Jaguars general manager Gene Smith commonly refers to this time of the year as the postseason for NFL scouts. Smith and his staff are at the Senior Bowl this week and the evaluation process will continue at the NFL Scouting Combine from February 22-28 before it all culminates with the NFL Draft.
The NFL Draft will begin on Thursday, April 26 with the first round. Rounds 2 and 3 are scheduled for Friday, April 27, and rounds 4 through 7 will be held on Saturday, April 28. The Jaguars have the seventh overall pick in the draft.
If the Jaguars pick seventh, it will mark the fifth consecutive season the club will have a selection in the top 10. The Jaguars owned the second overall pick in the franchise's first two seasons and selected Tony Boselli (1995) and Kevin Hardy (1996), the highest picks in team history. The Jaguars selected 10th overall the last two years and picked Tyson Alualu and Blaine Gabbert.
Smith's first three drafts (2009-11) netted 20 players, and 17 remain with the club today. The group combined for 254 starts over the past three seasons. Of the eight players selected in the first three rounds, seven are regular starters for the Jaguars in OT Eugene Monroe (1st round, 2009), OL Eben Britton (2nd round, 2009), DT Terrance Knighton (3rd round, 2009), CB Derek Cox (3rd round, 2009), DT Tyson Alualu (1st round, 2010), QB Blaine Gabbert (1st round, 2011) and G Will Rackley (3rd round, 2011). 2010 third-round pick DT D'Anthony Smith has missed his first two seasons with injuries.
Eight of the nine players from Smith's first draft class in 2009 remain with the club and the class has combined for 186 starts. Alualu, who has started all 32 games to start his career, headlines the 2010 draft class which has four of six players still on the Jaguars roster. 2010 fifth-round pick Austen Lane made 10 starts over the past two seasons. All five players selected in 2011 remain with the Jaguars and Gabbert and Rackley both started 14 games as rookies.
Emergence of tight end
If the past five years are any indication, the tight end position is becoming a favorite among offensive coordinators around the NFL. Three tight ends finished among the top eight in receptions in 2011 and two ranked in the top four for touchdown receptions.
New England's Rob Gronkowski led the league with 17 touchdown receptions and ranked fifth with 90 receptions. Jimmy Graham of New Orleans was third in the NFL with 99 receptions and finished tied for fourth with 11 touchdown catches. Of course, the Jaguars have 2010 Pro Bowl tight end Marcedes Lewis who tied the franchise single-season record with 10 touchdown catches a year ago.
In Lewis' rookie season of 2006, only one tight end had 75 or more receptions. Over the past five years, with the exception of 2010, those numbers are on the rise. In 2007 and 2008, four tight ends had 75 or more catches including three with 80-plus receptions. Eight tight ends finished with 75-plus receptions in 2009 including three with 80 or more. Only two tight ends had 75-plus catches in 2010 but the number reached new heights in 2011. Seven different tight ends ended the season with 75-plus receptions, four with 80 or more catches.
The Jaguars have a new tight ends coach in 2012 with the hiring of Bobby Johnson last week. Johnson spent the last two seasons as assistant offensive line coach with the Buffalo Bills.
Johnson, who is spending the week at the Senior Bowl, is well aware of how important the tight end has become to NFL offenses.
"The position has really changed," Johnson said. "There were really two different types of players: Were they going to be an extra lineman, or were they going to be an extra receiver? Now they are hybrids where they can do everything. They are becoming a very valuable weapon on offense. I'm excited to be able to work with Marcedes. That is a guy you need in your offense."
Recent history with Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey, who is a former tight end, shows his penchant for involving the tight end in the offense. After joining the Falcons in 2009, veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 19 touchdown passes and recorded 233 receptions in three seasons.
Kyle Brady's 64 receptions in 2000 are the most in a season by a Jaguars tight end. Lewis had 58 catches in 2010.
Eye on defensive linemen
Jaguars defensive line coach Joe Cullen is known for his intensity on the field and his demeanor is the same while watching practice at the Senior Bowl. Cullen has spent the last two days watching the latest crop of defensive linemen, with a close eye on who might be able to help the Jaguars in the future.
"Like anything, you can be a great athlete but not have a motor or some of the characteristics we are looking for," Cullen said. "I really like watching them in the one-on-one competition."
Cullen is back for his third season with the Jaguars and has played a major role in the club improving its sack total in each of his first two seasons. The Jaguars finished with 31 sacks in 2011 including 12 which resulted in a fumble. The sack/fumble statistic is a barometer for a characteristic the Jaguars look for in a defensive lineman.
"The one thing I always look for in a player, and I know this holds true with the Jaguars and Gene Smith, is they have to have a great motor and they have to love football," Cullen said. "If you have a great motor all those other things take care of themselves."
Cullen will spend some time with players this week but will do more detailed interviews with prospects at the scouting combine in February.
Jacksonville media in full force
All three television stations from Jacksonville along with a reporter from the Florida Times-Union are in attendance this week at the Senior Bowl.
Did you know?
The first Senior Bowl was played in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl in 1951 and moved one year later to Mobile's Ladd-Peebles Stadium, where it has remained ever since.
The majority of NFL coaches and scouts will be leaving Mobile on Wednesday evening or early Thursday. Each NFL team will receive a full tape of the workouts and of Saturday's game.
Gators and Seminoles on roster
The South roster features Florida State offensive lineman Zebrie Sanders and former Florida running back Chris Rainey and defensive lineman Jaye Howard. Defensive back Janoris Jenkins transferred to North Alabama from Florida and he is also on the South squad.
The last word
"You are trying to see what kind of athletes they are. How do they perform under pressure? These kids are feeling a lot pressure with all these coaches watching and you want to see how they handle that aspect. On Sundays they're going to have a lot of pressure on them as well and you want to see how they will deal with that. How can they perform under those circumstances?"
---Jaguars tight ends coach Bobby Johnson