Gene Smith wasted no time establishing his blueprint for rebuilding.
This was the April 2009 NFL Draft, and Smith – then in his first season and first draft as the Jaguars&39; general manager – used the team&39;s first two selections to focus on building a foundation on the offensive line.
Two years later, those selections are veterans.
If they&39;re not the absolute, unquestioned foundation of the offense just yet, they&39;re developing in that direction, and Smith said the line as a whole is a group on which the team can rely.
Eben Britton. Eugene Monroe.
Brad Meester. Uche Nwaneri. Vince Manuwai.
Will Rackley. Justin Smiley.
Smith said it&39;s a deep group with a mix of versatility, potential and experience, but while he feels good about the developing core of the offense, the task is not yet complete.
"We've made progress in building our foundation, but there is still work to do," Smith said recently when discussing the offensive line for this story, part of a position-by-position series scheduled to run in the coming days and weeks on jaguars.com.
"We have some talented young players who need to take another step and establish themselves. Everything you do on offense is ultimately dictated by how well you perform up front."
The Jaguars&39; offensive line doesn&39;t begin and end at left tackle. It is a solid run-blocking group with veterans on the interior, and that last season played well at times as a unit.
But as is the case with any line, left tackle is key.
And that means discussion of the line – and its development into the core of the offense – begins with Monroe, a player who Smith said has shown signs of gaining elite status and who is entering an important developmental season.
"I think this will be a defining year for him," Smith said.
Monroe, the No. 8 overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, has started 28 games over two seasons, and while there is improvement to be made, Smith said the potential that has been shown is significant.
"Most of the times he has been beaten it has been because of footwork or technique," Smith said. "It hasn&39;t been because of foot quickness or athletic ability. He has all the tools. He just needs to put it all together."
Monroe said earlier this off-season he expects to ascend to the level of an elite offensive tackle sooner rather than later. Smith said it&39;s that sort of focus that not only caused Monroe to be a solid draft selection, but that should allow him to be a core player moving forward.
"When you have people who are driven to be great at what they do, they eventually will," Smith said.
Smith said Monroe&39;s situation is comparable to that of Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis, who developed steadily early in his career before emerging as a Pro Bowl player this past season.
"Eugene Monroe is at that stage," Smith said. "He has a chance to be a Pro Bowl player. Height, weight, speed, arm length, intelligence, foot quickness, athletic ability – he has it all.
"We&39;ve got, I think, a good group of offensive tackles."
Britton, a starter at right tackle as a rookie and through the first seven games of his second season, missed the last nine games last season after sustaining a shoulder injury. Smith said Britton has progressed well from the injury.
"Eben&39;s had no setback with his shoulder," Smith said.
While Britton has played exclusively right tackle, he has versatility that could give the Jaguars options in offensive line personnel.
"He&39;s actually got a skill set where he could play anywhere on the offensive line," Smith said. "He has the versatility to play anywhere – and the challenge."
Smith focused during the 2011 NFL Draft on the interior of the line, and when the team used its third-round selection on offensive guard Will Rackley it added a young player to a veteran group that helped produce one of the NFL&39;s best running offenses last season.
The Jaguars ranked third in the NFL in rushing last season, 15thoverall, with Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew making a second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. Jones-Drew, after a modest start, put together a streak of six consecutive 100-yard games during a critical October/November/December stretch that coincided with the return of the interior of the offensive line to status as one of the NFL&39;s better run-blocking units.
Meester, the longest-tenured player on the roster, started all 16 games at center in 2010, the eighth time in 11 seasons he has started every game. Manuwai moved into the starting lineup at left guard in Week 6, replacing Justin Smiley, and right guard Uche Nwaneri started 16 games.
"Brad performed at a winning level last year," Smith said of Meester. "He's a trusted veteran with a calming influence on the offensive line group. Brad and (linebacker) Daryl Smith have been two of the most reliable and consistent players throughout their Jaguar careers."
Versatility, Smith said, helps make the group strong.
"Uche can play any of the three positions," Smith said. "Rackley can play any of the three positions. Brad has played all three positions, and he&39;s our center. Smiley has played all three, and Vinny has played two of them. There are a lot of guys there who can do a lot of different things.
"The interior offensive line was a concern entering last season and Justin Smiley was brought in to create competition. Justin ended up starting the year as our left offensive guard. Vince Manuwai really came on mid-season and displayed some old Vince (prior to his ACL injury) as a run blocker. Brad Meester was our most consistent player. Uche Nwaneri has the physical skills to develop into an outstanding player in his prime, but needs more consistency and finish in his play."
Smith said tackles Daniel Baldridge and Kevin Haslam each showed improvement as free-agent rookies, as did free-agent rookie center John Estes. Six-year veteran tackle Guy Whimper "has a history as a backup, and could provide quality play," Smith said.