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> To start with, good health. Quarterback Byron Leftwich's left ankle, middle linebacker Mike Peterson's left pectoral muscle and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud's right ankle all have been surgically repaired, restoring three of the Jaguars' cornerstones. "The fact is, a team's health is such a big factor in the NFL," says coach Jack Del�Rio. "We are very energized right now."
Leftwich missed five games in 2005 and 10 last year before undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs. "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 combines with 6' 7", 325-pound John Henderson to form the NFL's best run-stuffing interior line, played 11 games, all in pain, before microfracture surgery.
Also, Jacksonville added slot receiver Dennis Northcutt and right tackle Tony Pashos through free agency, and Del�Rio--under pressure to get to a Super Bowl in his fifth season--brought in six new coaches, most important offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter from Arizona State and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula, late of Alabama, with the promise of a more open offense.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
> The Jaguars are 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 with the eventual-champion Colts. "What we want around here is to win a championship," says 10th-year running back Fred Taylor.
The defense is among the best in the NFL, moving up in the rankings from sixth in 2005 to second, behind Baltimore, last year. Henderson and a healthy Stroud are almost unblockable in the middle gaps; Peterson anchors a linebacking crew that goes six deep; corners Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams are solid; and while both safeties are in their first year as full-time starters--Gerald Sensabaugh, an '05 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, and rookie first-rounder Reggie Nelson from Florida--they're promising. This defense will not yield big numbers.
"The goal is to intimidate," says Peterson. "We want to be one of the great defenses in the league, like the '85 Bears or Baltimore in 2000, where teams are thinking about playing us two weeks ahead of time. They come on the field, and running the ball is out of the question; they just throw up Hail Marys. We want to help the offense by giving them the ball on the 30-yard line."
That's the central question in Jacksonville: How much help will the offense need? The running game should be very good again. A year ago 5' 7", 212-pound second-round pick Maurice Jones-Drew, out of UCLA, became one of the NFL's biggest surprises when he produced nearly 1,400 combined rushing and receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. The underappreciated Taylor rushed for 1,146 yards on a career-high 5.0�yards per carry. "People are saying there won't be enough 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 the great players in this league, in the category of a Barry Sanders."
Yet the offense will need increased production from Leftwich, the No.�7 pick out of Marshall in 2003. In four years he has a 24-20 record as a starter--hardly a bust but not nearly up to expectations for such a high draft choice. (The Jaguars could have selected Brady Quinn in April but passed.) This year Leftwich has dropped 12 pounds, down to 242 on a healthy ankle. "The only thing that held me back was my ankle," he says. "Now I've got the opportunity to go out and show people that I can play this game."