(Ed. Note—This is the first installment in a five-part series that previews the positional competition in training camp. Today's installment features the quarterbacks and running backs.)
It's still Byron Leftwich's football team, but David Garrard's performance in the final six games of last season have no doubt earned Garrard a closer look from coach Jack Del Rio in this year's training camp.
The Jaguars will report for the start of camp on Friday, July 28, and begin practices the following day at 10:15 a.m. Leftwich and Garrard, of course, will be two of the featured performers in this year's training camp.
It goes with the position they play, quarterback. It may be the most closely examined and controversial position in all of sports. Among Jaguars fans, Leftwich and Garrard each have their contingents of supporters.
Heading into camp, there is no stated competition at the position. Leftwich is number one, Garrard is number two and Quinn Gray is number three. Undrafted free agent Paul Pinegar is the fourth arm on the roster and he is obviously facing a long-shot situation.
Leftwich is in his fourth season, which means he is entering the prime years of his career. He led the Jaguars to a 7-3 start last season and was playing the best football of his career when he sustained a broken ankle in the first quarter of a game in Arizona. Garrard replaced Leftwich, led the Jaguars to a win in Arizona and four more in the final five games, putting the Jaguars in the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Del Rio made Leftwich the starter for that playoff game, in New England, and the Jaguars lost, 28-3. It was a controversial decision to start Leftwich, but it was a clear indication Leftwich is "The Man" and Del Rio remains committed to Leftwich as his team's starting quarterback.
Garrard performed well enough in the final six games to raise his stock on the league market. Garrard wants to become a starting quarterback and went into spring drills with the attitude of competing more intensely with Leftwich.
The two quarterbacks will be under the microscope in the preseason. Leftwich will keep his job into the regular season, but Garrard can further raise his stock with a strong preseason performance. Gray can do the same.
Behind the quarterbacks stands a strong stable of running backs, headlined by Fred Taylor and Greg Jones. Taylor is the Jaguars' feature back, but Jones caught Del Rio's eye last year and is likely to get more playing time this season.
Taylor skipped spring drills and must prove he's in shape and committed to having a big year. Taylor missed nearly all of camp last year while recovering from knee surgery. This year, he goes into camp fully healthy and, according to him, in the best shape of his career.
Jones is a power back. He'll grind out the tough yards in short-yardage and goal-line situations. When he's not doing that or giving Taylor a breather, Jones will be the Jaguars' fullback. As he enters his third pro season, Jones has established himself as a forceful blocker and a surprisingly good pass-catcher.
The Jaguars drafted Maurice Drew in the second round and Drew would seem to fit into two roles: third-down back and feature return man. All eyes will be on Drew in training camp and in the preseason to see if he can fill those roles and provide some added spark to the Jaguars offense.
Alvin Pearman was the Jaguars' third-down back and punt-returner last year and, clearly, Pearman will be in direct competition with Drew this summer. It will be one of the most dramatic head-to-head confrontations of camp.
Veteran LaBrandon Toefield enjoyed some success late last season and breathed new life into his Jaguars career. He has to prove he's too valuable to let go. Toefield is in a fight to make the team.
Derrick Wimbush was a big hit as an undrafted rookie last year. Wimbush flashed some running skills in training camp, then won his coach's heart with an outstanding performance as a kickoff-returner. Wimbush took one back 91 yards for a touchdown in that win over Arizona. He's a big guy with distinct power and surprising elusiveness. He could really confuse the issue at running back should he have a big training camp.
Two other players, Rich Alexis and undrafted rookie Montell Owens, complete the running backs crop. Alexis has hung on with the Jaguars as a practice squad player for two years. He needs to challenge for a roster spot. Owens is a long-shot but he can challenge for a spot on the practice squad as a "jar on the shelf" prospect.
The Jaguars kept three quarterbacks and five running backs on their final roster last season.