In March, 90 NFL coaches, scouts and general managers traveled
to the University of Michigan to test draft prospects. Before
the workout, Wolverines coaches gathered the NFL folk in the
team meeting room to brief them on the players, and as Michigan
coach Lloyd Carr spoke, a cell phone rang. Carr glared in its
direction. Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin fumbled in his pocket for
the phone, while trying to slither out the door. "We don't let
our players bring those things in here," one Wolverines
assistant said. The irreverence of it all--Coughlin interrupting
a football meeting with his cell phone. What would Bo
Schembechler have thought?
"I hated that," Coughlin says, still chagrined four months later.
"That call was about the Mark Brunell contract. In fact, I spent
almost the whole drive from Ann Arbor to the airport in Detroit
that afternoon talking about that contract."
Such was Jacksonville's off-season of the cap crunch, in which 32
veterans' contracts were restructured or terminated, saving the
Jags $39 million and fitting them under the 2001 salary cap with
the comfort of an NFL offensive line climbing into a VW Beetle.
(Brunell's deal was restructured twice to save the Jags a total
of $4.5 million against the cap.) But a funny thing happened
during the bloodletting. The only big-timer who was let go was
right tackle Leon Searcy, who signed with the Ravens as a free
agent--and he didn't play last season after tearing his right
quadriceps tendon in the preseason. "I think the players were
surprised," says Jacksonville cornerback Aaron Beasley. "We were
supposed to have a whole new squad because of salary-cap cuts,
but we've got our guys back. We're going to make a run at this
thing. I think we're the sleeping giant of the AFC."
Maybe. But a team that brings 31 rookies to camp (out of 91
prospects) is a team with no depth. Add eight players with camp,
but no game, experience, and that means the Jaguars' pool of
talent this summer included only 41 players who'd ever suited up
for an NFL game. And because the defense is relying on vets
coming off injury-shortened seasons--free safety Carnell Lake, 34,
and middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, 36, most notably--the thin
Jags look more like the 7-9 team of last season than the 14-2 AFC
Central winner of 1999. At 321 pounds rookie tackle Marcus Stroud
will beef up the run defense, but Jacksonville needs help rushing
the passer (it had no double-digit sacker in 2000), and Stroud
had one half-sack last year at Georgia. The Jaguars will also
likely open the season without cornerback Fernando Bryant, who
could be out until Week 3 with a separated right shoulder
suffered in the preseason.
Jacksonville may make one more run at a title with the core that
Coughlin built from the team's 1995 inception, but no club in the
salary-cap era (post-1993), except perhaps the Broncos, has won
big, fought the cap while retrenching and continued to win big.
Over the past two years the dominant teams of the mid-'90s, the
Cowboys and the 49ers, have been depthless and gone 13-19 and
10-22, respectively. By preserving the guts of this team for one
more year, all the Jaguars have done is delay the inevitable:
They're already $36.2 million over the projected 2002 cap, and no
other NFL team is more than $20 million over. It might be foolish
to wait until next year to worry about next year, but
Jacksonville will do it.
The Jags must therefore start developing their kids. They've
installed mean and quick second-round pick Maurice Williams at
right tackle, and he had a terrific training camp. Stroud will be
an opening-day starter. One of the brightest prospects is last
year's rookie middle linebacker, T.J. Slaughter, a kamikaze type
who took Nickerson's spot when he got hurt. Now Slaughter moves
to right outside linebacker. "When I came here last year," says
the 6-foot, 239-pound Slaughter, "all my friends told me, 'You're
going to a Super Bowl team.' It's a big challenge to get there
now, but there's no question we've got the nucleus to do it."
He's right about that. One morning in camp Jacksonville sent a
reminder to its division that it can still play a little
football. Kevin Hardy leaped a couple of feet off the ground,
tipped a Brunell bullet and gathered it in for an interception.
