In his first official press conference as general manager of the Jaguars, Gene Smith made it crystal clear the signature of his administration will be to build the Jaguars through the draft and to make sure the players the Jaguars draft are of high character.
"I would like to think, moving forward, that there will be a stronger emphasis on it," Smith said of targeting high-character prospects. "I would never recommend a player I wouldn't want to coach or whose locker I wouldn't want next to mine. I want people who, when you have adversity, will respond in a positive way. I want people in this community to know that character does matter. There are expectations that have to be met if you want to be part of this organization," Smith added in a passionate dissertation to the media on Wednesday.
Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver promoted Smith to the position of general manager a few weeks ago and announced that Smith has the final say in all matters regarding personnel. On Wednesday, Smith confirmed that his powers include cutting the roster.
"Any decision that pertains to the roster is ultimately mine," said Smith. "It's rare that (coach Jack Del Rio) and I have ever been way off base."
Smith talked about the team's goal to be playoff-competitive next season and the challenges the team faces in achieving that goal. The number one problem, however, is that the Jaguars have only six picks in this year's draft, having traded away their seventh-round pick to move up in last year's draft and select defensive end Quentin Groves.
"The goal is to compete to make the playoffs," Smith said.
Asked if he believes the team can do that in 2009, Smith said: "I do. Look at Miami, Arizona, Baltimore and Atlanta. The NFL has become a year to year league. There are things you can do as far as retooling a football team and getting back in the playoffs. We want to be in the hunt every year in November."
Beyond this year, the Jaguars will be in a good position to execute Smith's strategy. The team is poised to allow several players to go into unrestricted free agency this year, and that'll likely return multiple compensatory draft picks for 2010. Adding picks this year, however, will be more difficult and might require the team to trade its first-round pick, the eighth overall pick.
"It is one of the objectives," Smith said of adding draft picks.
What needs to be fixed for the Jaguars to become a playoff contender in 2009?
"The first thing we have to fix is protecting the quarterback. Something that was a strength became an Achilles heel for us," Smith said. He also reported "the arrow is up" on guards Vince Manuwai's and Mo Williams' recoveries from season-ending injuries sustained in last year's season opener.
Smith confirmed Weaver's earlier comments that the team is not likely to be a big spender in free agency this year.
"It is a whole different dynamic than it was when we were starting out as a franchise," Smith said of free agency. "At times there are reasons why (players) are on the market. I want to do it through the draft. If you are able to draft well and reward your own, you're better able to sustain success. I've always believed good drafting should translate to the field. Jack (Del Rio) has a lot of scout in him. To win over a long period of time, you have to be able to draft and develop young players."
Asked which teams in the league are, in his opinion, doing it the right way, Smith cited Pittsburgh and New England. "I try to study what other people are doing," he added. "If you can re-tool your football team; your young players have to improve to be able to do that, your older players have to play at a high level and you have to draft well."
Smith also commented on running back Fred Taylor's future with the Jaguars.
"We're still working through that process. Fred is one of the many players we're talking through as far as their futures with the franchise. Fred is a special guy. I have strong ties to him beyond the player he is. Wayne feels strongly about Fred, as well. I think he can still play, without question, and I think he can help any team in the league," Smith said.
The Jaguars general manager voluntarily returned to the subject of player character on multiple occasions.
"If I was a season ticket holder, I would look at myself as a die-hard because you believe in the people who own the team and because this is our team. Character is going to matter. You're going to see a competitive roster. I want to get back to 2007," he said.