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Andrew Lawrence
September 05, 2011
Looking for paydirt, they hit the free-agent market hard
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September 05, 2011

3 Jacksonville Jaguars

Looking for paydirt, they hit the free-agent market hard

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High on a bookshelf in general manager Gene Smith's office at EverBank Field sits a framed aerial photo of a night home game between the Jaguars and the Colts. Dwarfing the players and the capacity crowd is a message writ large in white across the black sky: BUILD IT . . . THEY WILL COME. The Field of Dreams mantra might be a bit of a cliché, but it suits Smith, who has dedicated his entire career in pro football to painstakingly building the Jaguars into a contender. Smith has been with the team since its inception in 1994, starting as a combine scout and rising to his current post in 2009. But, he says, "The one thing I can never get away from is that I'm a scout. And the value of a team is in the evaluator."

Going into his third season as chief evaluator, Smith has completely overhauled the Jaguars' roster. Eighty of the 90 players on this year's training camp roster had no more than three years' experience with the team. The remaining 10 veterans (among them, quarterback David Garrard, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, center Brad Meester, cornerback Rashean Mathis and kicker Josh Scobee) are franchise cornerstones that Smith had a hand in scouting. That the Jaguars were as competitive as they were last season is astonishing. "We've basically overachieved," says coach Jack Del Rio. "People want to talk about last year's late collapse (the Jags were in first or tied for first from Week 11 through 15) and make it a negative. You're missing the point if that's all you're focusing on. In a rebuilding mode, we remained in the hunt."

Despite the personnel churn, Smith has, in fact, taken a rather conservative team-building approach, drafting in duplicate (especially on the line, where he used his first two picks in 2009 on offensive tackles and his first two in '10 on defensive tackles) while wading into free agency only occasionally. But this year he doubled down hard, trading two picks to the Redskins to select Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert 10th overall. The G.M. then signed a whopping nine unrestricted free agents with an eye toward reinforcing a defense that gave up the fifth-most passing yards (250.3) last season.

The additions are ones only a talent ferret such as Smith could love. Fifth-year linebacker Paul Posluszny, who has broken his arm twice in the past four seasons, played in relative obscurity in Buffalo but rates among the league's leading tacklers when healthy. Seventh-year end Matt Roth, a victim of injuries and 3--4 systems that often placed him at linebacker rather than on the line, his preferred position, has shown flashes of dominance and will benefit playing alongside Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman (who is coming off his second reconstructive knee surgery in as many seasons). Sixth-year nickelback Drew Coleman, formerly of the Jets, played in the shadows of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie but can be a top-line corner. Part of the reason he signed with the Jaguars, Coleman says, is that he was impressed by how closely Smith had followed his career. "It was kind of weird when he called me, and he knew about all this stuff that I did in high school, junior college and early in my career at TCU," says Coleman, who also considered the Cardinals and the Bengals. "He sees what his players can be in the future."

Smith has always been more partial to making stars than acquiring them. Still, he became a target for critics this off-season when, after losing top wideout Mike Sims-Walker to the Rams, he failed to add a comparable replacement during his free-agent spree. But there is talent in reserve. Mike Thomas, who led the Jaguars with 820 receiving yards in his second season, has the stout build (5'8", 198 pounds) and raw speed (4.3 in the 40) that recall a younger Steve Smith. Fifth-year man Jason Hill, whom the Jaguars picked up off waivers from the 49ers at midseason, averaged 22.5 yards per catch in 2010. Rookie Cecil Shorts III is a tall, smooth route-runner out of Division III Mount Union who's likely to stick as a third or fourth receiver.

The offense will continue to run through Jones-Drew, who with 1,324 rushing yards anchored the league's third-best ground attack despite missing the last two games of the season with a torn right meniscus; and tight end Marcedes Lewis, a punishing blocker and prolific receiver who went to his first Pro Bowl last year. "Our offense is one of those where if you get in your spot, the ball can go anywhere," says Lewis. "Gene's bringing in guys who want to win."

Smith deflects the praise. "I'm just one part of the process," he says. Still, he has a picture in his head of what a winning Jaguars team looks like, and that picture is beginning to come into focus.




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