The Jaguars will finalize their roster this weekend, ending an offseason of additions and subtractions intended to make this team at least one more win better than it was last year. That "one more win," of course, is a metaphor for "make the playoffs" because one win is all that stood between the Jaguars and the playoffs in 2004.
Are they better this year than they were a year ago? Let's take a close look at this team and answer that question position by position.
Quarterback—This should be a bump year for the Jaguars at this position. In his third season, expectations for Byron Leftwich should be high. Better? Yes.
Running back—Fred Taylor's offseason knee surgery clouds this position. Taylor says he'll make it all the way back but, with only four carries under his belt in the preseason, there are no guarantees. Rookie Alvin Pearman could provide a real third-down threat, along with depth at the position. Fullback Greg Jones is a better blocker but has yet to show running skills. Taylor's recovery dominates the big picture. Better? Not at this point.
Wide receiver—Jimmy Smith is still the number one guy, but what about all of those drops? And who will establish himself as the team's number two receiver? Will either Reggie Williams or Matt Jones become the playmaker they were each drafted to be? Will Ernest Wilford be the big-play star he was a year ago? Might rookie Chad Owens be that guy this year? This was not a position of strength last season and consensus of opinion is the position's talent level has been upgraded. Smith, in fact, says the current crop of wide receivers is the most talented in Jaguars history, but it's difficult to ignore all of the questions that continue to nag the Jaguars at this position. Better? Potentially, a lot better, but unproven youth at the position is reason for guarded optimism.
Tight end—Kyle Brady rolls on; he's still an accomplished blocker. The consistent pass-catcher the Jaguars seek at this position has yet to surface, however, which is reason to believe the Jaguars will use Matt Jones in creative ways that might mimic the tight end. Better? No.
Offensive line—Rookie Khalif Barnes is beginning to make his move. After struggling through training camp, Barnes is now coming on at tackle and could end up becoming a major player on this team later in the season, but not right now. Ephraim Salaam and Mike Pearson are the answers at left tackle for now. The rest of the starting line should be solid and the Jaguars are developing some young depth. Better? Yes, but only if Barnes' development continues.
Defensive line—Marcus Stroud and John Henderson represent the best defensive tackle duo in football. The Jaguars spent $10 million of bonus money on Reggie Hayward to provide the kind of pass-rush a top team needs from the end position. Watch out for second-year man Bobby McCray. He could re-order the end position. The Jaguars have amazing depth at defensive tackle and spent a lot of money to improve themselves at defensive end. Better? Absolutely.
Linebacker—There's veritably no change here. Popular opinion from training camp is that Mike Peterson is playing the best football of his life. Akin Ayodele is in his unrestricted free agent season, so, Ayodele should be a highly-motivated player. Daryl Smith had a so-so training camp and preseason but hopes remain high for him. The depth at linebacker is represented by guys who made the team on the strength of their special teams play. Better? The same.
Defensive back—Rashean Mathis has the look of a cornerback on the verge of stardom. The other cornerback position was not solved to everyone's satisfaction but it is clearly better-manned this year than it was a season ago. Safety offers quality and depth. Better? Yes.
Special teams—Kicker Josh Scobee was solid as a rookie and should be better this year. He has the booming leg that is every coach's delight. Punter Chris Hansen remains top-notch. The big question is will the Jaguars get big plays from their return game? Chad Owens was drafted for that purpose but Owens was unreliable at fielding punts in the preseason and may have to earn Jack Del Rio's trust slowly. The coverage units should be solid; there are plenty of young "lions" hungry to run down their prey. Better? Yes.
Coaching—Del Rio re-shaped his staff and, in so doing, added some serious experience. Dave Campo gives the Jaguars a top pass-coverages mind and wide receivers coach Steve Walters is being counted on to do for the Jaguars' young pass-catchers what Walters did in Tennessee. The major change is at offensive coordinator, where veteran Carl Smith will attempt to change the Jaguars from a dink and dunk "West Coast" team to a down-the-field, big-play offense. Better? Yes.
Yes, this should be a better team. Yes, expectations should be for the Jaguars to make the playoffs.
OK, start the season.