Few GMs around the league enter the 2012 season on shakier ground than the Jaguars’ Gene Smith.
Although he just signed a three-year extension in April, Smith is unlikely to make it to the final year of that deal if QB Blaine Gabbert doesn’t quickly right the ship after a disastrous rookie season, in addition to others from Smith’s draft classes and free agency hauls swiftly proving their worth. The last thing Smith and the Jaguars need right now is the face of the franchise grumbling about his contract that has two years remaining on it. Fair hand or not, it appears to be the one Smith is being dealt.
Maurice Jones-Drew, the 2011 NFL rushing champion, has been a no-show for the start of the Jaguars’ voluntary offseason workouts, and head coach Mike Mularkey earlier this week revealed that Mojo is not in attendance because he is trying to secure a contract extension.
Prior to the 2009 campaign, Jones-Drew inked a five-year, $30.95 million deal that included more than $17 million in guaranteed money. After once again putting his team on his shoulders last season — and likely glancing around the division in the past 12 months at the lucrative deals secured by Titans RB Chris Johnson and Texans RB Arian Foster — Jones-Drew and his agent, Adisa Bakari, have decided the time is right to demand a raise. (It's worth noting that Bakari’s other high-profile client, Bears RB Matt Forté, has been unable to secure a new deal dating back to last offseason. If pleasing the client is the No. 1 priority, Bakari also has a mess on his hands.)
Perhaps Jones-Drew has a valid argument.
There isn’t a non-QB in the NFL who means more to his club than he does to the Jaguars, and clearly his production exceeded that of both Johnson and Foster, as well as several other backs who earned more money last season.
However, I think he is taking the entirely wrong approach, and one that won’t play well with Smith, who wants players who put the team first and don’t draw unwanted attention off the field. Jones-Drew’s situation is a major distraction, and the message he is sending by not being with his teammates and a new coaching staff that needs its best player in attendance as it tries to install a new system and philosophy comes off as totally self-serving.
Remember, last offseason, Smith wouldn’t agree to negotiate a new contract with TE Marcedes Lewis, who already had signed the franchise tender, until Lewis ended his holdout and joined his teammates. Lewis agreed to fly to Jacksonville to be with his club and a deal was struck quickly. (Of course, we all know how that worked out, but that is for another column.)
I don’t know whether Smith and the Jaguars are willing to discuss an extension for Jones-Drew or not. After all, while it might seem like a guy in his prime, coming off a career year in which he led the NFL in rushing by a wide margin, might have some leverage, that is not really the case.
The bottom line is that the Jaguars control Jones-Drew’s rights, not only for the next two seasons, but also for up to three seasons after that if they choose to go the franchise-tag route. (Is there any question the players got clobbered on this one in the new CBA?)
I’m not suggesting that Jacksonville will do that; just pointing out that the perception Jones-Drew has any real leverage here is false. As little mojo as the Jaguars' offense would have without Jones-Drew, I have a hard time believing — as I’m guessing the Jaguars’ front office does — that he is willing to sit out the season and forfeit at least $4.45 million in 2012 salary.
I think the best thing Jones-Drew can do is show up to work and continue to discuss his desire for a new deal — while working his tail off with his team. In turn, the media would report on how Mojo is unhappy — but still being a good soldier — and the pressure would rise on the Jaguars to appease their star.
Jones-Drew would earn points with the fans instead of having them view him as just another greedy athlete whose contract doesn't mean much.
As far as Smith is concerned, his job security is directly tied to the success (or failure) of Gabbert, the player he identified last April as the franchise QB. Smith appears to have begun taking the necessary steps this offseason to put Gabbert in much better position to succeed. But that is not the only consideration in determining the success of Smith’s tenure with the club.
How he handles this delicate situation with Jones-Drew will be closely monitored by his boss, Shahid Khan, as well as observers around the league. Caving to Jones-Drew’s demands when the team holds all the leverage is the wrong route to take toward proving he is capable of successfully calling the shots.