INDIANAPOLIS – Jaguars.com Senior Writer John Oehser sat down with Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis to discuss the 2010 season, the NFL Draft and the team&39;s future . . .
* Q: The Jaguars finished 8-8 this past season, overcoming a 3-4 start to lead the AFC South in early December. What did you learn about the team last season that you didn&39;t know going in?*
A: I thought we had tremendous competition at a lot of positions on our football team. I think competition brings out the best in each player. I think one of the things I found out – and it wasn&39;t surprising to me – was that in some difficult times early in the season we showed mental will. I thought that was one thing we really needed in this football team. That&39;s something I want all of our teams to have, because I&39;m a firm believer that mental will wins more than physical skill. There is such great parity in the NFL and most games are won or lost in the fourth quarter. You have to have teams that have the mental will to persevere through adversity, to hang together. I thought we did that. We had a chance with three games to go to win our division. We didn&39;t get it done, so we have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go, but I think we&39;re making progress and we&39;re trying to do it the right way.
* Q: That mental will – is that something that carries over?*
A: I&39;d like to think so. There are so many people that talk about the youth on the football team and some of the inexperience. I don&39;t look at it that way. I look at it like if you&39;re a starter, you&39;re expected to perform like one. Starters should set the example for others to follow. Sometimes, a guy is a rookie starter. Sometimes, he starts in his third year and becomes a full-time player. Sometimes, a player is a role player, but a very meaningful role player. You can have physical skill on your football team that is comparable to anybody in the league, but the thing that separates good from great is the mental will the football team has. That, without question, is what separates people, players and teams in the NFL. I think we&39;ve started to establish a greater level of mental will. As we continue to build things the right way with the team profile we want it will give us a chance to sustain success – not just a one-year wonder. We can be a team that each year can certainly compete late in the season to make the playoffs. I think that&39;s what people want. People want hope all the way until the fourth quarter of the season that their team has a chance to make the playoffs. Hopefully, one day when you get in if you can stay healthy and get hot you may ascend and win it all.
* Q: That hope you mentioned – that&39;s a big deal to you . . .*
A: I want people over the holidays to be able to sit down with their family and with their friends and talk Jaguars football – and have that real hope that we&39;re going to play ourselves into the post-season.
* Q: Where do you see the Jaguars right now? How much progress has been made?*
A: We&39;ve certainly made strides the last two years, but we&39;re still not where we need to be. For us to take another step, we have to get better on defense. I don&39;t think there&39;s any question that&39;s going to be a focus here in the offseason. It&39;s not going to direct us away from taking the best player in the draft. Certainly the 2008 draft is delinquent, so pro free agency has to be a part of what we do to address some of the needs we have on this football team. It&39;s not an area I really like to be in year in and year out. It&39;s an area I think should more supplement what we&39;re doing with the draft. But we still need to be active this year to see if we can do some things to upgrade our defense.
* Q: And in your view, free agency is very much a supplementary tool . . .*
A: There are a lot of ways to get to the Super Bowl. There are a lot of ways to build a roster, but I think you do have to have a clear vision, a way you&39;re going to build a strong foundation for the future and to be able to sustain a level of success – not try to be one-year wonders. We want to try to draft and develop our own players and hopefully sustain things long-term.
* Q: You mentioned defense. What needs to improve there?*
A: We need some of our current defensive players to take another step to help our defense take another step. There has to be some growth and development in our own players. We do have some talented players who I think are still ascending. Certainly it has been well-stated that the safety position has been an issue: the second and third level of our defense, in terms of coming up with more playmaking – more plays on the ball – whether it&39;s PBUs, whether it&39;s interceptions. Up front, it&39;s imperative we continue to improve in terms of getting the quarterback to move off the spot. You don&39;t always have to get sacks. You have to get him moving, and then you have a chance for him to throw an errant ball where you can get off the field on third down, or maybe he throws it to us. There are a number of things we have to do on defense. It starts with personnel and once you get personnel in place, certainly personnel needs to make plays. I don&39;t care what defense you play, it still starts with players. I&39;m very aware of that, so in the draft it could be any offensive player and again, any defensive player.
* Q: And pass rush remains a focus.*
A: We need to get more sacks. We improved last year, but we&39;re clearly not where we need to be there – yet.
Q: You built heavily on the lines in your first two drafts. Do you like what has gone on there?
A: I do, but I feel like even there we have a ways to go. I&39;ve been encouraged by some of the things I saw year one to year two, but I would like to see our offensive and defensive lines become the strength of our football team. Everything else plays off of that. I don&39;t think it&39;s any different than building a house. My dad was a builder. I grew up around it my whole life. The key to a good home, a home that could sustain heavy storms, weather over a long period of time, was to have a good foundation. That&39;s the key here. If we&39;re strong in the trenches, we&39;ll be strong in most other areas of our football team. The toughness on your team starts up front, I think.
