We arrive today at the latest entry in jaguars.com's look ahead to the 2011 season, and this may be the most unknown entry of all.
It's also perhaps the most important.
Mostly, it's the most difficult to control and to predict, because it's about injuries – the ones from which some key players must recover and stay recovered. If they do, the Jaguars have a chance to push for the AFC South title, and perhaps break through to the post-season.
That's possible even with a few key injuries, but it becomes more difficult and they would need some key performances from some as yet little-known, little-discussed players.
Still, there's little question the Jaguars need a few key players to return to full health and stay there. It's a list that includes some of the biggest names on the team:
Ask anyone around the Jaguars' defense and/or front office the key to their optimism entering the '11 season, and Kampman is brought up quickly. Most of the time, he is mentioned first.
Kampman, a veteran defensive end who signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Green Bay Packers during the 2010 off-season, was everything he was expected to be last season. An experienced veteran – and all of the on-and-off-the-field stuff that implies. A quality pass rusher.
He played a key role in the locker room. And he made his teammates better.
The one problem was he missed half the season.
Kampman, who finished with four sacks in eight games, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a practice in early November, and finished the season on injured reserve.
Kampman has said he expects to be ready for entering the regular season, and Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith has said he will be ready for training camp, though on a somewhat limited basis. Smith also has spoken highly of Kampman's ability to prepare and to get himself ready.
The other side of the equation is that Kampman is 31, and entering his 10thNFL season. He also missed half of the '09 season with an ACL tear in the other knee. If Kampman and the Jaguars are correct, and if he can play and be productive throughout '11, then the Jaguars have a pass-rusher and a big-time player at defensive end. If not, the position is left to relatively inexperienced players who have yet to prove they are at Kampman's level.
2.Maurice Jones-Drew.As is the case with Kampman, Jones-Drew is widely expected to be ready for training camp and to make a season-long contribution.
Also as is the case with Kampman, it's critical he do so.
Jones-Drew, a Pro Bowl running back the last two years, again last season was one of the elite players at his position in the NFL. He rushed for more than 100 yards in six consecutive games at one point, and it was in those six games – a crucial stretch in October, November and December – that Jacksonville played its best football in 2011.
The Jaguars in those games emerged from a struggling team to a contending one. They led the AFC South with three games remaining, and during that stretch Jones-Drew further established himself as a key to the offense and the team overall. But toward season's end, a season-long issue with Jones-Drew's knee became too much to overcome. He rushed for 46 yards on 15 carries in a loss at Indianapolis in which the Jaguars could have clinched their first AFC South title with a victory, and he didn't play in the final two games. The Jaguars lost their final three games of the season.
Ideally, the Jaguars won't be as dependent on Jones-Drew this season. It's likely Rashad Jennings will get more carries during the course of the season, with the idea to take some of the load off Jones-Drew, who will be in his sixth year and who has carried a big load in recent season.
But while it would be ideal for the Jaguars to move efficiently and win without Jones-Drew at his best that won't mean they don't need him healthy. And it won't mean the status of his knee won't be a huge issue when training camp begins.
3.Eben Britton.When discussing the Jaguars' offensive line, there have been two primary topics this off-season.
One is the interior of the line. Another is the development of left tackle Eugene Monroe.
Each of those topics is important, because the Jaguars need to continue drafting and developing on the interior, and because the development of Monroe into an elite left tackle remains critical to the offense's growth.
But on the other side of the line from Monroe is Britton, and if his development isn't as critical as that of Monroe, it remains key. The Jaguars selected Britton in the second round of the NFL Draft the year they selected Monroe in the first round. Britton is versatile enough to move to the interior if needed, but solidifying the ends of the line was the idea in the '09 draft, and Britton is the best chance on the roster to do the solidifying on the right side.
Britton sustained a torn labrum in October, and missed the final nine games of the season. He has shown progress in two seasons, but as is the case with Monroe on the left side, he hasn't reached his potential. The Jaguars are a better team when he's in the lineup and playing at a high level, so if his health isn't as prominent an issue as that of Kampman and Jones-Drew, it's key in the sense that the Jaguars need this season to find out for certain what they have on the ends of the offensive line.
4. D'Anthony Smith.On paper and in theory, the Jaguars are in good shape on the defensive line, and that's especially true at defensive tackle.
Tyson Alualu. Terrence Knighton. D'Anthony Smith.
The first two have performed at times at a high level early in their careers – high enough that the front office has a lot to like at the spot. The team also is high on Smith, but if Alualu and Knighton still need to show they can play at a high level consistently, there is even more uncertainty around Smith.
That's because for all of the positive talk and optimism around him, he not only has yet to play an NFL down, he is returning from a major injury.
Smith, a third-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, performed well in off-season workouts and minicamps before his rookie season. Coaches and personnel officials believed he could make a serious contribution as a rookie, but an Achilles injury kept him out of preseason and the regular season.
Smith said shortly before the lockout this spring that he believed he would be 100 percent for training camp, but he is returning from an injury that is particularly difficult on players at his position. The Jaguars aren't weak at the spot without him, but if he's as special as is believed, his return could give the Jaguars one of the best young defensive tackle corps in the NFL.
5.Jarett Dillard.There are unknowns everywhere at the Jaguars' receiver position, most notably whether either Mike Thomas or Jason Hill can be No. 1 receivers.
Dillard's return isn't necessarily critical to the starting lineup, but he's a player who the team believes can add depth. He caught six passes for 106 yards as a rookie before missing the end of that season with a broken ankle. He then missed all of last season with a foot injury. Still, the Jaguars believe he has big-play ability and can contribute to the offense if he can stay healthy.
The return of Dillard perhaps isn't as high-profile as the development of Thomas and Hill, but if he can return, the receiving corps suddenly becomes a lot deeper.