In what has become the unofficial "preseason predictions" time of the year, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver weighed in with his expectations and Weaver didn't take the conservative approach to a team most consider to be in a rebuilding season.
"I like the new division makeup and I think we'll be able to compete very well in the AFC South. For anyone to think we don't have a shot to win our division and get into the playoffs is wrong. I think we have a great shot and I don't think that's being overly optimistic," Weaver told jaguars.com this morning.
Weaver's demeanor oozed with energy as he assessed the state of his football team, which is coming off 7-9 and 6-10 seasons. He said his perspective was bolstered dramatically this offseason by his team's ability to restore its salary cap to relative health, by the additions of key veteran players Weaver believes will solve critical needs, and by the team's draft class.
"We accomplished what we were trying to do, which was put our salary cap back in the situation that we could add depth to our roster. I'm satisfied with the additions of Bobby Shaw, Patrick Johnson and Chris Naeole. I'm really excited about our draft. I think John Henderson is a difference-maker. Mike Pearson fell to us in the second round and we can work him in. You have a young offensive line that can play together for a few years," Weaver said.
"I think we've got a chance to surprise a lot of people. We've got to make some moves after June 1 to improve our defensive football team, and we have (cap) room to do that," he added.
The preseason magazines are expected to pick the Jaguars to finish no higher than third in the AFC South this season. Indianapolis and Tennessee will almost certainly be the division's inaugural-season favorites, but the Colts' and Titans' situations are similar to the Jaguars.
The Colts have an explosive offense and one of the game's premier quarterbacks, but the Colts' star running back is coming off a major injury and new coach Tony Dungy is in the process of rebuilding the Colts defense. Sound familiar?
Tennessee has some big names left from its 1999 AFC title team, but those players have battled injuries the last two seasons and, beyond that, the Titans are confronted by major salary cap problems. Sound familiar?
"Mark Brunell is still one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Jimmy Smith is absolutely one of the premier wide receivers in the league. Kyle Brady is one of the top tight ends. Fred Taylor, if he can stay healthy, has few peers. Those are true weapons. This team can compete," Weaver said in evaluating the status of his team's top performers.
To be a division title contender, the Jaguars will have to count on their star performers continuing to play at their high levels, but Weaver's expectations would seem to hinge mostly on league-wide parity. Last season, New England came out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl, and Pittsburgh and Chicago posted surprising 13-3 records. All three of those teams were consensus preseason picks to finish no higher than fourth in their respective divisions.
"There is more parity across the league. Some people argue it's not good. I say it's great for the fans," Weaver said.
"I think the key is chemistry. There's a buzz and excitement in our locker room I haven't seen in awhile, because there are young players trying to win a job. In 2000 and in 2001 it was too much about me," he added.
Ten years ago, an owner in Weaver's position would've been talking about the slow reconstruction and development of his team's roster. These days, the meteoric rise of teams such as New England and Chicago has provided every team with the hope they can do the same.
"The salary cap has changed all of that," Weaver said of slow and painful rebuilding. "We all spent above the water line and teams have to purge players who are still great athletes. They're going back and rebuilding their rosters with more depth. It's the team that can generate the chemistry and play together as a team, and not so much about the star status," Weaver said.
Regardless of the record the Jaguars' post in 2002, they are certain to finish the year in better shape than they were in at the end of last year. Then, they were a capped-out, old team facing a major overhaul. When the '02 season ends, the Jaguars should be a cap-healthy, young team looking to build on its nucleus during the offseason.
"We still can improve over the next couple of years, and we will," Weaver said of his team's salary cap situation. "But we're in good shape to create the future model; keeping our core players we can build around and adding depth."