Whatever theme you wish to attach to this year's Jaguars – rebuilding, re-tooling or re-setting – it would seem to be best represented by the team's defense. The only thing that appears to be set in stone is that change is likely.
Only a few years ago, the Jaguars defense was one of the best in the business. Its identity was that of a 4-3, gap-control, cover two monster. In 2006, it was the league's number two-ranked unit.
That defense's calling card was two mammoth defensive tackles that made running the ball nearly impossible. Three years later, Marcus Stroud is playing in Buffalo and John Henderson is attempting to recover from a two-year decline.
Last year, the Jaguars defense slumped to 17th in the league. A defense that routinely kept opponents under 20 points in previous years finished the '08 season by allowing 30 or more points in three of the final six games.
The defensive line is thought to be the Jaguars' area of greatest concern heading into this year's training camp. Henderson finished spring drills at the center of a controversy about a mysterious shoulder injury and the team may have been tipping its hand about its concerns for line depth by spending much of the spring experimenting with three-man fronts.
Uncertainty abounds in the team's secondary, but job competition will be keen and the expectation is that from that competition a successful group of defenders will emerge. What's best about the Jaguars defense is thought to be represented by the linebackers, whose play in the spring was praised by head coach Jack Del Rio.
Del Rio kicked off the change storyline shortly following the end of last season, when he hired Mel Tucker as the team's new defensive coordinator. Tucker has a background in 4-3 and 3-4 defenses and the expectation is that the Jaguars might become a hybrid of the two.
Here's a position-by-position look at the Jaguars defense:
Henderson is the key figure. After Del Rio criticized Henderson for allowing a minor shoulder injury to keep him out of practice during the spring, Henderson told reporters he's "all in," meaning he's completely dedicated to an improved performance this year. Henderson, however, did not return to practice, leaving media and fans to ask: Is the "all in" proclamation real or rhetoric? If it's real and if Henderson can return to the dominance he displayed a few years ago, the Jaguars will have a foundation on which to build this year's defense. If Henderson doesn't rebound, however, then hope on the inside up front will fall on a bigger, stronger Derek Landri, on journeyman Atiyyah Ellison, and on rookie third-round draft pick Terrance Knighton. Can any combination of those players become the future at defensive tackle for the Jaguars? On the outside, much is expected from '08 eighth pick of the draft Derrick Harvey. He must become the Jaguars' premier pass-rusher for his selection not to have been a mistake. Reggie Hayward continues to give the Jaguars steady play at the other end position. The Jaguars hold out hope that '08 second-round pick, Quentin Groves, becomes the pass-rush specialist that's expected of him. The Jaguars also have regard for undrafted rookie Julius Williams, an undersized defensive end with a James Harrison look about him.
Daryl Smith, Justin Durant and Clint Ingram were spectacular during the spring. Smith and Durant appear to have switched positions; Smith is at weakside and Durant is in the middle. Undrafted rookie Russell Allen got rave reviews in the spring. Brian Iwuh leads the roster competition, which includes Thomas Williams, Tim Shaw, Lamar Myles and Johnny Williams.
Job battles at right cornerback and at safety will be feature attractions in training camp and in the preseason. Rashean Mathis may be the only player in the secondary who will enter training camp with job security. Brian Williams is the leader at right cornerback, but he could be pushed by rookie Derek Cox, for whom the Jaguars traded their 2010 second-round pick to acquire a third-round pick with which the team selected Cox. Cox's performance in training camp could directly impact safety, where Williams has spent time. Safety will be the most intriguing position this summer. Incumbent free safety Reggie Nelson, an '07 first-round pick, is coming off a poor sophomore season. The Jaguars allowed last year's starting strong safety, Gerald Sensabaugh, to depart in free agency, then signed Sean Considine from the Eagles. Fortifying the position didn't stop there. The Jaguars signed veteran Marlon McCree during OTAs, and then recently traded wide receiver Dennis Northcutt to Detroit to acquire safety Gerald Alexander. Add to the safety competition Kennard Cox, who the Jaguars acquired off Green Bay's practice squad last December, and stir in undrafted rookie Michael Desormeaux, who was impressive in the spring. Safety is a position of intense concern and competition. Cornerback will also benefit from competition. Scott Starks is coming off knee reconstruction. Undrafted rookie Pete Ittersagen earned notice in the spring. Brian Witherspoon is trying to become more than a speedy return man. Tyron Brackenridge was claimed off waivers and has legitimate coverage skill. Kennard Cox can also play corner.