Three years ago, no one was picking the Jaguars to win the AFC South. This was a team with the NFL's worst salary cap problem and a roster so weakened by that cap problem that it was being compared to the team's expansion season.
Sixteen players remain from the Jaguars' 2002 opening-day roster; eight of those players were starters when the Jaguars kicked off against the Colts on a very hot Sept. 8. Clearly, the Jaguars have undergone a major facelift, and expectations are for this team to be a playoff contender in 2005.
How did it happen? Well, they added some guys here and there in free agency, but the Jaguars' reconstruction is defined by the team's performance in the draft, and it began in Tom Coughlin's next-to-last year as head coach, in 2001, with a critical decision between Georgia defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and Florida offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker.
"He had dominant traits. He was a powerful player with quickness. We're visionaries as scouts and I thought he had a tremendous amount of room to improve because he was just learning to play the position," Jaguars Director of College Scouting Gene Smith said of Stroud. "He would play high, he wouldn't play-off blocks well and he was raw using his hands as a pass-rusher, but he had the things you couldn't coach, the rare size, speed and athletic ability, and he always chased the ball. His deficiencies could be coached and corrected."
The Jaguars had Walker ranked slightly ahead of Stroud, but Coughlin thought he could get the offensive tackle he needed in the second round. Coughlin, a pure needs drafter, hit a home run in both rounds, selecting Stroud in round one and Maurice Williams in round two.
With those two picks, the Jaguars' recovery took its first steps. It may not have been that obvious back then but it is now. Stroud and Williams were the foundation on which this team's future would be built.
A year later, Coughlin faced another sensitive decision and he made the right call then, too. Coughlin wanted another big guy, either an offensive or defensive tackle. When Miami offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was selected ahead of the Jaguars by Minnesota, Coughlin was left to choose between Tennessee defensive tackles John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. Coughlin selected Henderson on his strength of character.
The Jaguars underwent a regime change following the '02 season. Coughlin was replaced by Jack Del Rio and James Harris became the team's personnel director. The positive draft results, however, continued.
Twenty-six of the 27 players the Jaguars have drafted during the Del Rio-Harris era are on active NFL rosters today. Four players from the '03 draft are no longer with the Jaguars: Brandon Green is with St. Louis, David Young with Houston and Marques Ogden with Baltimore. Seventh-round pick Malaefou MacKenzie is the only Jaguars pick from the '03 and '04 drafts who is out of football.
Only one player from the '04 draft crop is not still with the Jaguars: fifth-round pick Sean Bubin is in Detroit.
Further punctuating the Jaguars' college scouting efforts is their track record in undrafted free agency. Cortez Hankton, Seth Marler and Brett Romberg are products of '03 undrafted free agency, and David Richardson and Brian Jones are '04 undrafted guys who are battling for significant playing time.
"Not only did we take good players but we took good people who are passionate about football," Smith said proudly of the players who've made their way through the team's scouting department.
Those players most prominently include a franchise quarterback and a cornerback who is about to become one of the league's elite coverage guys. Byron Leftwich and Rashean Mathis were the first players selected by the Del Rio-Harris regime. Their third pick, guard Vince Manuwai, also became an instant starter.
"I've always believed the players lined up closest to the football have the greatest impact on the game," Smith said, referring to Stroud, Henderson and Leftwich. "Drafting a starting left corner and drafting a defensive lineman it takes two guys to block; we actually have two defensive linemen who fall into that category."
Smith is the link between the two eras. He was Coughlin's director of college scouting when Coughlin selected Stroud and Henderson, and Smith holds the same title today.
Now, the hope is the '04 and '05 draft crops will join forces to put the Jaguars over the top. Last year's top pick, wide receiver Reggie Williams, has been impressive this spring. Second-rounders Daryl Smith and Greg Jones are starters at linebacker and fullback. Fifth-round kicker Josh Scobee established his future last season, and fourth-round wide receiver Ernest Wilford and seventh-round defensive end Bobby McCray were major steals.
Last season, the Jaguars were one of seven teams that had 41 game-starts by rookies. Of those seven teams, only the Jaguars and Chargers posted winning records.
What about this year's crop?
"So far in shorts, on athletic ability and competitiveness, they've performed well," Smith said.
It's been five drafts in the making. It began with Stroud and proceeded through Henderson, Leftwich, Reggie Williams and, now, Matt Jones, this year's first-round pick.
How do you rebuild a troubled football team? Patiently, through the draft.
"It starts at the top with 'Shack' and Jack," Smith said of Harris and Del Rio, "and it is truly a collegial effort by our staff. It's a compliment to our coaching staff's willingness to play and develop young players. That's especially true in the salary cap era."