James Harris says he doesn't believe in long-term plans, but what the Jaguars do in free agency this year will go a long way toward defining his strategy for building the Jaguars into a division title and playoff contender.
Through Harris' first two years as the Jaguars' director of player personnel, the Jaguars have used free agency conservatively and judiciously. They took the one mighty swing and struck out on Hugh Douglas, but even at that they covered themselves by structuring Douglas' contract so they wouldn't be pinned against the amortization.
Last year, with the sting of the Douglas deal still fresh, the Jaguars were ultra-conservative in signing free-agent bargain types, such as Todd Yoder, Tommy Hendricks and Greg Favors. There were no swings for the fence.
So what will it be this year? What will the start of free agency on March 2 provide in the way of a response from the Jaguars? The team will have about $17 million in salary cap room to spend on free agents, and there will be interesting candidates at positions where the Jaguars have perceived need.
"It's a necessity that you go out and get selective free agents," said Harris, a former pro personnel director with the Baltimore Ravens who believes strongly in the need for teams to access the talent available in free agency.
The Jaguars' first personnel boss, coach Tom Coughlin, was an ultra-aggressive participant in the free-agent market. There's no doubt what Coughlin would do with $17 million of cap room. The only question is would there be any left for the second week of free agency?
Coughlin had a defined long-term personnel plan for the Jaguars: always address need. It's how he used free agency and it's also how he used the draft. Coughlin was not a patient man. What he did in each offseason was the direct result of what he believed the team needed to acquire to win in the upcoming season.
In 1996, Coughlin signed tackle Leon Searcy to a free-agent contract that made Searcy the highest-paid offensive lineman in history. Coughlin solved a need for a blocker to protect Mark Brunell's blind side, then Coughlin addressed another need, linebacker, by making Kevin Hardy the second pick of the draft.
Good decisions, right? Well, yeah, but the problem is the Jaguars passed on tackle Jonathan Ogden – for the obvious reason – with that second pick of the draft and, of course, Ogden is headed for the Hall of Fame. The Searcy-Hardy combination helped the Jaguars make it all the way to the AFC title game in '96, but passing on Ogden was a long-term mistake.
Harris appears to be less aggressive in free agency. He took the swing at Douglas and he spent some money on Mike Peterson in 2003, too, but indications are Harris favors spending a little on a lot, instead of a lot on a little.
In other words, Harris seems to favor numbers. If you sign enough free agents, a couple of them are bound to work out, right? It's been a productive philosophy through the first two years. Peterson has been a productive starter. Favors came out of nowhere last year to lead the Jaguars in sacks. He was part of an eight-man free-agent class last season that also produced starting free safety Deon Grant and special teams stars Todd Yoder, Tommy Hendricks and Juran Bolden.
So what does Harris have planned for this free-agent season? More of the same? Or, with $17 million of cap room and the team seemingly on the verge of making the playoffs, does Harris swing for the fence?
"What we have to do is decide if they fit for us at that price. You don't want to overpay for a need," Harris said.
Does that answer the question? It would seem Harris is determined to use free agency as a complement to the most important forum for player acquisition, the draft.
Coughlin was a needs drafter, and he was very good at matching need and value in the first round. Tony Boselli, Fred Taylor, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson represent first-round home runs by Coughlin. Stroud and Henderson, Coughlin's final two first-round picks as Jaguars coach, represent the foundation of the team's future under head coach Jack Del Rio.
Where Coughlin's "needs" philosophy struggled was in the late rounds. As expected, the deeper you go into the draft the more difficult it is to match need and value.
Harris espouses the "best available player" philosophy. Only two drafts into his career as Jaguars personnel boss, Harris appears to have scored hits on the first day with Byron Leftwich, Rashean Mathis, Vince Manuwai and Daryl Smith. The jury is still out on Reggie Williams and Greg Jones, who were first and second-round picks last season, and '04 third-rounder Jorge Cordova blew out his knee in last summer's training camp.
Where the Jaguars really hit home runs in last year's draft was in the late rounds. Fourth-round wide receiver Ernest Wilford became an immediate play-maker. Fifth-round kicker Josh Scobee booted a game-winning, 53-yard field goal in Indianapolis and appears to be the Jaguars' long-term leg. Seventh-round defensive end Bobby McCray is a major find who could become a starter at one of football's most premium positions.
What is the key to personnel success? Well, in today's game, it would appear to be the ability to marry the draft with free agency, and vice versa. Harris' philosophy of using free agency to address need and the draft to acquire value is logical.
"You may have gotten a couple of players in free agency and now you're deep and you may want to pass on a guy in the draft. It depends on how good he is. You never pass on a great player because great players affect the game," Harris said.
"I try to keep it simple," he said, rejecting the idea of a long-term plan. "Each year you try to upgrade your roster. You have to upgrade your roster with respect to the salary cap. If you continue to upgrade your roster, you're going to be a better team."
All indications are the Jaguars have upgraded their roster during the first two years of the "new era." They've gone from 5-11 and a fourth consecutive losing season in 2003, to a 9-7 record last year that missed the playoffs by one game. The record and the roster are on the rise while, at the same time, the salary cap has never been healthier.
If there is such a thing as a long-term plan, that would be a good one. It's worked for the Patriots, who keep winning Super Bowls by replacing productive players in affordable free agency and providing for the team's future with quality draft picks. The Patriots are also one of the game's best cap managers.
This free agency period will give us a strong indication if that's the Jaguars' plan.