(Feb. 14)—Just three years ago, the Jaguars' role for the start of free agency was easy to define: They were a spectator.
The Jaguars were a capped-out team in the process of gutting its roster. The start of free agency was of little interest to Jaguars fans because they knew their team would be a non-participant.
Yet, there was something comforting about that. We knew the Jaguars couldn't help themselves in free agency, and that didn't do much to boost our morale, but we also knew the team couldn't hurt itself in free agency, and that gave us a very secure feeling.
What does that tell you?
That's easy. It says free agency is a risky business. Free agency is the trap that got the Jaguars into the salary cap mess that cost them four consecutive losing seasons, and it's a trap that'll do it again if they get the least bit reckless with their spending.
Free agency is the great tease. Look at the available names and what you'll find is that almost every player has enjoyed at least one season or one moment in professional football that would make you believe it can be that way all of the time if he's on your team. It's about hope springs eternal, and the hopeless are the most vulnerable.
Three years ago, the Jaguars disciplined themselves against such spending sprees. Since then they have fallen off the wagon only once – you know, the Hugh Douglas deal – and the result is the team's fortunes are pointed in an upward direction. Because they have largely been able to resist the temptation of expensive free agency, the Jaguars enjoyed their first winning season in five years. They came within one more win of the playoffs and that has raised the bar to a playoff expectation level for 2005.
So, wanna do it again? Wanna spend like crazy? Take a swing at the big names? Maybe get lucky? This team is only a player or two away from going all the way, right? What good is all of that cap room if you don't spend it?
Yeah, the Jaguars have cap room. They'll be more than $20 million under the cap on March 2, the day free agency begins, and there are guys scheduled to become free agents who would represent major upgrades at their respective positions. You know who they are. The names are easily recognizable to football fans of casual interest, let alone to scouts who've being bulldozing through game tapes and collecting as much information as possible on those players.
The Jaguars personnel department and coaching staff are in intense meetings this week. Those meetings start early and end late. Opinions are being offered and decisions are being made.
This is, possibly, the most important time of the year. By Tuesday of next week, the team must have announced its decision on whether or not it will "franchise" Donovin Darius for a third consecutive season. Next week will also see the Jaguars travel to Indianapolis for the scouting combine. The following week will see the start of free agency and, quickly, we should get an idea of what was decided this week.
Spend big and swing for the fence? Or be conservative and remain committed to a long-term project of incremental roster improvement and continued salary-cap health?
Those are the questions James Harris, Jack Del Rio and company are tossing around this week behind the door that bears the sign, "DRAFT ROOM, Authorized Personnel Only." The answers will be of critical importance.