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The early prospects


All of a sudden, you can feel the blood beginning to flow. It's the middle of March. Pro-day reports are beginning to stagger in. The draft is still more than a month away, but you can start to smell it in the air.

It might be the NFL's greatest achievement that it has turned itself into a year-long league. All of the other professional leagues have offseasons, but the NFL really doesn't. It goes on vacation early in July, but that's just to catch its breath before training camp begins.

There's a natural flow to the NFL year. We graduate from one event to another. The Super Bowl is followed immediately by preparations for free agency and the start of a new calendar year. Then free agency begins and there's a rush of "Hot Stove League" interest that burns a hole in team's salary caps, which then turns our attention to one of the crowning events of every year: The NFL Draft.

The draft is the real Super Bowl for hard-core NFL fans. The draft is the most important event of the year. It determines the future of your favorite team. Win on draft weekend and you will win on the field. Lose on draft weekend and, well, you know the rest.

Recent drafts have been winners for the Jaguars, who won in 2001 when they selected Marcus Stroud and Mo Williams in the first two rounds. They won again the following year with John Henderson, Mike Pearson and company. In '03, Byron Leftwich, Rashean Mathis and Vince Manuwai quickly established the foundation of the "new era." Last year, the "new era" found a starting linebacker in the second round, a big-play receiver in the fourth round, a franchise kicker in the fifth round and a possible starting defensive end in the seventh round. First and second-round picks Reggie Williams and Greg Jones are starters for whom bigger things are expected.

Now, the Jaguars face a draft that could put them over the top. Jack Del Rio has a nice-looking roster. The Jaguars would've made the playoffs last season had they won one more game, so, it is reasonable to expect the Jaguars to find that one more win in this year's draft, right?

Where will they find that win? At defensive end? Offensive tackle? Cornerback? Linebacker? Running back? Wide receiver?

Early indications are that cornerback, offensive tackle, safety, linebacker and wide receiver have representatives that will fit in and around where the Jaguars will be selecting in the first round, 21st.

Carlos Rogers, Justin Miller and Marlin Jackson are the cornerbacks who might be available when the Jaguars are on the clock. Rogers is thought to be the best of that trio.

Offensive tackles Khalif Barnes and Jamaal Brown are projected for the second half of the first round, though we must remember that the big guys tend to go early and Barnes and Brown are truly big guys. Florida State offensive tackle Alex Barron is expected to be long gone by the time the Jags pick.

Georgia safety Thomas Davis fits right about where the Jags are picking. The Jaguars' interest in him, of course, would depend on the Donovin Darius situation because the Jaguars already have too much money tied up at the safety position.

Shawne Merriman and Kevin Burnett are a couple of attractive linebackers who might be available for the Jaguars. Merriman is a junior-eligible with big-time measurables.

Running back? The big boys will go early, then there appears to be a rather sizable gap before we get into the next group. In other words, there doesn't appear to be a running back that fits at 21.

Defensive end is a position the Jaguars addressed in free agency, but it's such a premium position that the Jaguars could turn back to it if the right guy is available. What do they think of Marcus Spears and Justin Tuck? They fit in the Jaguars' area of selection.

Wide receiver Troy Willliamson is a bottom-third guy. Yeah, that would be two years in a row at wide receiver in the first round, but we're talking about a true burner. Williams has size and speed and we shouldn't discount the attractiveness of his play-making potential.

Those are our early candidates. We begin with that; a lot of names. It's a big list and it will be reduced and modified several times by this time next month, but it's a starting point.

Yeah, you can feel the blood starting to flow, can't you?

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