JACKSONVILLE – Finally, on Thursday night it begins – really, really begins.
The first block gets put in place. The first significant, no-turning-back, on-field step in the new direction gets taken.
This is it. The time has come. At last.
This is not to diminish what has come before or to overlook before anything that General Manager David Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley have done in the past three months. The things the duo has done since being hired in January by Owner Shad Khan to lead the Jaguars in a new direction definitely matter.
The free agent signings . . .
The talk about draft philosophy . . .
The talk about philosophy in general . . .
The preparation, the planning . . .
All that has gone on for three months, and talking about it all has been great. Entertaining. Intriguing. A lot of fun. It's all important to the inner core, and the overall structure and approach of this franchise for the foreseeable future. It's all also stuff people close to the franchise – those who have had a chance to talk to Bradley, Caldwell and Khan about this direction – can see. Talk to those guys about those things, and you get a good feel for what this franchise is doing.
But philosophies aren't very sexy, and it's tough for people to get their minds around "philosophy and approach." It has also been difficult for people to get excited about the free agents the Jaguars have signed thus far. That's understandable, because people get giddy over expensive, high-profile guys. Very much wisely and correctly, Caldwell and Bradley have stayed far away from that this offseason.
But the draft? Especially a draft like this, with two selections in the first 33?
A young, drafted player holding a new, state-of-the-art jersey?
That's stuff people can see. That's stuff people can get their minds around.
The first two selections – especially Thursday night's No. 2 selection – will set the public tone for this franchise. More important, of course, is what that player becomes, how he develops, how he leads.
We won't know how he develops immediately, of course. Not on Thursday and not for a while. We won't know if the No. 2 selection is destined to become Tony Boselli, the No. 2 overall selection in 1995 and the first selection of the franchise in that expansion year. Boselli to this day remains the best selection in franchise history, the most important. His selection, yawned at by some because he was a left tackle and not a quarterback or a sexier position, set the tone for the team's success in the late 1990s.
This selection Thursday night has an eerily similar feel.
No, the Jaguars are no longer an expansion team. But coming off 2-14, and with new leadership, there's without question a feel of this being a starting point for the franchise.
The logo is new. The uniform is new. The helmets are new.
And the direction? Darned right that's new.
A slew of former players from the old era are gone, and in the coming months, more may leave. Bradley has said over and over this year is about competition, pure and simple. It is pure in the sense that the past doesn't matter; simple in the sense that the best players will play. Roster turnover, Bradley said, almost certainly goes with that. Caldwell has said often that not only is this roster not set, it likely won't be finalized – maybe not ever, really, not this season.
The search for players, for the future foundation, will be constant.
But make no mistake:
The No. 2 selection – and for that matter, every selection in the next three days – will be critical in that search. The players signed thus far have been a relatively safe propositions, the sort of free agents that if they work out, great; if not, no harm.
The Jaguars' first selection Thursday – whether they stay at No. 2 or trade down to gain picks – is absolutely a core player. It's also a selection that needs to be right. You must hit first-round selections, but you darned sure must hit on No. 2.
On the field, and off the field, he needs to be special – the core of the core, if you will.
He needs to be Boselli, or at least a darned good imitation.
Who will it be? No one aside from Caldwell, Bradley and Khan knows for certain.
The mock drafters sure don't. In recent weeks there has been no "consensus." Sentiment has weaved wildly from Oregon defensive end/linebacker Dion Jordan to Brigham Young defensive end "Ziggy" Ansah to Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd to Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher to Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel, with a little West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner in the mix.
This week, it has weaved toward left tackle. There have been reports about the choice being Joeckel or Fisher, whoever is available. Caldwell sure talked that way Monday when he met with the media.
How true are the reports? How accurate are the tea leaves?
It is the deliciously mysterious nature of the draft that no one knows – no one outside Bradley, Caldwell and Khan, at least. Maybe Caldwell's trying to drive up interest. Maybe he's being as upfront as he can be. Maybe he's just having fun.
Whatever it is, it adds drama to the proceedings.
In this case, it will be drama with real meaning. It will be our first real glimpse into Caldwell making a major on-field decision. This is the first step in a no-turning-back direction, and that means it matters.
The first block gets put in place a little after 8 p.m. Thursday, and that's when it begins. Really, really begins.