> To startwith, good health. Quarterback Byron Leftwich's left ankle, middle linebackerMike Peterson's left pectoral muscle and Pro Bowl defensive tackle MarcusStroud's right ankle all have been surgically repaired, restoring three of theJaguars' cornerstones. "The fact is, a team's health is such a big factorin the NFL," says coach Jack Del¬†Rio. "We are very energized rightnow."
Leftwich missedfive games in 2005 and 10 last year before undergoing surgery to remove bonespurs. "It's been a long time since I wasn't playing in pain," he says.Peterson, the ninth-year vet in the middle of Del¬†Rio's Cover¬†Two,played only five games in '06; the 6' 6", 306-pound Stroud, who combineswith 6' 7", 325-pound John Henderson to form the NFL's best run-stuffinginterior line, played 11 games, all in pain, before microfracture surgery.
Also,Jacksonville added slot receiver Dennis Northcutt and right tackle Tony Pashosthrough free agency, and Del¬†Rio--under pressure to get to a Super Bowl inhis fifth season--brought in six new coaches, most important offensivecoordinator Dirk Koetter from Arizona State and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula,late of Alabama, with the promise of a more open offense.
> The Jaguarsare one of a dozen teams whose realistic goal is to win the NFL title. Now.They were 12-4 two years ago and lost in the wild-card round to New England,then fought through injuries last year to finish 8-8, including a split withthe eventual-champion Colts. "What we want around here is to win achampionship," says 10th-year running back Fred Taylor.
The defense isamong the best in the NFL, moving up in the rankings from sixth in 2005 tosecond, behind Baltimore, last year. Henderson and a healthy Stroud are almostunblockable in the middle gaps; Peterson anchors a linebacking crew that goessix deep; corners Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams are solid; and while bothsafeties are in their first year as full-time starters--Gerald Sensabaugh, an'05 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, and rookie first-rounder ReggieNelson from Florida--they're promising. This defense will not yield bignumbers.
"The goal isto intimidate," says Peterson. "We want to be one of the great defensesin the league, like the '85 Bears or Baltimore in 2000, where teams arethinking about playing us two weeks ahead of time. They come on the field, andrunning the ball is out of the question; they just throw up Hail Marys. We wantto help the offense by giving them the ball on the 30-yard line."
That's thecentral question in Jacksonville: How much help will the offense need? Therunning game should be very good again. A year ago 5' 7", 212-poundsecond-round pick Maurice Jones-Drew, out of UCLA, became one of the NFL'sbiggest surprises when he produced nearly 1,400 combined rushing and receivingyards and 16 touchdowns. The underappreciated Taylor rushed for 1,146 yards ona career-high 5.0¬†yards per carry. "People are saying there won't beenough balls for both of us," says Taylor. "Don't worry about that.Maurice is going to make my career longer, and he's going to be one of thegreat players in this league, in the category of a Barry Sanders."
Yet the offensewill need increased production from Leftwich, the No.¬†7 pick out ofMarshall in 2003. In four years he has a 24-20 record as a starter--hardly abust but not nearly up to expectations for such a high draft choice. (TheJaguars could have selected Brady Quinn in April but passed.) This yearLeftwich has dropped 12 pounds, down to 242 on a healthy ankle. "The onlything that held me back was my ankle," he says. "Now I've got theopportunity to go out and show people that I can play this game."
Shula has workedwith Leftwich on his footwork in the pocket and tried to quicken his release.Koetter, who was fired after six years as coach at Arizona State, will give himmore shots at throwing downfield. A good offensive line, however, was dealt ablow when veteran center Brad Meester broke his right ankle early in trainingcamp; he will miss at least the first month of the season.
Even if Leftwichis substantially improved, it remains uncertain if Jacksonville has thereceiving personnel to worry defenses. Former first-round draft picks ReggieWilliams (ninth in 2004 out of Washington) and Matt Jones (a quarterback atArkansas before being taken 21st in '05) are expected to be sitting behindNorthcutt and Ernest Wilford at the start of the season. "All our receiversknow what we need and what we expect," says Del¬†Rio. "It's theirresponsibility to get on the field and make plays."
If they do, andif Leftwich is effective, the Jaguars are a threat to unseat the potentiallyvulnerable Colts in the AFC¬†South. If the passing game sputters, they willfall short.
COACH JACK DELRIO (34-30 in NFL), fifth season with Jaguars
DENNIS NORTHCUTT"NEW ACQUISITION"
HT 6' 6"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 5"
HT 6' 2"
HT 6' 5"
SACKS 1 1‚ÅÑ2
SACKS 2 1‚ÅÑ2
SACKS 3 1‚ÅÑ2
SACKS 8 1‚ÅÑ2
REGGIE NELSON (R)"NEW ACQUISITION"
ADAM PODLESH (R)"NEW ACQUISITION"
(R) Rookie(college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD8-8 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 3/24/10 DEFENSE 4/10/2
23 at Denver
7 at Kansas City
22 INDIANAPOLIS (M)
28 at Tampa Bay
4 at New Orleans
11 at Tennessee
18 SAN DIEGO
2 at Indianapolis
16 at Pittsburgh
30 at Houston
NFL rank T11
Opponents' 2006winning percentage .508
Games againstplayoff teams 5
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ENEMY LINES AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THEJAGUARS
> This defense is loaded. They can go 12-4 just onthe talent they have on that side of the ball. . . . The tackles, JohnHenderson and Marcus Stroud, are tremendous; the linebackers are good; RasheanMathis is really good; [rookie] Reggie Nelson is going to be a strong player.You can just go on and on. . . . If they had a good quarterback, this would bea great team. Byron Leftwich is big, but he can't move. He's got a strong arm,but he's not accurate. I'm not even sure everybody in that organization likeshim. . . . At wideout, Reggie Williams and Matt Jones were both reaches in thefirst round, and neither one has panned out. . . . All that talent on defenseand a fringe quarterback--it's a shame.
THE KING 500
An instant starter since joining the Jags as a second-rounder in 2003, Mathisdoesn't stand pat. Equally effective at Cover Two jams and man coverage, the'06 Pro Bowler breaks down his own play on tape in the off-season. "Lastyear I worked on my backpedal," he says. "This year I tried to getbetter at not standing up too quickly. You've got to get better every year, oryou're getting worse."
RICHARD C. LEWIS/WIREIMAGE.COM
Stuffed A healthy Stroud means bad newsfor opponents testing the Jaguars' middle
Photograph by Simon Bruty
¬†TheJaguars' ground game, third best in the league last year, is loaded withplayers who made the King¬†500.
(264) G Vince Manuwai
(380) C Brad Meester
(204) QB Byron Leftwich
(181) G Chris Naeole
(257) RB Fred Taylor