When they signed him in free agency in 2005, Reggie Hayward was supposed to be a long-term fix at defensive end and his performance that season supported the expectation. Then came the Achilles injury in the '06 season opener and that left Hayward to struggle through his comeback season in '07 and now, in what should be the absolute prime of his career, Hayward is facing a preseason game this Saturday he referred to as "a great test."
The test is: Can Hayward be expected to return to his role as an every-downs defensive end? Needless to say, the Jaguars hope the answer is yes.
"I feel very close, if not there," Hayward said when asked if he can get back to where he was before the Achilles injury. "This will be a great test … see how I'm moving around the ball.
"The Achilles is real good. I'm very happy where I'm at with the Achilles," Hayward added.
A hamstring injury sustained a week into training camp is the most recent setback for Hayward. The worry is that he's losing his legs early in his career. Saturday's game will have something to say about that.
"I think I'm all right," Hayward said of the hamstring. "It could flare up at any moment, but right now it's not bothering me."
Hayward returned to practice this week, along with wide receiver Reggie Williams, and coach Jack Del Rio confirmed on Thursday that Hayward and Williams can be expected to see playing time in Tampa.
Meanwhile, first-round draft choice Derrick Harvey remains a holdout; the only unsigned first-round pick in the league. The Jaguars traded away three picks to move up 18 spots and pick Harvey, largely because of uncertainty about Hayward.
"He has great talent and so does Quentin (Groves)," Hayward said of Harvey and the team's second-round pick, also a defensive end the Jaguars traded up to pick. "I'm cheering for them. I'll never say I hope they don't sign him.
"They need me to go out and play. When it's my turn to swing, hopefully, I'll step up and hit a home run," Hayward said.
The Jaguars could also use a lift from Williams, who returns from knee surgery to a depleted receiving corps. Jerry Porter remains out of action and Troy Williamson is attempting to recover from a soft-tissue leg injury.
"I'm feeling great. The knee feels fine. They took out a torn piece (of cartilage) and cleaned it up," Williams said of his knee and the surgical procedure that repaired a problem that resulted from running stadium stairs in Houston as Williams was conditioning for the start of training camp.
Williams caught 10 touchdown passes last season and hopes for another big year in '08.
"More big plays and helping the team win; crucial blocks and crucial catches," he said.
"It's just preseason, relax," Hayward said, but there is a degree of anxiety for the game in Tampa. The Jaguars need to start answering questions at defensive end and wide receiver.
"Last year, we were a good team under the radar. This year, we're not under the radar. We're on the hit list. We're going to get the best shot from every team we play," Hayward said.
That's why the Jaguars need to get their best players back in the game.