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Most competitive roster ever?


Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith (pictured left) was hired by Tom Coughlin to be the team's Blesto scout before the franchise ever played a game, and Smith fondly recalls the tone of that interview with Coughlin and the excitement Smith felt.

Not too many years later, Smith had risen to the rank of director of college scouting, and he fondly recalls Coughlin detailing his expectations for an upcoming draft. Coughlin said he expected the draft to produce seven starters for the Jaguars.

Smith has been with the Jaguars since the very beginning. He was there for the 1996 Cinderella run to the AFC title game, for a league-best 14-2 record in 1999, and to lead the team into the current roster reconstruction he inherited a year ago. That's why the following remark might surprise Jaguars fans who've also been with the team during its 15 NFL seasons.

"The number one thing I see developing is mental will. I'm a firm believer that mental will wins more often than physical skill. Through the effort and commitment the players have made, we probably have the most competitive roster we've had since I've been here," Smith told

What? More competitive than the Boselli/Brunell years? More competitive than when Coughlin spent a ton of money in free agency in 1999 to sign a trio of players (Carnell Lake, Gary Walker and Kyle Brady) that most felt gave the Jaguars the best roster in the NFL?

There was no back-off in Smith's tone of voice or the look on his face. Smith stared directly into his inquisitor's eyes as he made those remarks. He even paused for effect.

Such is the mindset inside the walls at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. The team's head coach, Jack Del Rio, has boldly proclaimed that a division title is the team's goal, despite the fact the Jaguars are being picked to finish last in the AFC South by just about every preseason magazine worthy of drugstore display.

Smith's remarks made it clear Del Rio isn't the only high-ranking executive possessing lofty expectations. The mild-mannered Smith, who usually speaks in measured if not guarded tones, all but proclaimed, "Release the hounds."

"I think the team profile is different. You have players here who are playing for the passion, for their profession. There are a lot of players here who understand it's a privilege to perform in the NFL, and a lot of players with the mindset that you can't take what's great for granted," Smith added.

Smith's message is consistent with his head coach's. They each expect a special effort from their players in the team's quest to return to the playoffs this year, and each is staying on-message as the start of training camp nears.

What are the realistic chances of the Jaguars making it back into the postseason? The drugstore magazines say no way. They point to a young and unproven receiving corps. They question quarterback David Garrard's ability to be much more than average. They ask of a rebuilding defense, "Where's the beef?"

Smith is solidly behind Garrard, who was hit more often by rushers last season than any other quarterback in the league. Mostly, Smith is buoyed by what he believes will be dramatic improvement in two critical areas: pass-blocking and pass-rushing.

The Jaguars were terrible at each last season. John McKay might say the Jaguars didn't rush the passer but they made up for it by not protecting the quarterback. Smith expects that to change dramatically this season.

"I think we'll be able to protect our quarterback better and we'll be able to put the opposing quarterback under more duress. For us to get better, we have to be able to protect the quarterback. Being able to protect the quarterback starts with your running game," Smith said.

Make no mistake, the contemporary game is all about pass-blocking and pass-rushing. Last season's conference champions, Indianapolis and New Orleans, were two of the league's best at the pass-block/pass-rush combination.

Smith's top two draft picks a year ago are tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton. His top four picks in this year's draft are defensive linemen: Tyson Alualu, D'Anthony Smith, Larry Hart and Austen Lane.

"I feel very good about this football team heading into the season. There are more people in contention for roster spots," Smith said.

Yeah, but can the Jaguars contend for a division title?

"Yes, because football is a team sport. I feel like we have a chance to take a step in all three phases, from where we were a year ago," Smith added, choosing his words carefully. "The two things you have to do to be successful we were delinquent in a year ago."

Rush the quarterback; protect the quarterback. Smith is hinging his expectations on the Jaguars' ability to be better at both in 2010.

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