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An ascending team

Posted Apr 28, 2012

GM Gene Smith wraps up 2012 NFL Draft: "I think we can be a playoff contender."

The Jaguars’ 2012 NFL draft is done, and it will be praised, criticized and all things in between.

Quick-trigger analysis of a draft class doesn’t much concern Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith, and that’s true whether the analysis brings praise or harsh words.

What concerns Smith is this: Is the roster stronger than it was three days ago? Is it in ascension? Does the team have a chance to contend?

Early Saturday evening, in the immediate aftermath of his fourth draft as the Jaguars’ general manager – a draft that featured six selections, including the team’s earliest selection in 16 seasons – Smith was asked to assess the Jaguars.

“It’s an ascending football team – I really believe that,” Smith said. “I don’t think we’ll have another season like we did last year with the amount of injuries. Why that occurred, I have no idea but maybe it will be another eighteen years. Twenty years. Twenty five years.

“If we stay healthy I’m very optimistic what this team can do.”

Smith was asked if he expected the Jaguars to be in the postseason in 2012.

“I think we can be a playoff contender,” he said.

Jaguars Owner Shad Khan, asked the same question on Friday, said, yes, he expected the team to be in the playoffs – that any owner expects that from his team. Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey also on Friday said he liked the word, “contending.”

To hear Smith and Mularkey tell it Saturday, the three days of the draft were another step toward that objective, and Smith said during those days the Jaguars were able to address needs on the roster while still adhering to their draft philosophy of best available player.

“You don’t tell the scouts, ‘Ok, you have this need, this need, and this need,’’’ Smith said. “You want them to go out and grade the players for who they are because you don’t want them skewing their grade for what your needs may be. You don’t want to get into a situation in the draft where you’re pushing guys up or on draft day you have a need and let’s say other positions that are rated higher and you just reached down to another level just to fill a need.

“You want to take advantage of the system the NFL employs based on your record, so draft the best available player. And you hope when you’re able to do that you have a few players within range and you take your greatest need.”

Smith said that was the case through much of the draft, and on Saturday evening he offered a quick analysis on each of the team’s six selections:

*Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State (Round 1, No. 5 overall): “We got a playmaker on offense, which obviously Justin can play inside or outside, but we’re looking for that X receiver when given single coverage we can win one on one. We feel like he’s capable of doing that.”

*Andre Branch, DE, Clemson (Round 2, No. 38): The Jaguars got “speed and athleticism on the edge with Andre and I’m very happy to have him in our front.”

*Bryan Anger, P, California (Round 3, No. 70): “He’s got the ability to be an elite punter in the NFL and he’s got rare leg talent and I think it would be evident to all of you when you see him perform.”

*Brandon Marshall, LB, Nevada (Round 5, No. 142): “He fits what we want in terms of getting a four-core special teams player.”

*Mike Harris, CB, Florida State (Round 6, No. 176): “He’s still learning his craft. The guy is tough, he’s got some instinct and awareness to him. He’s played outside and inside as a corner. He’s a good special teams player.”

*Jeris Pendleton, DT, Ashland (Round 7, No. 228): “He’s got long arms, big hands, he’s athletic and can play the game on his feet. He’s strong at the point, he can press the pocket.”

When Smith and Mularkey talked about the first three selections Friday, they spoke of being able to address all three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams – with a difference-making player.

On Saturday, the talk was about adding depth to the defense and special teams.

“Defensively, today there were just some players that were sitting there when we were picking that were higher than some offensive players,” Smith said.

 All three players selected Saturday add depth to a defense that ranked No. 6 in the NFL last season. As for Pendleton, Smith said despite being 28 and from a Division II school, he is not a project player.

Smith said Pendleton is comparable in terms of development to offensive tackle Cameron Bradfield, who made the team as a rookie free agent last season. Smith also compared Pendleton to former Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer and current Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey, players who overcame difficult circumstances to be key players.

“Then obviously he’s got a skill set to play in this league so we get a chance again to help our defensive line depth and we feel very good about him,” Smith said.

As the Jaguars exit the draft and prepare for next weekend’s rookie mini-camp, Smith said the roster is not yet complete. The team is still signing rookie free agents, and the team will constantly try to improve the roster.

One area of concern remains returner, Smith said. The team on Friday released kickoff returner Deji Karim, and Smith said from a group that includes running back Rashad Jennings, running back DuJuan Harris, wide receivers Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts and cornerback Aaron Ross, productive returners must emerge.

“I think we have some capable people that need to take a step, but I’m going to continue to look for any position on this team that can upgrade our roster,” he said.

And any player who can contribute to the goal of keeping the Jaguars a team in ascension.

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