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Original Issue

Catching Heat

The Jaguars are primed for a deep playoff run, but they need a motley crew of unproven or underachieving wide receivers to stand and deliver on their promise

THREE WEEKS after being held to one reception in Jacksonville's 31--20 AFC divisional playoff loss at New England, Reggie Williams still hadn't had his fill of the Patriots. As his Jaguars teammates scattered to spots around the globe, Williams booked a flight to the Arizona desert. There, on the afternoon of Feb. 3, he took a seat in the stands at University of Phoenix Stadium for Super Bowl XLII between New England and the New York Giants. School, once more, was in session.

"I wanted to watch what kind of routes Randy Moss was going to run," Williams, 25, says of the Pats' receiver. "I'd witnessed the power of that offense, and I wanted to see what it could do again. To be a Super Bowl champion, you have to watch and study how the winners do it."

Not all the lessons were coming from Moss, though. In the game's final moments the Giants' Plaxico Burress lined up on the left against cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Williams turned to a friend in disbelief. "I was like, Oh, they've got [Plaxico isolated] and he's four steps off! That's a fade," Williams recalls. "[Plaxico] stuck him hard inside and froze him. Eli [Manning] threw a good ball. I called that one."

THERE'S MUCH to be learned by all the Jacksonville wideouts. In a conference in which, for starters, Tom Brady throws to Moss and Wes Welker, and Peyton Manning tosses to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Jaguars quarterback David Garrard has unproven former high draft picks and reclamation projects for targets—receivers known not for catching 100 passes but for questionable hands, lack of focus and untimely injuries. The rest of the team's units are mainly solid to spectacular, from a lethal one-two punch at running back to stalwart defensive linemen to a quarterback with the NFL's third-highest passer rating in 2007. So a trip to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII could hinge on what Williams calls "this Creole Crock-Pot of receivers."

Among the returning veterans Williams, the No. 9 pick in the 2004 draft, and Matt Jones, the 21st selection in '05, have yet to play up to their first-round potential (Jones also was dealing with serious legal issues this summer); Dennis Northcutt, who was acquired as an unrestricted free agent before last season, failed to establish himself as a top-tier wideout in seven seasons with the Browns; and '07 third-round pick Mike Walker missed all of last year with a knee injury. In the off-season Jacksonville lost its leading receiver—Ernest Wilford, with only 45 catches—to free agency and added two other ingredients to the pot: On Feb. 29 the Jags traded a sixth-round pick to Minnesota for Troy Williamson, the '05 first-rounder who had trouble holding on to the ball and failed as Moss's replacement there; and on the same day they signed productive but disgruntled Raiders free agent Jerry Porter. Each member of this wideout unit has been lacking in one area or another, failing to become one of the game's best. Can they all finally make their mark together?

"I don't think we have one guy who's exactly where he wants to be," says receivers coach Todd Monken. "Reggie's always had visions of being a great player, a Pro Bowl player. With Dennis, people thought he was done. Jerry wants to be a Number 1 receiver. The organization has done a nice job with the receivers in creating competition."

THE MOST accomplished of the bunch, Porter had his two best seasons in 2004 and '05 in Oakland, when he caught a total of 140 passes, mostly from Kerry Collins in coach Norv Turner's system. But he was unhappy when the Raiders brought in quarterback Aaron Brooks and coach Art Shell to replace the two in 2006. "I had a good rapport with Kerry—losing him irritated me," says Porter, 30, who missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury but was hoping to be ready for the season-opener. "I needed a fresh start."

Williams, 6'4" and 212, is trying to overcome a rocky start to his career. Monken speculates that Williams's early inconsistency resulted from being pressed into duty—he started 15 games in his rookie season—without fully understanding the position's complexity. "Reggie was put in a spot where he played without working on the finer points," says Monken, who joined the Jaguars staff last season. "He's been better at playing faster, and he's always been physically tough. I think it was Reggie realizing, 'If I don't change, people will outwork me, outcatch me, and I'm going to be done.'"

Says Williams, "I'm just scratching the surface in giving people a peek into what I can do."

The most disappointing Jacksonville wideout has been the mercurial Jones, a 6'6" former quarterback at Arkansas whose four pro seasons have been marked by injuries and spotty production. Then, in July, he was arrested in Fayetteville, Ark., and charged with drug possession after police said they observed him in a car cutting up cocaine with a credit card. Jones pleaded not guilty at a hearing on Aug. 11 and has an Oct. 10 court date. In camp he was trying to remain focused on football. "He's understanding how to be a receiver," says Garrard, who in the off-season signed a seven-year extension worth $60 million, the richest contract in team history. "He's not breaking the huddle and saying, 'Dave, what do I got?' He knows what he has."

When it comes to Jaguars receivers with issues, Jones isn't alone. And like his brethren, he leans on the eldest player among them when things get complicated. "Dennis," Jones says of Northcutt, "is that veteran leader we all look to."

WHILE WILLIAMS was in the stands at Super Bowl XLII, Northcutt was one state over, in California, driving east on Route 50. He was on his way to Folsom State Prison. Northcutt makes three trips a year to Folsom, the prison that Johnny Cash sang about—and that also houses Dennis's older brother, Deitric. It's an odd way to begin an NFL off-season, but those road trips remind Northcutt of what his life might have been like without football, without the sort of companionship he gets from other receivers, even the ragtag lot in Jacksonville who look up to him, though he stands 5'11" and weighs 172 pounds. "They are counting on me," says Northcutt, 30, who was second on the team last year in receptions (44) and yards (601).

Last January he carried some extra hurt into the off-season: the memory of his dropped pass in the end zone against the Patriots, a third-quarter opportunity that might have changed the outcome of the playoff game. He included the play in his off-season film review. "What I did was go back and study me," he says. "How can I make myself better? I studied every pass thrown to me, the clips from New England, good and bad. It was tough to watch, but I'm a man of no excuses. I'm trying to get better."

His fellow receivers see that commitment every Wednesday and Thursday, when Garrard and Northcutt go through the passing-route tree after practice, making sure their communication is crisp. But teammates don't know what, deep down, drives Northcutt—the brother serving a life sentence for attempted murder, the person whom Northcutt, at first, so badly wanted to be like while growing up in South Central Los Angeles. "When I get cut [from an NFL team] one day, there won't be one day I'll regret," says Northcutt, who was All-America at Arizona and a second-round pick of the Browns in 2000. "The first thing I ever wanted to be in life was a gangbanger. I was a natural leader. I knew that money made the world go around, and the way to [make] money was dealing drugs. Then I saw the effect it has on your life, seeing my brother get shot in the head, seeing him go to jail, seeing my mother when that phone rings at two o'clock in the morning. I said to myself, Do I really want this life? Luckily, I had sports."

IT'S AN impressionable, imperfect receiving corps that turns to Northcutt, hoping for its breakthrough. "We have a lot of versatility, we have a lot of experience," says Williams. "[Dennis] is a vet, and Jerry is big and has that tenacity and runs so smooth. Matt is doing the little things to be a pro, and I'm just the crazy one."

Says Monken, the receivers coach, "The thing about coaching skill players is it keeps you alive. This is a good group, a fun group, a cast of characters with all different personalities. The question is, How do you respond to adversity?"



Photograph by Preston Mack

GRAB BAG The wide receiver corps of (clockwise from top) Williams, Walker, Porter, Northcutt, Williamson and Jones must have a bigger hand in the offense.