Under the leadership of GM Gene Smith since 2009, the Jaguars have been one of the best in the league at creating April smokescreens to conceal their draft intentions. Last year, the pre-draft buzz concentrated on Jacksonville landing Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan. Instead, Smith aggressively dealt up six spots to land QB Blaine Gabbert, leaving Kerrigan to fall into the hands of the Redskins in the 16th slot.
This year, logic would indicate a pass rusher would remain a top priority, with Aaron Kampman coming off a season-ending injury. Talk in league circles, however, favors a receiver.
"Jacksonville needs a pass rusher in the worst way," said one NFL executive. "They need a receiver, too. It’s crazy how much they paid Laurent Robinson (reportedly $32.5 million over five years) after he was on the street early in the year. If Gene doesn’t give Blaine another target, the reality is that Blaine could fall into the same trap that David Carr did (in Houston). He lost his confidence behind an awful offensive line and was never able to get it back.”
"They only had one receiver (Mike Thomas) in Jacksonville last year, and he is really a No. 3 in this league. I still don’t think they have a starting receiver. At his best, Robinson is a 2 and, to me, he’s not starting on a good team. They need to add a receiver badly, whether it’s in free agency or the draft. They already signed one. I personally think they have to draft a playmaker with the top pick."
With Smith in charge, the Jaguars have placed an emphasis on character in the first round, selecting Eugene Monroe, Tyson Alualu and Gabbert the last three years. Whether Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon or Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd fits Smith’s character standard remains a question.
Concerns have arisen about Blackmon in the NFL scouting community after he opted not to take the team charter home from the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, he chose to fly directly to Las Vegas and then elected not to work out at the Combine, where NFL executives thought he had not prepared well enough to perform after he turned down challenges to run.
Floyd has been inching up draft boards since clocking as low as a 4.40 40-yard time at the Combine at nearly two inches and 13 pounds heavier than Blackmon. Three of seven teams with whom PFW consulted confided that Floyd is stacked ahead of Blackmon by their account, with one GM who's not in a position to draft Blackmon saying he had a second-round grade on the Cowboys' receiver.
"I just don't see it," the GM said. "I heard everyone raving about his pro day. Am I the only one who thought it was an average workout? He ran a 4.51 and 4.52 on my watch. The workout itself, I thought, was average at best. I didn't see any twitch or explosion. He has been raised by Dez Bryant. They are both knuckleheads — I've heard the Vegas stories. There are some (red) flags there."
Other NFL eyes remain convinced Blackmon will not escape the top seven.
“I don’t know how (Blackmon) gets past Cleveland or Jacksonville,” said another NFL evaluator charged with setting the team’s draft board. “He’s a playmaker. He’s got that bullshit to him, but almost all of them at that position have it. Look at Michael Irvin and Steve Smith and DeSean Jackson. When (Blackmon) is on the field, he competes. Guys can beat him up off the field, but he has been productive in every big-game competition. He’s not in the same class as Julio Jones or A.J. Green. Those guys were more elite athletically. But the kid ran a 4.47 and 4.49 (at his pro day) — he is 4.50 all day on tape.”
The Jaguars’ defensive improvement last season and the hiring of an offensive-minded head coach (Mike Mularkey) were cited as further reasons why offense takes precedence for them early in the draft. The Jaguars moved from dead last in yards allowed per play in 2010 to eighth in 2011 and return defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to the post.
However, with the Giants' recent success, more teams have been looking to follow New York's formula of stockpiling pass rushers. And with receiving help in more abundant supply than pass rushers throughout the draft, the Jaguars may find it too difficult to pass on an elite rusher, with evaluators seeing Melvin Ingram as a legitimate possibility.
The last two years, several GMs confided to PFW that the Jaguars had been mandated to trade down because of cash-flow issues that motivated Wayne Weaver to sell the team. Instead, Smith stayed put at No. 10 in 2010 and then moved up in last year's draft to grab Gabbert.
If their recent pattern stays true to form and the Jaguars do the opposite of what they're expected to do, they very well might trade down on Draft Day and attempt to upgrade holes both on the defensive line and at receiver. If Blackmon happens to fall, many around the league are convinced Smith will stay put, as he did in his first draft when Monroe fell to him to fill his highest position of need.