continue closing the talent gap in the AFC South and being better equipped to hang with playoff teams in December.