MOBILE, Ala. – As he looks to the future, Gene Smith believes many things strongly.
And when the Jaguars' general manager discussed several facets of that future this week at the Senior Bowl, a few things became clear very quickly.
The team's new head coach? Mike Mularkey?
Smith likes him a lot, and feels good about the coaching staff that has been put together and other developments around EverBank Field in recent weeks. As much as that's true, this is, too:
Smith feels equally strongly about Blaine Gabbert.
Smith, entering his fourth season as the Jaguars' general manager, said the simple reason for that is the Jaguars scouted Gabbert extensively enough and believed in him enough to make him the No. 10 overall selection of the April 2011 NFL Draft.
And as of now, he said the Jaguars have no reason to believe they were wrong.
"In my position, you have to have guts," Smith said this week as he scouted the Senior Bowl, which will be held at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile on Saturday at 4 p.m.
"If you've evaluated them properly coming out, they usually develop into what you thought they would."
Gabbert, who left the University of Missouri after his junior season without red-shirting, moved into the starting lineup two games into a tumultuous Jaguars 2011 season. He started the final 14 games, and while he struggled at times, Smith said this week much of the Jaguars' 5-11 season was beyond Gabbert's control.
"He's no different from the majority of the quarterbacks coming into the NFL," Smith said. "A lot of it is dependent on your supporting cast, and the stability of the situation you're stepping into. When I look at him, I look at a guy who was a true junior who had the opportunity to start 14 games.
"That's going to bode well for the future."
Smith said the reality in the NFL is many quarterbacks struggle as rookies.
"One is playing in the Super Bowl – Eli Manning," Smith said. "So, I don't have a short memory as to what a guy was coming out of college and what I thought he could become."
Smith said he believes the Jaguars' coaching staff – not only Mularkey, but offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olsen – can provide the proper structure for Gabbert not only this off-season, but into the future.
"I have confidence in him," Smith said. "I know he has confidence in himself, and I feel very confident in the staff he's going to be working with."
The Jaguars went 4-10 in Gabbert's 14 games as a starter, and though he completed 210 of 413 passes for 2,214 yards with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, Smith said Gabbert "showed the ability to persevere through some tough times."
"He never lost confidence," Smith said. "I do think he understands he has a lot of things he can clearly improve on. I thought there were some things the second half of the season he did improve on. Part of it for a young quarterback – and this is gained through experience – is getting comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
"That's important to playing that position. As he works to develop and does his part and we do our part to developing the rest of the roster, and adding talent to the offense, I think that will enable that to take off."
Smith has said several times since the end of the 2011 season that upgrading wide receiver will be an off-season priority. The position struggled much of last season, and there has been much speculation on what route the Jaguars will take to improve the spot – veteran free agency, the draft or a combination thereof.
The Jaguars are currently in the process of evaluating their own roster to determine which free agents to retain. Pro free agency is scheduled to begin March 13.
"You look at both," Smith said of the draft and free agency. "You have to see who is available, and do they fit? There's a lot to it. It starts with talent and obviously you're trying to bring the right person into the locker room. There's a medical aspect to it. There's not any one factor.
"There are many factors, but it does start with talent. Then, depending on what we're able to do in pro free agency, then through the draft process, it's going to be a position that's going to be considered as well."
Smith said while the Jaguars improved significantly through free agency last season, his philosophy is still to fill needs in free agency and draft the best available player.
"We want to take advantage of the system the NFL employs," Smith said.
The Jaguars last off-season focused on defense in free agency, and in so doing helped a unit that ranked No. 28 in the NFL in 2010 improve to No. 6 this past season. The Jaguars' offense ranked No. 32 in the NFL and while Smith said free agency certainly will be an option in addressing the offense, "the mindset is to try to improve the roster."
"If we can do that anywhere, that's the goal," Smith said. "Certainly, we were able to address some things on defense last off-season. Hopefully, on the flip side we can do that with our offense, but it's pro free agency and the draft. It's not one thing. It's both.
"Player personnel in terms of acquiring talent is basically year-round. Any time we can try to improve the roster we're going to do so."
Smith this week also addressed:
*The process of working with Mularkey to hire a coaching staff. Smith said he and Mularkey worked well together during the process and he called Mularkey "a guy who has been very good to work with" and a coach with "an open mind." "He clearly has taken a lot of my thoughts into consideration as I will with his," Smith said. "When you're trying to put a staff together, you have to lean on each other and that's part of making every decision. There are some things he can help me with and I feel like I can help him with."
*The coaching staff Mularkey compiled, a staff that includes not only the three aforementioned offensive coaches, also includes offensive line coach Andy Heck, running backs coach Sylvester Croom, tight ends coach Bobby Johnson and wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. Heck is the only member of the offensive staff who also served under Head Coach Jack Del Rio, whereas on defense Mularkey retained coordinator Mel Tucker, line coach Joe Cullen and linebackers coach Mark Duffner while hiring Tony Oden from New Orleans to coach the secondary. "We have a blend of experience with some ascending coaches within the profession," Smith said. "Just like on our roster, and just like with our scouting staff, I do feel like you have to have a blend. From our standpoint, I feel like we put together an outstanding staff to shape the talent on the roster and give us a chance to win on Sunday."