His defensive brethren mobbed him. Hardy had been dangled in
trades on draft day, and no one had bitten. For now, the Jaguars
are thrilled that no one did. But no team in the NFL will live on
the edge more than the 2001 Jags. If Jacksonville loses more than
a man or two from its nucleus, things could get ugly in a
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Though still a top marksman, Brunell is running out of time to resurrect a flagging franchise.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES TAYLOR
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Jaguars
"I love what they did in the draft. First I thought they were nuts
to bypass Kenyatta Walker, who will be a cornerstone tackle for a
decade with the Bucs, but when you get Marcus Stroud to anchor
your defensive line and Maurice Williams, who was the third-rated
tackle on our board, in the second round, you've done great....
If Fred Taylor ever plays 16 full games, I can see him gaining
2,000 yards. Think of 125 yards a game, and that's a normal day
for Taylor. Big load, soft hands.... Mark Brunell can make all
the throws, though he's a little shy on the deep stuff. But is he
as mobile as he was? No.... Tony Boselli still has a nasty
temperament, but he can't get to the corner the way he did to
wall off a great pass rusher.... I worry about the up-the-middle
pass rush because Jeff Smith is a weak link. He can get pushed
around.... The defense will feel the loss of Dom Capers, the
coordinator. What a great schemer. Going from Capers to Gary
Moeller is like going from filet to hamburger.... Gary Walker
tends to disappear against a solid guard. Maybe Stroud will push
him.... I'm surprised how quickly T.J. Slaughter adapted, though
he got pushed around too much. The outside's better for him,
because he can run.... Aaron Beasley can't run well enough to be
a shut-down corner, but he's a smart player and has sharp
instincts. Fernando Bryant's a chippy kid who ticks off good
receivers and tries to get them out of their game. He needs to,
because he's not fast."
Sept. 9 PITTSBURGH
16 at Chicago
Oct. 7 at Seattle
14 Open date
18 BUFFALO (Thurs.)
28 at Baltimore
Nov. 4 at Tennessee
18 at Pittsburgh
Dec. 3 GREEN BAY (Mon.)
9 at Cincinnati
16 at Cleveland
23 at Minnesota
30 KANSAS CITY
2001 SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL rank: 13 (tie)
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .500
Games against playoff teams: 5
with 2000 statistics
COACH: Tom Coughlin; seventh season with Jacksonville (56-40 in
2000 RECORD: 7-9 (fourth in AFC Central)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 10/9/7; defense 11/14/12
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Mark Brunell 39 512 att. 311 comp. 60.7% 3,640 yds.
20 TDs 14 int. 84.0 rtg.
RB Fred Taylor 12 292 att. 1,399 yds. 4.8 avg. 36 rec.
240 yds. 6.7 avg. 14 TDs
RB Stacey Mack 307 54 att. 145 yds. 2.7 avg.
no receptions in 2000 1 TD
FB Kevin Clemens(R)[N] 376 Played defensive line in college
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Jimmy Smith 31 91 rec. 1,213 yds. 8 TDs
WR Keenan McCardell 62 94 rec. 1,207 yds. 5 TDs
WR Sean Dawkins[N] 208 63 rec. 731 yds. 5 TDs
TE Kyle Brady 107 64 rec. 729 yds. 3 TDs
K Mike Hollis 141 33/33 XPs 24/26 FGs 105 pts.
PR R. Jay Soward 322 14 ret. 7.7 avg. 0 TDs
KR Shyrone Stith 326 33 ret. 23.8 avg. 0 TDs
LT Tony Boselli 6'7" 322 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Brad Meester 6'3" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeff Smith 6'3" 320 lbs. 14 games 12 starts
RG Zach Wiegert 6'5" 312 lbs. 8 games 8 starts
RT Maurice Williams (R)[N]6'5" 304 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LE Renaldo Wynn 36 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
LT Marcus Stroud (R)[N] 57 tackles 1/2 sack
RT Gary Walker 42 tackles 5 sacks
RE Tony Brackens 61 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
OLB Kevin Hardy 85 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Hardy Nickerson 31 tackles 1 sack
OLB T.J. Slaughter 61 tackles 0 sacks
CB Fernando Bryant 43 tackles 1 int.
SS Donovin Darius 84 tackles 2 int.
FS Carnell Lake 75 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
CB Aaron Beasley 52 tackles 5 sacks
P David Leaverton (R)[N]59 punts 40.9 avg.
[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
"On defense, going from Capers to Moeller is like going from
filet to hamburger."