When Gene Smith was promoted to general manager and senior vice president, player personnel on January 12, 2009, he was asked to describe his approach to making the Jaguars a better team in the near future.
Smith didn't hesitate in referring back to his days as a recruiting coordinator at Edinboro College in the early 90s and what he learned about building a team. It was about selecting players that could take ownership with the team over a period of time, not relying on the quick fix.
"We didn't necessarily go the junior college route. We went with high school players and I saw over the course of time players who were in the program four and five years develop this sense of ownership, that 'this is our team,'" Smith said at the press conference. "I saw on our best teams great peer leadership because they felt that when things were going wrong that they were going to correct them. The guys that were in the program for three, four, five years, they were stepping forward and saying, 'No, this is how you do it. This is our way.'
"And I think when you have players in the building that play well, do right off the field, if you have an opportunity to reward your own, like I felt I needed to when I got the position that I'm in, in our own department, I think it sends the right message."
Smith has abided by his philosophy. The Jaguars are one of only four NFL teams that have every player from the last two draft classes either on the active roster, practice squad or injured reserve, joining Carolina, Houston and the New York Jets. The Jaguars have drafted 15 players the past two seasons and 11 are on the active roster with four on injured reserve. There are only six teams that still have every player drafted from 2009.
It's no secret that a team might take some bumps when rookies combine to make 71 starts, like the Jaguars had in 2009. But their experience is paying off in 2010. Five of the nine players selected a year ago are regular starters this season, the most in the NFL, including offensive tackle Eben Britton who is on injured reserve.
As the Jaguars push through the final four weeks of the regular season, they will be counting on the members of the 2009 draft class to take another step forward. Here's a closer look at the Jaguars' 2009 draft class and an assessment from Smith on each player:
Offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (Round 1, 8th overall, Virginia)
Monroe has started 24 of 26 games at left tackle since joining Tony Boselli as the only offensive linemen chosen by the Jaguars in the first round in franchise history. Monroe and Eben Britton were the first pair of rookie tackles to start on opening day in the NFL since 1982.
The Jaguars have rushed for 100-plus yards in 17 of Monroe's 24 starts including 258 yards last Sunday at Tennessee.
Smith's take: "Eugene has made progress as a run blocker this year, especially when working combo blocks and rubbing off second level. He possesses the athletic skill-set that you desire in a left tackle. The arrow is up on him because when he's been stressed in pass protection it's usually been a result of his footwork or technique, which are areas he can continue to improve. He's still getting a so-called 'book' on the elite pass rushers in the league and those scouting reports on each player will benefit him greatly in future matchups."
Offensive tackle Eben Britton (Round 2, 39th overall, Arizona)
Britton was one of only three rookies to start 15 or more games in 2009 after he was the seventh offensive lineman taken in draft. Britton started the first seven games in 2010 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury on October 24 at Kansas City. He has the ability to play both tackle positions as well as guard.
Smith's take: "Eben had to battle through some soft tissue injuries in training camp and had an unfortunate shoulder injury versus Kansas City which placed him on injured reserve, so it has been a frustrating last four months for him. He's both a mentally and physically tough guy who never blocks air, as he's an effort-filled block finisher. He's got the athleticism and knowledge to play anywhere on our offensive line, if needed."
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (Round 3, 72nd overall, Temple)
Now known better as 'Pot Roast,' Knighton has emerged as not only as the anchor of the Jaguars defense but also a leader in the locker room. Knighton has started 28 consecutive games to open his career and is building on the success he had as a rookie.
Through 12 games Knighton is tied for the team lead with a career-high four sacks and ranks second with 21 quarterback pressures and six tackles for loss. His four sacks are tied for fourth among AFC defensive tackles and eighth in the NFL, and are the most for a Jaguars defensive tackle since 2007.
Smith's take: "Terrance has developed into to a complete player. He possesses dominant traits at the point of attack versus the run and has long arms to steer and control the blocker. He's learning how to get on the edges of blocks better as an inside pass rusher and does a good job of getting his hands in the quarterback's passing lanes. He's an emerging leader on our team who stepped up his role after the injury to Aaron (Kampman). He probably forces more plays at times than he actually makes, but there is great value in that because it enables players around him to perform at a higher level."
Cornerback Derek Cox (Round 3, 73rd overall, William & Mary)
The Jaguars selected Cox with the second of back-to-back third round picks and traded up with New England to have the opportunity. Cox, who has started 23 games, led the team with and finished tied for second among NFL rookies with four interceptions a year ago. He has a team-leading three interceptions this season including two in week eight at Dallas which tied a single-game franchise record.
