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Leftwich's health remains a key for Jags

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich opened his fifth training camp Saturday with two new starting receivers, a new tight end, a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterbacks coach and the same ol' question that has lingered most of his career.

Can he stay healthy for an entire season?

"Nobody's more frustrated about it than me," Leftwich said. "I just want to get out there and show everybody that I can still play. I don't like being there on the side injured and I don't think nobody wants to see me out there that way."

The Jaguars, though, have seen it all too often since drafting Leftwich with the seventh overall pick in 2003.

He has missed 17 games the last three seasons, making it difficult for the offense to sustain any kind of rhythm and continually derailing a playoff-caliber team.

Leftwich expects that to change this year, mostly because he had surgery to repair an injured left ankle that had bothered him since college.

"I've got a perfect ankle right now," Leftwich said. "Now that I have it fixed, hopefully I won't have that problem anymore."

Coach Jack Del Rio is counting on it. He knows Leftwich's health is the biggest key to the season - and maybe Del Rio's future in Jacksonville - and made several offseason moves in hopes of helping the oft-injured quarterback.

Del Rio fired offensive coordinator Carl Smith and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, replacing them with former Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter and former Alabama coach Mike Shula.

The coach then signed free agent right tackle Tony Pashos, hoping the former Baltimore Ravens starter will help keep Leftwich upright in the pocket.

Del Rio also brought in speedy receiver Dennis Northcutt, trying to give Leftwich a legitimate deep threat missing since Jimmy Smith retired before last season. The Jags also signed tight end Jermaine Wiggins and then drafted two more wideouts: Mike Walker in the third round and John Broussard in the seventh.

The moves were the first signs that Del Rio had become seemingly disenchanted with three first-round picks: receivers Reggie Williams and Matt Jones and tight end Marcedes Lewis.

Del Rio made it more clear when he said all three starting spots were wide open heading into training camp. Northcutt, receiver Charles Sharon and Wiggins worked mostly with the first team Saturday.

"When we have the playmakers we have, we got to be more explosive," Leftwich said. "We got to give those guys more opportunities to make plays. If you don't, it makes it too easy for the defense and too hard for us to consistently try to win football games."

Leftwich has been sporadic during his four seasons, throwing 51 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions while going 24-20 as a starter.

But his biggest problem has been the injuries. He missed two games in 2004 because of a knee injury. He sat out five games the following year with a broken left ankle. He re-injured the ankle last year, had season-ending surgery and missed the final 10 games.

Backup David Garrard played well at times in place of Leftwich, but he committed too many mistakes in crucial situations - prompting Del Rio to make Leftwich his starter in February.

But Del Rio wasn't completely convinced Leftwich was his guy, either.

The coach hinted that he wanted to draft Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn in April, but he couldn't get a consensus from the franchise's other decision-makers. The Jags ended up selecting safety Reggie Nelson.

Two months later, Del Rio told Leftwich and the other quarterbacks that the team would be interested in pursuing Daunte Culpepper if he became a free agent.

The team's interest in Culpepper has cooled, leaving the offense back in Leftwich's hands - and with him trying to stay on the field.

"Obviously the big question continues to be how's the passing game," Del Rio said. "It's safe to say we haven't achieved (success). We're working on it. I've made many statements about my desire to have an explosive football team here in Jacksonville and we'll continue to work toward that."

Notes: DE Reggie Hayward, who missed most of last season after injuring his Achilles' tendon, was cleared to practice Saturday. ... QB Quinn Gray (ankle), TE George Wrighster (labrum) and DE Brian Smith (hip) started camp on the physically unable to perform list.

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