Byron Leftwich left the field on Wednesday wearing a smile that had been his spring-long companion. These are good days for Leftwich because he shares in the high expectations for himself and this team this season.
"I feel a whole lot better than I did last year at this time. I don't know if it's the new offense, but you get more and more comfortable with the guys around you. We do have a new offense that has everybody excited," Leftwich said as he paused to soak in a few more minutes of the late-spring sunshine.
It is now abundantly clear that Leftwich is "The Man." The Jaguars will rise or fall on the performance of their third-year quarterback. This is his team. This is his offense. He is, if this spring is any indication, its best player.
Leftwich has never looked better. His passes have never spiraled more tightly. On Wednesday, he threw a dart for Reggie Williams at the right-front end zone pylon that was a thing of beauty.
Jack Del Rio made a point of telling this reporter that Leftwich has even improved his mobility this spring. No, that doesn't mean Leftwich is going to run all over the field this fall. Del Rio was referring to Leftwich's improved mobility within the pocket; a sidestep here, a step up there. Tom Brady is the recognized master of it.
Everything about the Jaguars seems to revolve around Leftwich, so, in taking an end-of-spring look at the Jaguars' prospects for the 2005 season, we'll begin with this: Leftwich has to stay healthy and he has to have a big year for this team to fulfill its potential.
He has weapons. The Jaguars have invested two consecutive first-round picks in wide receivers. Four of the team's last five-highest draft picks have been on the offensive side of the ball.
Leftwich also has a new offensive coordinator, a new playbook and a new outlook. He has a quality offensive line in front of him. The big question on offense is: Will Leftwich have Fred Taylor in the backfield?
It is the number one issue confronting this team as it turns out of spring and into summer. Del Rio maintains that Taylor's knee rehab is on-schedule, but we can't really know for sure until Taylor tests that knee in live action.
Del Rio said on Wednesday that Taylor will increase his level of activity in July and that he will be monitored. That's another way of saying the Jaguars will make a decision on whether or not to look for another running back.
We're talking about a potentially critical decision. We know about Travis Henry's availability. At what point do you pull the trigger on a trade? We may find out.
Defensively, there are no such critical concerns. Some people want to make a big deal about right cornerback, but third-round pick Scott Starks was a knockout performer in spring drills and, quietly, the Jaguars think Starks could become a big-time player.
The defensive line should be one of the best in the league. The pass-rush added a true premium end in Reggie Hayward, and it's hoped 2004 third-round pick Jorge Cordova is recovered from his ACL and will give the Jaguars a pass-rush specialist who can be used creatively.
Safety is a position of strength, bringing us to linebacker, a position whose performance sagged late last season. Second-year man Daryl Smith is being counted on to be a play-maker.
Punter Chris Hanson is booming the ball and second-year kicker Josh Scobee has a live leg. The improvement needed most on special teams is in the return game, where the Jaguars are counting on sixth-round pick Chad Owens to provide big plays.
As spring turns into summer, we see a team with a quality roster. Everything about this team is significantly improved over two years ago. The team speed is better. The salary cap allows for flexibility.
This is a team that doesn't have a lot of issues, but it has that one big one: Will Taylor be ready to go?
It's a question this team now needs to answer as soon as possible. The time for patience has just about expired.