James Harris came to the Jaguars from the Baltimore Ravens, where Harris was the Ravens' pro personnel director during a haul of free-agent talent that allowed the Ravens to win the Super Bowl in the 2000 season. The Ravens signed Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Trent Dilfer, Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa and Michael McCrary in free agency. They were the players that put Ray Lewis and company over the top.
It stands to reason, then, that the free-agency signing period is close to Harris' heart. It's his specialty and he's made some home-run acquisitions during his four years as the Jaguars' personnel director (See Part II for a detailed account of the Jaguars' gains and losses in free agency).
So how does Harris do it? What's his philosophy?
"First and foremost, evaluate your own team. Once you evaluate your own team, then you evaluate free agency, once you find out what your needs are. We like to think about upgrading the entire roster. You see what's available," Harris said.
The Jaguars' evaluations of the talent in the NFL is never-ending. A pro personnel staff that includes director Charlie Bailey, assistant director Louis Clark and scouts Chris Prescott and Larry Wright keeps tabs on every player in a professional league or who has gone through the draft entry process and remains a prospect.
As December nears, the scouting and evaluation process focuses specifically on the upcoming class of free agents. "The scouts grade the free agents and we get cross-checks on free agents during the season. The coaches evaluate them after the season," Harris said.
"We fix the board in December. We like to have the board prepared by January so we know who to tell the coaches to watch so the coaches aren't wasting time. We set up our pro personnel board much like we do our draft board. When we find out where we think we need to upgrade the roster, we look at free agency and we try to match-up what's available in free agency to our needs and the salary cap. Then you target certain guys," Harris added.
He hasn't employed just one strategy. In Harris' first two seasons as Jaguars personnel boss, the Jaguars were still in a degree of salary cap recovery and the team's roster was weak. The early approach was to spend a little to get a lot, which meant the team had to find bargain players.
By 2005, the roster had been rebuilt, the salary cap was back to full health and the Jaguars were ready to make a run at the playoffs. Their challenge at that point was to address positions of specific needs, which they did by signing defensive end Reggie Hayward to a big deal in March of '05 and signing cornerback Brian Williams to the same $10 million signing bonus in March of '06.
"Early on we felt the need to upgrade special teams and the back of the roster as well. The Reggie Hayward year, we had a need at defensive end and pass-rusher. He was the best available option for us. He was our targeted guy. Brian Williams was similar. We wanted a corner. He brought us both cover ability and the ability to tackle and play the run," Harris said.
A shift in strategy? Yes. A change in philosophy? No. Getting the most for the team's money is Harris' and the Jaguars' base approach to free agency.
"Shack has always focused on the quality player and has been willing to forego somebody with a bigger name for someone who fit our approach and our budget and was a strong player. I think that's been pretty consistent," Paul Vance said. Vance is the Jaguars' salary cap boss and lead contract negotiator.
"He's gone into free agency with a plan and has been willing to stick with that plan but, at the same time, willing to react to opportunities. Hugh Douglas came along at a time when free agency was essentially over. We had some cap room and some money and we were able to work out a deal that didn't represent a lot of risk. Hugh Douglas didn't work out but it wasn't chasing a dream," Vance added.
The acquisitions of Hayward and Williams were criticized as risky. Critics charged that each player was essentially a backup and didn't warrant the kind of money the Jaguars had paid them. Harris didn't view Hayward and Williams in that way.
"(He) looked at Reggie Hayward and Brian Williams, who weren't the biggest names in free agency, but fit a need and we were able to move quickly on those guys. They were young players coming off their first deals. If you're worried about people second-guessing you, you'll never get over in this business," Vance said.
Hayward immediately became the Jaguars' best pass-rusher and Williams provided the missing piece last season for a defense that rose to number two in the league rankings.
"If you're doing it the right way, it doesn't take any courage at all," Vance added.
Name recognition is big with fans. Sign Terrell Owens, they demand. Spend the big bucks on Lavar Arrington, LeCharles Bentley, Ty Law. Yeah, and watch your salary cap destroy your team's future.
The Jaguars courted Arrington last summer. They were interested until they got a look at his knee. At that point, the Jags backed off. It's a classic example of the old adage that your best deals are often the ones you don't make.
So what's the Jaguars' philosophy as the team heads into this year's free-agency signing period?
"It's the same as it is every year, which is to not look at it on a one-year basis. You're trying to see where you can improve your roster, yet, you want those players to make a contribution over as extended a period of time as they can," Vance said. "If you say, 'I gotta have that guy,' that's when you get into trouble. You put a value on him and that's that."
As the March 2 start of the free-agent signing period nears, the number one issue confronting the Jaguars is the state of their quarterback position. Will they bring back Byron Leftwich? Attempt to acquire a veteran? Open the position to a competition between David Garrard and Quinn Gray?
"I'd rather not say that right now, until we put everything together. Let me tell you that when Jack (Del Rio) and I finish talking," Harris said. "I think we got a roster where we can compete against any team. There's still some more work to be done, but we feel we can play anybody."