* Q: People know you're a believer in Best Available Player on draft day. Can you just talk about that philosophy quickly?*
A: When it pertains to the draft, we&39;re going to try to acquire the best available player. Now, sometimes value equals need. Sometimes, it doesn&39;t. It depends on what&39;s available when you&39;re picking. Sometimes it depends, too, on how strong that position in the draft is. We don&39;t want to overdraft a player for need and have the guy come in and underperform. That&39;s not what you want to do in pro free agency, either. I always want to match value with need. It&39;s not always possible. But we&39;re going to make sure – because your needs change sometimes daily – that we are taking the best available player when we&39;re picking.
* Q: Why is the draft so important? What is the core of that philosophy? Where did it come from?*
A: It&39;s probably part of my college recruiting background. I felt like in college if you brought a player in for four or five years, those guys were going to be your core and they were going to develop an ownership of that university. The better the ownership on your team, the better the pure leadership on your team. From my end, I felt like if you could draft players out of college, they could develop ownership in that NFL team and if they do perform on and off the field and we have a chance to reward our own, that&39;s what we want to do. It sends the right message and that&39;s how you get pure leadership to really emerge on your football team. It becomes, in essence, the players&39; team from a leadership standpoint as to what it becomes and what level you ultimately achieve with the talent on that roster.
* Q: You&39;re at the combine this week. What do you get out of this event?*
A: The most important thing for us is the medicals. That&39;s why the combine originated – to get medicals on players. That&39;s first and foremost. Then we get verified measurables – height, weight, speed, arm, hand, wing span. We put them through position skill drills to try to compare athletes. I think you have to be very careful to put too much into a shorts workout. We put the weight of our grade into padded exposures – how they perform in the fall under real football conditions.
* Q: You also consider the interview process important . . .*
A: We do, although there are a lot of players who are certainly prepped for the interviews. I think by the way we do things we control the interview environment and really make it more of a conversation. We get into a lot of football things within that short window that we have to do our group interviews. We get good information out of that, but yet, we have to weigh that into our total process, too. Some people just don&39;t interview well. We can&39;t hold that short window of time with them as the only measure. Sometimes with the coaches it&39;s their first opportunity to meet the person and we can&39;t hold it against them if they don&39;t interview well in that short period of time. For the most part, you want them to have a good first impression. But as with my wife – probably the first time she met me, had we not gone out a couple of times, I&39;m not sure we would have ended up being married. I don&39;t know if I made a good first impression, so I think it&39;s extremely important to weight all pieces of the puzzle accordingly.
* Q: And the key word there is, "puzzle," isn&39;t it? There are many parts to the process.*
A: Once the NFL season concludes, we start stacking our draft board as a player personnel staff. We start the week after the Super Bowl and it&39;s a very time-intensive process, because we want to make sure we&39;re stacking the draft board based on how they play so we don&39;t get disillusioned once we come to the combine and somebody happens to run fast or they&39;re impressive in shorts running through position drills. Obviously, we can tweak our draft board after the combine once we get more information on a guy&39;s medical. We do psychological testing and maybe if there are things that come up through the interview process or any other alerts that could impact our interest in a player, things can adjust all the way up through draft day until we make the selection. We&39;re always gathering information. I call that three-month stretch the playoff run for player personnel. It really accelerates for us. People wonder, &39;What do you do after the season?&39; Things don&39;t slow down. They just accelerate if you&39;re in player personnel. It&39;s like being on a bike and pedaling downhill. That&39;s how I express it to the scouts: &39;Don&39;t put the brake on until the draft is over.&39; We go to training camp with the players and coaches, but our season in player personnel doesn&39;t end until after the draft. That&39;s when we have to wind down, but even in that month after the draft, we&39;re heavy into the evaluation process of the rising senior prospects that we&39;ll be targeting in the upcoming fall.
* Q: We&39;d be remiss if we didn&39;t discuss the quarterback position. Assess David Garrard and the draft, if you will . . . *
A: As with every position on our team, there&39;s room for improvement, I think David showed at important times throughout the season – whether it was third down, or in the red zone – that he was able to deliver. I really believe most teams in the NFL have quarterbacks you can win with. He has proven that. With most quarterbacks in the NFL, you&39;re only going to be as good as the players around you. We&39;ve finally started to put some things around David to where he doesn&39;t have to try to win every snap on his own. Maturity in a quarterback is knowing there are 10 other guys in the field who can help you win each snap. I think last year he clearly did some things that he can build on to enable him to do things even better next year. We should get David&39;s best this coming year. I don&39;t think there&39;s any mystery that if we&39;re able to I would like to add a quarterback through the draft.
Q: Is it pretty clear that a drafted guy would be developmental?
* A:* No matter where you take the guy in the draft, unless he has to play by default, they all have to be developmental. The luxury is he doesn&39;t have to play right away, because it&39;s a whole different speed of the game. At this level, defensive players and coaches have a lot more time to do more things than what that player has been confronted with at the college level. Your wish is to have some time to develop.