Smith's take: "Next to the quarterback position, playing corner is probably the second most difficult position to play in the NFL and Derek is still honing his skills. He's a corner with good length, meaning he's got premium height with long arms. His long arms allow him to disrupt the receiver's release off the line and give him a greater opportunity to get his hands on the ball at the catch point. He needs to play with consistent footwork and eyes in order to maximize his talent. He's got natural ball skills and will come up in run support and tackle."
Wide receiver Mike Thomas (Round 4, 107th overall, Arizona)
Thomas has played a vital role in the club's passing game the last two seasons. He set a franchise record for a rookie with 48 receptions while his 453 receiving yards were the most by a rookie wide receiver. He has picked up where he left off, leading the team with 56 receptions for 649 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games this year.
Thomas leads the Jaguars with 79 passes thrown his way and 32 receptions resulting in first downs. He had the most productive game of his career on November 14 against Houston with eight receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown that will live in Jaguars history. Thomas caught a 50-yard David Garrard 'Hail Mary' pass for a touchdown that was batted off a Texans defender as time expired to give the Jaguars the victory.
Smith's take: "Mike is one of our most explosive players on the team. I would say he's Maurice Jones-Drew playing wide receiver because he's a top competitor and he wants the ball in crucial moments in games. Some guys try to survive when confronted with challenges and Mike is going to thrive due to the confidence he has in his ability to make plays. What makes him special is what he can do with the ball after the catch. He's a vertical threat as a receiver and a home run threat as a returner and when used on reverses."
Wide receiver Jarett Dillard (Round 5, 144th overall, Rice)
Dillard was placed on injured reserve prior to the season-opener against Denver, the second consecutive year his season ended due to injury. Dillard finished with six receptions for 106 yards as a rookie but missed the final seven games with a broken ankle.
Smith's take: "Jarett was placed on injured reserve in the preseason due to a foot injury and is now rehabbing well. He is a Keenan McCardell-type who has tremendous leaping ability. He's a savvy route runner with natural hands and a keen focus on the ball in contested situations, a trusted slot receiver with excellent separation quickness at the top end of his routes."
Tight end Zach Miller (Round 6, 180th overall, Nebraska-Omaha)
The Jaguars selected Miller with the plan of moving him from his collegiate position of quarterback to tight end. The transition was a challenge but Miller has made great strides in his first 26 games. He has already surpassed his receiving yards total from his rookie season with 216 and is two receptions shy of setting a personal-best for catches as he enters Sunday's game with 20.
Miller had a career-long 52-yard touchdown reception on Nov. 14 against Houston, the longest touchdown catch by a Jaguars tight end in franchise history. He recorded a 62-yard reception in 2009 against the Texans.
Smith's take: "Zach has really started to come on for us as a role player and is productive with the ball in his hands. He's a versatile athlete with speed, body quickness and the athleticism to mismatch displaced linebackers, cover-down defensive safeties and nickel corners, as a pass receiver. He's improved his size and strength which has enabled him to become a more effective run blocker. He's a quality special teams player and is our emergency third quarterback."
Running back Rashad Jennings (Round 7, 250th overall, Liberty)
Jennings has begun to develop into the perfect complement for Maurice Jones-Drew. Jennings was selected by the Jaguars with the first of two seventh-round compensatory draft picks.
Jennings has 78 career rushes for 405 yards and three touchdowns. He has 10 carries and a touchdown in each of the last two games.
Smith's take: "Rashad has made his presence felt the last couple of weeks as a companion back to Maurice. He's a good sized halfback with a blend of strength to run inside and the speed to get to the corner. He may have as good of hands as anyone on our team. He's improved his decisiveness as a runner and has learned to drop his weight in the hole and lower his shoulder to push the pile. His blitz recognition is good and he's strong when asked to chip defensive ends in pass protection."
Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood (Round 7, 253rd overall, Rutgers)
Underwood has played in 13 games for the Jaguars after playing four seasons at Rutgers. He has eight career receptions for 111 yards and a 23.0-yard average on 26 kickoff returns. He had a career-high three receptions for 41 yards in the win over Indianapolis in week four.
Smith's take: "Tiquan is a vertical threat who can take the top off of a defense. He possesses good quickness on his lateral route cuts for an evident speed guy. His hands have improved, but he needs to be more productive when given opportunities in contested situations in live games."