The timing of Wednesday's announcement that the Jaguars had reached agreement on a new, long-term contract with Maurice Jones-Drew may be the strongest indicator of the extent to which coach Jack Del Rio plans to feature Jones-Drew. The Jaguars could've waited until after the upcoming NFL draft before they pulled the trigger on a deal that makes Jones-Drew one of the highest-paid running backs in the league.
Why didn't they wait?
"Because we know what we have here," General Manager Gene Smith said.
Since 2010 is scheduled to be an uncapped year, the Jaguars could've forced Jones-Drew to spend consecutive years as a restricted free agent. All the leverage belonged to the Jaguars. Jones-Drew acknowledged as much.
"The Jaguars didn't have to do this. They wanted to; they felt that way about me," Jones-Drew said as he sat at a press conference, flanked by Smith and Del Rio.
"Some guys get paid and shut it down. That's not the way I am," Jones-Drew added.
The rhetoric at Wednesday's press conference would suggest that Jones-Drew could become the face of the franchise. Plans are for him and a few teammates to model the team's new uniforms when they are presented to the media on April 22.
"It's an opportunity to reward one of our own. Maurice is someone I'd like to have as a son. The leadership qualities he has are well-respected by his teammates," Smith said.
"I'm really happy to have this done. Gene and I want to collect guys like Maurice," Del Rio said. "We feel it's his time."
It's that feeling that caused the Jaguars to release Fred Taylor in February. The Jaguars had decided it was time to make room for Jones-Drew and to commit to him contractually.
"When you have a guy like Maurice being your feature back of the future, it's a feeling of comfort. It's a good year for running backs," Smith said, referring to the draft, "and it's still a position of interest if it can improve our roster."
After Taylor went on injured reserve late last season, Jones-Drew's role was expanded and Jaguars fans were given a glimpse of what his role is likely to be in 2009. Against Green Bay, Jones-Drew rushed 12 times for 48 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 22 yards and a score. Against Indianapolis, Jones-Drew rushed 20 times for 91 yards and caught seven passes for 71 yards. In the season finale, Jones-Drew rushed 23 times for 78 yards and caught one pass for 10 yards.
Can a player who's only 5-7, 208 pounds endure that kind of workload for a whole season?
"I don't think height has anything to do with carries. I learned how to take care of my body," Jones-Drew said when asked directly if he can carry the ball 300 times a season.
"We're excited about getting him the ball more often. He's our guy. We'll be able to start the game with Maurice," Del Rio said in response to the same question.
Start the game, and probably end the game with him, too.