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Jags have four candidates


They are not the rankings you would expect from a 4-9 team. The Jaguars are fifth in total defense and second in the league against the run. They are 14th in total offense and 11th in rushing, which has to be considered lofty ground for a team with a rookie quarterback who will make his 11th consecutive start this Sunday.

What does it all mean? Well, it means the Jaguars are playing better football than their record would indicate and probably lost some games they should've won. And the Jaguars' distinguished place in the NFL rankings would also indicate this team has some players worthy of Pro Bowl consideration.

Those players number four; two on offense and two on defense.

Fred Taylor's statistical surge in the second half of the season speaks of a running game that is based on his natural gifts and the emergence of one of the league's better offensive lines. Brad Meester's move from guard to center this season is the centerpiece of that whole running game movement.

On defense, Marcus Stroud emerged as one of the league's best defensive tackles in 2002, and he has established himself this season as one of the premier players at that position for now and the long-term future. And one of the major benefactors from the disruption Stroud has caused up front is Donovin Darius, the strong safety of choice for old-schoolers.

"He's running with more consistency than he had ever before," running backs coach Anthony Lynn says of Taylor. "I absolutely do" think he should make the Pro Bowl, Lynn added. "He's running as well as any back in the league, now that the running game has gelled. His emergence in the running game is why things are looking up here."

Taylor is currently at 1,200 yards on the season. He's on pace to eclipse his previous single-season best, 1,399 yards in 2000. At the present, Taylor is fifth in the AFC in rushing, just 21 yards behind Kansas City's Priest Holmes.

Meester signed a contract extension midway through this season, and the Jaguars are letting everyone know they expect Meester to be the foundation of the team's offensive lines of the future. A center in college, Meester filled a need at left guard through the first three years of his career. His return to center, his true position, has allowed him to express his natural skills and play with more confidence.

"What he means for us is we have a guy here who's going to be in the middle for awhile. If you got 'em around for awhile, it's easier to teach," offensive line coach Paul Boudreau says of Meester's impact on the Jaguars. And in the running game, "They know if they knock the down guys off the ball, Fred's going to take care of the linebackers," Boudreau added.

Meester has been the Jaguars' best offensive linemen at knocking defensive linemen off the ball.

Stroud is the Jaguars' fourth-leading tackler and, clearly, the Jaguars' most productive and gifted defensive lineman. On a defense that is being coached with a Baltimore bent, Stroud is that Tony Siragusa kind of defensive tackle who makes everyone behind him a lot better.

"He's such a disruptive force inside it forces teams to gameplan against him," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said of Stroud. "I haven't seen anybody who's been able to neutralize him."

Darius has always been willing to clean up what defensive linemen leave on the plate. "Darius has always had a reputation for being a guy who can play down in the box and play the run," Smith said. "He's done a great job setting the tone with his physical play."

They are four legitimate candidates on a team whose record might turn Pro-Bowl voters in other directions. In this case, the Jaguars are hoping voters will look at the Jaguars' position in the NFL rankings, and agree that somebody must be playing well for a 4-9 team to be ranked in the top half of the league in every statistical category.

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