Jaguars offensive line coach Andy Heck believes the foundation for a dominant offensive line of the future was cemented in 2010.
"I think this can be one of the top offensive lines in the league," Heck told jaguars.com.
It's an offensive line that opened holes for the NFL's third-ranked running game. It's also an offensive line that was 24th in the league in sacks allowed per pass play. The goal for 2011 would, therefore, seem to be for the Jaguars offensive line to pass-block as well as it run-blocks.
"During the offseason, we devised a set of goals. At the top of that goal chart was to win the AFC South. We didn't reach that goal but one of the goals was to be a top-five running team, which we knew we could do because we have special running backs," Heck said.
"We're never satisfied. You can see where we can be better. Certainly, protecting the quarterback; you don't want your quarterback hurt or knocked out of a game. We didn't meet our goal there. One of the things we'll be working hard on improving is protecting the quarterback," Heck added.
The key man in the Jaguars' plan to be a better pass-blocking team in 2011 is left tackle Eugene Monroe, the eighth pick of the 2009 draft. He improved his play in 2010 and Heck believes Monroe will continue to reach higher levels of performance.
"Eugene took a step forward. There's no question he's a talented, gifted young player. We were looking for him to make improvement and he did. He just oozes ability and he can be as good as he wants to be. He took a step forward in run-blocking and in his knowledge of football, but these
things still need to get better. He'll continue to get better protecting the quarterback. I like him as a player," Heck said.
It was no coincidence the Jaguars running game caught fire around the same time veteran guard Vince Manuwai became the dominant run-blocker he was prior to his ACL injury in 2008. Manuwai battled through his comeback season in '09 and there were concerns in last summer's training camp that Manuwai would not fully recover. It was thought he might even be cut.
"I'm so proud of Vince. He really gutted out 2009, coming off his injury, and probably wasn't back to form. Vince was a true pro. He was supportive of his teammates and continued to provide competition. When we needed him, Vince went in and played as well as he's ever played. When he's playing his best, he's dominant," Heck said.
The Jaguars traded for guard Justin Smiley in the spring and Smiley took the starting job from Manuwai in training camp. When an ankle injury forced Smiley to the bench, Manuwai stepped into the lineup and running back Maurice Jones-Drew then went on a six-game, 100-yard rushing terror.
Another veteran, center Brad Meester, silenced critics that whispered thoughts that Meester might be over the hill. Meester responded in 2010 with what has been described as one of the best seasons in his 11-year career.
"Brad showed no signs of slowing down. I thought he played stronger this year than he did in the past. He was very durable. I don't know that he missed a snap," Heck said.
Uche Nwaneri solidified his future at guard.
"Uche is another young player that is getting better. He can be a very good interior player," Heck said.
Second-year offensive tackle Eben Britton was lost for most of the season to a season-ending shoulder injury.
"Nobody works any harder than he does. He's evolving into a strong leader on this team. He got banged up in training camp and I think that affected him. Just about the time he was getting over those nicks, he got the shoulder injury. No one's more disappointed than Eben about how the year went," Heck said.
Veteran Jordan Black replaced Britton at right tackle and the Jaguars running game flourished.
Heck made a point of talking about rookies John Estes, Kevin Haslam, Daniel Baldridge and Bradley Vierling.
"This group has a great work ethic and a great team attitude. We have players that should've been drafted. Estes can compete at the center position. Vierling demonstrated that maybe his combine numbers aren't going to blow anybody away, but he could work his way into the mix. Haslam is a versatile athlete. He's only in the early stages of his development. He made great strides in the weight room. Baldridge is so big and made such great strides that it appears he could develop into a big right tackle," Heck added.
"I'm most excited about these young tackles taking the next step," he said of Monroe and Britton. "We should be able to run the ball better and protect the quarterback better."