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A few hold the key


Training camp is done and one week from today the Jaguars will conclude their preseason. So, in a season clearly dedicated to roster reconstruction, where is this team in its preparation for the start of the regular season? The following is a position by position evaluation.

Quarterback--Mark Brunell has completed just two passes to wide receivers through the first two games of the preseason, and the passing game has been the single-greatest concern of the summer. Given the state of this roster, can Brunell continue to be the star quarterback he has been through the first seven years of this team's history? Brunell would seem to be facing the most stern test of his career this season. He is being challenged to perform up to his lofty standards, but his supporting cast is clearly diminished. He is also being asked to assert himself as a strong and forceful leader. He is being asked to do it all. Can he? If he can't, or should he become injured, the Jaguars will have a major problem. At that point, the season would officially become a year of learning. Rookie David Garrard can not be expected to perform as a true number two, and it's unlikely a veteran backup of any quality will be made available in the NFL's final cuts. Undrafted rookie Quinn Gray is worth a hard look for the future.

Running back--Fred Taylor appears fully recovered from last season's severe groin injury. Should he stay healthy, Taylor has the ability to carry this team. Stacey Mack is a nice complement to Taylor. Mack is the pounder the Jaguars desperately need. Elvis Joseph has "do-some-things" ability. This is a nice group. Obviously, Taylor is the key.

Fullback--Patrick Washington is showing signs of improvement at a position of little importance on this team.

Wide receiver--Jimmy Smith's holdout has everything up in the air. Bobby Shaw got off to a fast start in training camp, then tailed off. Patrick Johnson has yet to distinguish himself. Darnay Scott has been a disappointment. Damon Gibson has been as impressive as anyone. There's a bunch of kids contending for a roster spot, but they're not likely to lend much help to an area of this team that is reason for legitimate concern.

Tight end--Kyle Brady is solid. Pete Mitchell's route-running and pass-catching abilities are still top-notch, and Mitchell may prove to be an even more valuable acquisition than originally thought, since the Jaguars' inability to get the ball to their wide receivers is causing Tom Coughlin to lean harder on the tight ends. Rookie Chris Luzar will be developed as Brady's future replacement.

Offensive line--Right tackle Maurice Williams and right guard Chris Naeole may represent the best side-by-side talent on this team. Brad Meester is an accomplished left guard, but there's still reason to believe Meester will be moved to center to accommodate a move from left tackle to left guard by Zach Wiegert. The key to all of that is rookie left tackle Mike Pearson. If Coughlin believes Pearson can hold up as a pass-blocker, the Meester-Wiegert moves will likely occur. Though Coughlin won't label this a rebuilding year, it's very clear he'd like to promote as many young players as possible. There's reasonable depth on the offensive line: John Wade, Raleigh Roundtree, Daryl Terrell, Todd Fordham, Derrick Chambers.

Defensive line--The status of Tony Brackens' knee is the big issue. Brackens has participated in only two practices this summer and he may require further surgery that could end his season before it begins. What would that mean for first-round pick John Henderson? A move from tackle to end? That would be a major disappointment for Coughlin, who wanted to get Henderson and 2001 first-round pick Marcus Stroud shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the line. Veteran Marco Coleman is a solid acquisition at left end. Tackle Larry Smith has offered hope this summer. Tim Morabito, Stalin Colinet, Paul Spicer and Rob Meier are depth players who could be forced into prominent action. Brackens' knee has made the defensive line a trouble spot.

Linebacker--Third-round pick Akin Ayodele has star potential as a pass-rusher and play-maker, but it'll be difficult getting him onto the field because he's not ready to assume the role of a true strongside linebacker. In time, he will. Ayodele is a gifted athlete and Danny Clark will have a very difficult time holding Ayodele off. T.J. Slaughter appears recovered from knee and shoulder surgeries, but will Slaughter line up at weakside or middle? If it's at middle, that would open a spot for Eric Westmoreland at weakside. Wali Rainer provides run-support at middle, but Rainer doesn't have the sideline-to-sideline skill Slaughter does. This group has a chance to be better than expected.

Secondary--Fernando Bryant says he's recovered from the foot injury that dogged him the previous two seasons, and Bryant was impressive in training camp. Jason Craft may have had the best camp of anyone, and Craft and Bryant give the Jaguars a pair of respectable corners. There's also some depth at the position; the Jaguars have to make a call on Ike Charlton, Kiwaukee Thomas has been outstanding at times this summer, and so has Damen Wheeler. Donovin Darius and Marlon McCree are set at the safety positions. James Boyd could provide nice depth, but he must become more consistent in his coverage technique and recognition.

Kicking game--Chris Hanson was one of the best acquisitions in the NFL last season. He's a solid punter whose arrow is pointing up. However, the placekicking situation is a down arrow, currently. Seventh-round pick Hayden Epstein came out of Michigan with the rap of being inconsistent, and that's what he's been this summer in Jacksonville. The Jaguars will look hard at the waiver wire.

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