Expectations are for the Jaguars defense to step up into the "elite" category this season, but there are issues to be resolved before that can happen.
Will defensive tackle Marcus Stroud make a full recovery from offseason ankle surgery? Will Reggie Hayward recover from a career-threatening Achilles injury? Do the Jaguars have enough depth at defensive end? Will rebuilding efforts at safety prove to be successful?
The answers to those questions will probably determine whether or not the Jaguars will play to the expected high level of performance on defense they've established under head coach Jack Del Rio.
Stroud's performance in 2006 was compromised by an ankle injury early last season. It left him hobbled through the whole season and he underwent corrective surgery early in the offseason, but that left him unable to participate in spring drills. Right from the start of training camp, Stroud will be a player of scrutiny. Is he all the way back? That's a big question for a defense that was built on the backs of Stroud and defensive tackle mate John Henderson.
It all starts with stopping the run, at which the Jaguars have been one of the best defenses in the league over the last four seasons. Last season, the Jaguars were number four in run-defense. Stroud, of course, is a major player in that run-defense, but the Jaguars have developed fantastic depth at the defensive tackle position, and two young players worth watching in this training camp are second-year man Tony McDaniel and rookie fifth-round draft choice Derek Landri. Rob Meier remains the number three man at DT.
Hayward was lost to a torn Achilles in last year's season-opener and spent the spring in a recovery mode. The Jaguars were unable to address the defensive end position in free agency or early in the draft, and that places a premium on Hayward's recovery, Paul Spicer's ability to remain dependable, and Bobby McCray's continued emergence as a premium pass-rusher.
McCray led the Jaguars with 10 sacks last season. He was a spring no-show, in protest to being tendered in restricted free agency. Since then, he has signed the tender and now the Jaguars need McCray to play as a guy wanting to prove he's worth a big, long-term contract.
Safety is the position the Jaguars did address in the offseason. They lost starting free safety Deon Grant in free agency, then picked Reggie Nelson in the first round and Josh Gattis in the fifth round of this past spring's draft. The Jaguars recently cut veteran strong safety Donovin Darius, which would leave third-year man Gerald Sensabaugh to replace Darius and Nelson to replace Grant, in a complete make-over at the safety positions.
"I'm very confident in the ability of the players we have. Marcus' rehab has gone extremely well. Reggie is on schedule as well, but his injury is probably more significant than any of them. Even though we don't have a lot of experience at the safety position, the two young guys we're talking about playing have a great feel for the game. My expectation is to continue to play the defense we have my first four years here, and there's room for improvement," Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith said.
The remainder of the defense is all about quality and depth. Defensive tackle John Henderson may be the most imposing defensive lineman in the game, middle linebacker Mike Peterson would seem to have made a full recovery from the torn pectoral muscle that ended his season in week five last year, and Rashean Mathis is one of the best cornerbacks in the game.
Add to that trio linebackers Daryl Smith and Clint Ingram, cornerback Brian Williams and a host of nickel-back candidates, and you have a defense that was second-ranked last season and capable of being even better.
Next, we'll look at the AFC South.