We come now to the last of this jaguars.com series looking ahead to the 2011 season with an entry examining the players who must make a significant step forward this season.
Improvement and the desire to make it is needed from every player every off-season, and there are a few roster spots from which it is particularly needed for the Jaguars this season. In several cases, the players are at pretty key positions.
In most cases, it's not that the player has been a disappointment – far from it. Players such as Tyson Alualu and Eugene Monroe have been productive early in their careers, showing signs of being core players around whom a franchise can be built.
But the Jaguars are a young team still building and shaping a roster, and for it to reach its full potential, such players must continue to not only show signs, they must fulfill promise and become elite level players for whom opponents must game plan.
Around such players are long-term periods of success built.
The Jaguars have players all around the roster who could potentially be such players. The key to 2011 will be how many can continue their growth. Let's take a look:
1)Tyson Alualu.One of the truisms you hear often around the NFL each off-season is that a player improves the most from his rookie to his second season.
It remains to be seen how much that will be the case this year because of off-season time the lockout has forced players to miss, but there's still every reason to believe the Jaguars' 2010 first-round draft selection will improve.
That's because by all accounts Alualu is a potential franchise defensive tackle with the desire to develop into just that.
By all accounts, too, Alualu was special as a rookie:
He not only started all 16 games, he did so playing through nagging injuries. Those around the Jaguars say he showed character and leadership by not discussing or acknowledging the issues much – and they, too, said he earned respect by his on- and off-field approach.
Alualu did everything that could have been expected of a Top-10 drafted-rookie, and showed he has the potential to be a franchise-level player. For the Jaguars to improve defensively next season, he needs to continue that development and move toward being one of the NFL's best defensive tackles.
2)Eugene Monroe.Shortly before the lockout, Monroe discussed his desire to develop into one of the NFL's top left tackles.
He has made strides in two seasons toward that goal, and has shown he has the ability to be a dominant pass-blocker, the kind of player who can block an elite pass-rusher with little or no help. That's critical, because it enables backs and tight ends to help elsewhere in pass protection or – ideally – to be a receiver rather than a blocker.
Monroe has the talent to be that, and entering his third season, the goal is very much attainable. What is needed is further consistency – the sort that it's fair to expect from a player who's now more veteran than young player.
That's what the Jaguars need to see from Monroe this season, and the more they do, the more stable they are across the offensive line.
3)Jason Hill.This is a slightly different situation than the ones discussed above. Whereas Monroe and Alualu have proven they are solid, reliable starters, Hill has yet to do so.
Still, Hill is one of the more intriguing Jaguars players entering the '11 season.
An oft-discussed concern around the Jaguars entering the season is the lack of a go-to, No. 1 receiver. Mike Sims-Walker wasn't that. He won't be re-signed, which makes Hill and Mike Thomas the likely starting wide receivers entering the season. Thomas played extensively last season, and has the look of a solid starter and while Hill is less of a known entity, he also has potential to be a breakout player and –eventually perhaps develop into a No. 1, dictate-the-defense receiver.
The issue with Hill is he has yet to do so over a full season. The Jaguars signed him early last season after he was released by the 49ers, where he played 34 games from 2007-10, and he played six games for Jacksonville last season, catching 11 passes for 248 yards.
Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith liked Hill coming out of Washington State, and still likes him. The talent is there with Hill. If he develops as the Jaguars think he might he could be a key to the offense.
4)Derek Cox.The Jaguars' cornerback position has been criticized throughout the off-season, but it's not a position they'll necessarily address in free agency.
One reason is they believe Cox is still developing into a solid corner.
Cox, a third-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft from William & Mary, started all 16 games as a rookie, and after being benched early last season, returned to play what Smith said was his best football of the year in the final half of the season.
He has had four interceptions each of his first two seasons, and while he must continue to develop, entering his third season there is still reason to believe he can continue to improve. He has played well enough at times in his first two seasons to make you think he can be a defensive strength as the secondary and defense overall improves around him.
5)Rashad Jennings.At first glance, backup running back might not seem critical to the Jaguars, what with Maurice Jones-Drew playing at a level matched by few other NFL running backs.
But while Jones-Drew indeed is the face and in a very real sense the spirit of the franchise – and while his role and production remain critical to the Jaguars – the NFL in recent years more and more is a two-back league. And for the Jaguars, getting Jennings involved in '11 is likely to be key.
Smith earlier this off-season spoke extensively of Jennings' skills as a receiver, and the third-year veteran from Liberty showed last season his ability to be productive in a backup role, rushing for 459 yards and four touchdowns on 84 carries. It seems likely the Jaguars would like to get Jennings more carries this season to take some of the burden off Jones-Drew.
The more reliable Jennings continues to become in that role, the more balanced and reliable the Jaguars' offense.