In Gene, Jaguars fans trust

Posted April 13, 2011 @ 3:31 p.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

Jaguars fans — like fans of every NFL team — are searching for positives in a time when greed and selfishness threaten the integrity and well-being of the game we all love.

The momentum from a tremendous effort by fans and the Jaguars' marketing team to sell out all eight home games last season — one year after 7-of-8 home games were blacked out — has been lost in part due to the uncertainty of when football will return. Despite extending the renewal date twice, the team must sell 12,000 additional season tickets in the next 2½ weeks to reach its goal.

Aside from the work stoppage, Jags fans are forced to endure another season with Jack Del Rio at the helm — Del Rio is only the second head coach in NFL history to complete his first eight seasons in charge without capturing a division title. Why will Del Rio be back in 2011? Simply because frugal owner Wayne Weaver does not want to be on the hook for paying two coaching staffs. Understandable, except for the fact that Weaver was responsible for rewarding Del Rio with a long-term extension in 2008; a deal most league observers thought was given prematurely.

But Weaver did get one thing right that Jaguars fans can feel good about as a very unorthodox draft — one that figures to see more teams than usual make rash decisions — quickly approaches: hiring GM Gene Smith in ’09 and giving him total control over all personnel decisions.

With the draft preceding free agency this year, many teams will place more of an emphasis on filling needs through the draft — an approach that Smith has no interest in.

An ardent believer in drafting the best available player regardless of position, Smith has great confidence in himself and his scouting staff to build a strong, accurate draft board and stick to it — regardless of temptations to fill more glaring needs that are sure to arise come draft weekend.

The best-available-player (BAP) approach to drafting is so important in the NFL because while the needs of a team can change, the need for talented players will always remain. Injuries are such a big part of the game that teams can never have enough talented players. Outside of the QB position, if a kid can play, teams will find a use for him.

In Smith's first draft as GM in '09, talented OLT Eugene Monroe fell into Jacksonville's hands at No. 8 overall. When it was the Jaguars' turn to draft again in the second round, Smith did not hesitate in selecting ORT Eben Britton with the 39th overall pick. Team sources think Monroe and Britton could be the O-line's bookends for the next decade.

Last year, in addition to shocking most around the league by drafting first-team All-Rookie DT Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick, Smith used his next three picks on D-linemen.

After injuries depleted the unit during the season, the Jaguars got solid contributions from three of the four selections — third-round DT D'Anthony Smith suffered a season-ending injury during OTAs.

If Judge Susan Richard Nelson rules in favor of the players in an antitrust suit filed against the owners, some have predicted that an accelerated free-agency period will begin soon after the draft.

This will be an opportunity for teams to fill needs that weren't addressed in the draft, and several clubs are likely to overspend on guys.

Smith and the Jaguars aren't likely to be one of them, however. While Smith does view free agency as an opportunity to complement his young squad and fill holes where he sees fit, he is not one to overspend on older players who will not be part of the team's foundation. DE Aaron Kampman and special-teams stud Kassim Osgood were acquired last season because they were affordable, high-character guys who Smith believed would be able to help the team for years to come.

Smith's practical approach has helped build a young, solid foundation in Jacksonville, and is a far cry from the past practices of acquiring players employed by former vice president of player personnel James "Shack" Harris and Del Rio. And knowing that the team is now in much better hands to navigate these uncharted waters than it was just three years ago is at least one major positive for Jaguars fans.