The Jaguars are trying to keep from getting their fingers caught in the NFL's window. That's the window of opportunity in the salary-cap era.
Two years ago, they were 14-2 and had home-field advantage through the playoffs, only to fall a game short of the Super Bowl when they were beaten by the Tennessee Titans in the AFC title game.
Last season, the Jaguars were ravaged by injuries, lost five straight games to reach the midway point at 2-6, and finished 7-9.
Now the salary cap is catching up to Jacksonville, which lost several key players-including tackle Leon Searcy, linebacker Lonnie Marts, and punter Bryan Barker-during the offseason.
Stripped of their depth, the Jaguars are counting on rookies to make a major contribution. They hope that their first two draft picks, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and offensive tackle Maurice Williams, will win starting jobs, and that as many as 15 to 18 rookies will make the team.
If the Jaguars can get an infusion of youth and avoid injuries, they think they can keep the window open and remain contenders.
Two critical factors will be the health of wide receiver Jimmy Smith and running back Fred Taylor.
Smith was hospitalized twice for three abdominal surgeries during the offseason and lost about 25 pounds. He thinks he'll make a complete recovery, and if he does, the Jaguars will have a potent passing attack once again, with quarterback Mark Brunell throwing to Smith, Keenan McCardell, and tight end Kyle Brady.
The Jaguars signed veteran wide receiver Sean Dawkins as an insurance policy in case Smith has problems with his recovery. Their top draft pick from last season, R. Jay Soward, was suspended the first four games of this season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
The Jaguars know how important Smith is. As backup wide receiver Alvis Whitted said: "Not having him is like ice cream without cookies. We've got to have number eighty-two back. Whenever we're in a jam, he's the one who gets us out."
Taylor has yet to stay healthy for an entire season, but he's one of the NFL's best backs when he is. Last season, he missed the first three games because of a knee injury and saw part-time action in the next three, then put together nine straight 100-yard rushing games and finished with 1,399 yards, the fifth-highest total in the AFC.
If Taylor starts 16 games, he could challenge the 2,000-yard plateau and complement Brunell's passing.
The Jaguars' line should be improved, especially if Williams can step right in at right tackle. He could combine with left tackle Tony Boselli, who's completely healthy again after suffering a knee injury in 1999, to give the team a first-rate tackle tandem.
The interior of the line was thrown into a state of flux in late June, however, when center John Wade underwent surgery for a broken right foot. The line needs to give Brunell better protection after he was sacked an AFC-high 54 times last season.
On defense, the Jaguars are counting on Stroud to stuff the run up front and force teams to stop double-teaming tackle Gary Walker. With Tony Brackens and Renaldo Wynn at the ends, that would give Jacksonville a solid front four.
The Jaguars think the rest of their defense will be better if middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson can overcome the knee injury that limited him last season. They also expect veteran safety Carnell Lake to return from the foot injury that sidelined him and provide leadership in the secondary, which includes a pair of solid corners in Aaron Beasley and Fernando Bryant.
Now the question is whether the Jaguars can blend their newcomers in with the veterans and become a contender again.
As head coach Tom Coughlin says: "It's a matter of guys getting a feel for one another. Take the Giants last year. They practically had a whole revamped offensive line and they went all the way to the Super Bowl. Hopefully, we can build that chemistry quickly."
If the Jaguars do that, they can keep their window open.
2000 Record: 7-9
Coach: Tom Coughlin 60-44 (7th season)
2000 NFL Rankings
Offense: 7 (10 rush, 9 pass)
Defense: 12 (11 rush, 14 pass)