Postcard from camp: Jaguars
Blaine Gabbert's play and David Garrard's health has sparked a QB battle
The team's pass defense will have to make a marked improvement from last year
The Jags came close to the division crown in '10 and should be in the mix again
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Jaguars have camp at their home stadium, EverBank Field, and hold their practices on three fields abutting the stadium. That's another way of saying that the Jaguars might be the smartest team in the NFL. By staying hyper-local (no plush suburban headquarters for them either), they keep costs down and fan support up. (About 15,000 came out for an intrasquad scrimmage inside EverBank.) By staging practices in the evening, they treat you to some singular scenery. Camp is closed to the public now, but past attendees will surely attest to the quasi-romance in that setting's cool breezes, brilliant sunsets and in the broken croaking of defensive line coach Joe Cullen. Seriously, I'm worried he might be mute by Week 1. Listen to him coach a drill and see if you don't want to pass this man a lozenge.
1. David Garrard's back is fine. Sort of. Count Garrard among the players who were genuinely hurt by the lockout, specifically with chronic tightness in his lower back. He said his back X-rays more closely resemble an offensive lineman's. Not being able to visit the facility to test the injury in practices or receive treatment only exacerbated matters. "I didn't feel anything during the offseason," said Garrard, who spent most of it in Jacksonville. "But once we started back it just all of a sudden started to creep up on me, building up so much that it eventually locked up. I've never had it where I couldn't walk or if I did have to sit out a little bit of that practice where I couldn't come back the next practice."
Garrard was back in the mix this week and taking the majority of the snaps, which should come as welcome relief to Jaguars fans. Hard as it is to suppress excitement for Missouri rookie Blaine Gabbert (more on him later), it's just as hard not to root for Garrard, who has put this team on his back before and could do it again if near full strength.
2. Maurice Jones-Drew is done talking about Jay Cutler. Sort of. "It's in the past, man," he said. "Everybody wants to keep bringing it up when there's nothing to talk about. What he does doesn't affect the Jaguars. What I do won't affect the Bears. Right now it seems like you can't have an opinion in this world, and that's bulls**t."
On the subject of playing hurt, Jones-Drew will never bite his tongue; for him, the better recourse is to grit your teeth. That's essentially what he did last year while playing on a bum right knee, an injury later discovered to be a torn meniscus. He thought hard about having reconstructive surgery last August, but pride kept him from sacrificing the significant playing time that procedure and recovery would have cost him. He went under the knife in January instead and solo-rehabbed back in California. He said doctors banned him from running for seven months, but you'd never know it from seeing him out here. Though his participation in practices has been limited, his abilities have not. The burst, the cutting, the acceleration -- which he memorably flashed on a completed deep route -- are all there. "It's just better now because I don't have that pain," he said.
3. The Jaguars are serious about banning rookie hazing. Sort of. The first major cuts from camp were of the goalpost-binding, car-vandalizing and hair terrorism variety that vets have inflicted on the juniors for generations. With the lockout narrowing the 2011 preparation window to a crack, coach Jack Del Rio said he couldn't afford for his new charges to lose time or respect. "If you're belittling the guy, demeaning the guy, how much is he really going to listen to what you have to say?" he said. Still, some rites remain. Rookies are still expected to valet pads and participate in the annual talent showcase. (For a taste of how the Jags used to get down, check out season three, episode two of Hard Knocks.) "We'll continue to find our loopholes," Pro Bowl tight end Marcedes Lewis said with a wide smile, "but at the same time we want to be together. That's the most important thing."
Rashean Mathis, cornerback. By all accounts the ninth-year vet has been the camp's peak performer. He says it's because he's healthy for the first time in years and because of the workout time he put in with teammates in Jacksonville during the lockout. His skeptics say it's because he's entering the final year of his contract. The negativity is nothing new for Mathis, who took much of the blame for Jacksonville's 28th-ranked pass defense. And he internalized exactly none of it. "I know that fans have their opinions," said the former Pro Bowler. "I knew I had a young group. I would rather it be on me than them." But with the cavalry having arrived in the free agent signings of nickelback Drew Coleman and safety Dawan Landry, odds are fans -- and offenses -- won't have Landry to kick around anymore. "When you have guys who come from teams that have had success and know how to win, it makes a difference," he said.
Blaine Gabbert, quarterback. The argument that spread college quarterbacks make terrible NFL pros just becomes more laughable with every snap the Missouri rookie takes in practice. In fact, the only fumbled exchanges were the ones between observers groping for words to describe his pocket presence. His dropback mechanics were always fluid, his eyes are always downfield and his passes always crackled through the air before hitting their intended targets. But then again, that's about right for a passer who is both naturally gifted and played in a system that depended on his ability to read a defense, work through his progressions and deliver an accurate, catchable ball time and again.
"Of course every offense is going to have different terminology," said Gabbert, who showed poise in his preseason debut against the Patriots, has fast entrenched himself as the Jaguars' No. 2 passer and is filling Garrard's rearview mirror. "But we run extremely similar concepts here as I did at Missouri. The reads are almost the exact same. When I hear the [anti-spread] argument, it just makes me think people don't really know what they're talking about."
It's easy to forget that this team (technically in rebuilding mode) came a whisker from clinching the South at the three-quarter pole last year. This year's edition is miles better. The middle of the defense still looks vulnerable -- especially against the beefy chorus-line running games of the AFC North -- but it's certainly strong enough to challenge the high-flying attacks inside this division. That alone could be good enough for at least a two-game improvement on last year's 8-8 mark.