Gene Smith wasn't counting on it happening. Not exactly as it did, at least.
Smith, the Jaguars&39; general manager, said this week he didn&39;t enter the 2011 NFL Draft convinced the Jaguars necessarily would have a chance for their best-case scenario – i.e., trading up for the quarterback they most coveted.
Not expecting it is one thing.
Not being prepared for the scenario is quite another, and to Smith, not being prepared isn&39;t an option. Which helps explain why although the Jaguars didn&39;t really expect to have a chance to acquire Blaine Gabbert in last month&39;s draft they were still able to do so.
The Jaguars ran the scenarios, and made pre-draft exploratory calls.
When a scenario unfolded that put them in a position to take Gabbert, they were ready.
Then, they acted.
"You have to be open-minded to some of the things that can happen," Smith said this week during an interview in which he took time to look back over the team&39;s 2011 draft.
"If you feel your draft board is the only draft board and every other draft board in the NFL is like yours, you&39;re going to make a lot of mistakes."
Smith, in his third season running drafts and making the team&39;s personnel decisions, sat down with jaguars.com and discussed many issues around the Jaguars for a series that will run the next several weeks. He said he likes where the team is after the draft and entering next season, and with several weeks having passed since the draft, he also discussed the team&39;s trade for Gabbert, a quarterback from the University of Missouri.
The move was one of the most-high profile moments of the first round, and one of the boldest, most-memorable moves in franchise history, a move Smith said not only would be critical to the team&39;s future but that was actually easy to make.
"In this league over any other league, because of the competitive balance of the NFL, that&39;s the one position that impacts winning the most," Smith said. "You don&39;t get a lot of opportunity to draft a quarterback, much less a guy who can lead your franchise into the future, so this one made too much sense.
"We felt good about it, because we really liked the player and the person. He has the physical and mental skill set to be as good as he decides to be. He&39;s driven to be good at it."
The Jaguars, after indicating they would likely take a quarterback to develop behind starter David Garrard, entered the draft with the No. 16 overall selection, then traded that selection and their second-round selection to get Gabbert.
Smith said just as it surprised him when Ben Roethlisberger slid in the 2004 draft, it surprised him when Gabbert – projected by many as a Top 5 selection – slid past that spot. The Jaguars, Smith said, had a value they were prepared to trade for Gabbert, and once Gabbert was still available with the Dallas Cowboys on the clock at No. 9, the trade became a possibility.
The Cowboys opted against trading with the Jaguars because they coveted Southern Cal offensive tackle Tyron Smith, but the Redskins – a team with which the Jaguars had explored the possibility of a trade – accepted a 2011 second-round selection and the No. 16 overall first-round selection to trade.
"There are a lot of different reasons why players slide," Smith said. "Quarterbacks get over-analyzed the closer they get to the draft. Sometimes they slide because there&39;s a character concern. Sometimes they slide because there&39;s a medical concern, but if there&39;s not a medical or character concern and the player has the desired height, weight and speed and play history, you have to trust your system if you have a chance to acquire a player who can impact your franchise&39;s future."
Smith said in addition to Gabbert reaching a point where the trade made sense, a comparatively weak second round factored into the decision.
"When you have two factors that weigh in your favor, it&39;s really an easy decision," Smith said.
Smith said the importance of acquiring a potential franchise, era-defining player is hard to overestimate. He also said believing draft boards are different, and believing from experience that players can slide unexpectedly, helped create a scenario in which the Jaguars were able to move up – at a value they believed prudent – to acquire a player who could be a franchise cornerstone.
"I&39;ve said this before: there might be throughout the league, 12-15 players – the top half of the board – identical throughout the league," Smith said. "But they may not be in the same order. There is always the human element that&39;s part of the draft, so there is a level of unknown as to what other teams will do.
"We try to study what their needs are, and who they may be targeting. We really want to know who&39;s doing what in front of us and who&39;s doing what behind us so we have an idea who may trade up for a certain player, but there is a level of unknown that makes the draft very challenging.
"That&39;s what I like about it."
The Jaguars not only traded their second-round selection to move up for Gabbert, the next day they traded to move up in the third round and take offensive guard Will Rackley from Lehigh.
"Early in the draft, when you feel you can get an eventual every-down starter – I am willing to move up to secure one of those players," Smith said. "If you get to an area where you&39;re looking at more situational role players, sometimes you may have a chance to move back and acquire more draft picks, but when you do a lot of work on certain players and they&39;re available and they have good value – and they&39;re certainly going to fill a need . . . we feel very good about those selections."
Smith said he believes Gabbert and Rackley will "be eventual every-down starters," and that wide receiver Cecil Shorts of Mount Union – the first of two fourth-round selections – "should be able to come in and compete for the third receiver spot and who knows over the course of time what he'll become."
Smith said safety Chris Prosinski (fourth round) of Wyoming and cornerback Rod Issac (fifth round) of Middle Tennessee State also should be able to compete for time immediately at safety and nickelback, respectively.
"Based on our safety play a year ago, I don&39;t know that anybody established themselves," Smith said. "Chris should be able to come in and compete for playing time – whether that&39;s being a starter or a role player is to be determined. Rod also should compete for playing time, but all three of the guys in the fourth or fifth round are players we know will be able to contribute this year in some way.
"You don&39;t know what any draft pick will come in and become, but a couple of these guys could come in and become eventual starters. Coming in I would say they will be strong contributors. We were able to find guys who were in essence targeted players for us – and that we know have a defined role on this football team."
And while some observers criticized the Jaguars for not drafting to fill defensive needs, Smith said his approach in the &39;11 draft was the same as it had been for his first two drafts – take the best available players and trust the research and scouting done while preparing.
"What I said basically was I don&39;t want to overdraft to fit need and have a guy come in here and underperform," Smith said. "It&39;s the same thing you&39;re trying to do in pro free agency: you don&39;t want to overpay and have a guy come in and underperform. The draft is for value. Sometimes in the draft you can get value and fit a need, but you do not want to manufacture a guy, skew your board and push a guy up and take a guy higher than he should be taken just because you have need."
The act of not manufacturing a player is perhaps the most important draft-day act for a general manager, Smith said.
"I think so," he said. "The No. 1 need on your football team is talent, so whether it&39;s offensive players or defensive players, you want to take the best player. You want to trust your grading system. Over the course of time, your needs can change and you want to make sure your system is adding to the roster.
"When you go into the draft, I&39;d like to think every team in the NFL has a list of targeted players you&39;d like to add to your team. You&39;re not always able to draft all of those players, but if you stay true to your board, hopefully those particular players are there when you&39;re picking."
Smith also addressed those who have criticized him for drafting small-school players.
"There are a lot of non-Division I-A players performing in the NFL, and there are a good number going to the Pro Bowl," he said. "There are a good number performing in our division. As I said before, you need to grade the player, not the school."
"I&39;m stealing this from Woody Hayes. You can outsmart the people some of the time, but you can outwork them all the time. I&39;m just trusting the body of our work."