Once upon a time, the Jacksonville Jaguars were the NFL's "it" team.
They had a dashing young head coach in Jack Del Rio, dynamic talent at the skill positions and after two playoff appearances and four consecutive second- place finishes in the AFC South, were becoming a perennial thorn in the side of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts for division supremacy.
But instead of taking the next step, Del Rio's Jaguars took a backward step. And three seasons later, they're still scrambling to find their footing.
The Jaguars stumbled from double-digit wins and playoff road warriors to mid- pack divisional also-rans stuck in the abyss between 2008 and 2010, generating offseason chatter about long-term rebuilding projects and a heaping helping of uncertainty heading into 2011.
Most preseason forecasts have them no higher than third in a division still stocked with Manning and the Colts, not to mention the consensus new conference hotshots in Houston and a seemingly resurgent Tennessee Titans squad led by newly acquired quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
The fifth year of the David Garrard era at quarterback ended with four losses in six games to leave the 2010 Jaguars at 8-8, which prompted the franchise brain trust to make an April reach for Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Garrard, who signed a seven-year, $63 million deal after Jacksonville's heady AFC Wild Card Playoff win at Pittsburgh four years ago, completed 64.5 percent of his 366 passes for 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season, but has battled inconsistency and lingering back problems after an early August injury -- leaving the still-green Gabbert a heartbeat away from the No. 1 gig.
The youngster had completed 20-of-39 passes for 181 yards in his first two preseason games, compiling a 64.2 quarterback rating while being sacked five times. Garrard, despite throwing just 12 passes in one cameo over that span, was promptly named the starter by Del Rio for the Jaguars' regular-season opener following Gabbert's so-so first impression.
"No question, you want to make the improvements," Gabbert said after his second appearance. "You want to see yourself get better, see yourself make more throws, make more audibles, be correct the majority of the time. Being a rookie, you're still going to make mistakes. That's just the inevitable part of the process. But you want to make new ones. You don't want to keep making the same old mistakes week in and week out."
Del Rio concurred, and didn't hide his expectations.
"We have the same system. We have the same quarterback. We have the same players," he said."We should expect to play at a higher level. I expect us to play at a higher level and now would be a good time. I guess I look at that as our team is tuning up, it's not just David Garrard. It's not any one player.
"I think as a football team we need to begin to play as a team and play better football and have it all come together for us and with an eye on the opener, yes, no question [we need to improve]."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Jacksonville Jaguars, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 8-8 (2nd, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2007, lost to New England in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Jack Del Rio (65-63 in eight seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dirk Koetter (fifth season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mel Tucker (third season with Jaguars)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB (1324 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 7 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Paul Posluszny, MLB (151 tackles, 2 sacks with Bills)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 15th overall (3rd rushing, 27th passing), 18th scoring (22.1 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 28th overall (22nd rushing, 28th passing), 27th scoring (26.2 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: OG Will Rackley (3rd Round, Lehigh), DE Matt Roth (from Browns), MLB Paul Posluszny (from Bills), OLB Clint Session (from Colts), FS Dawan Landry (from Ravens), P Matt Turk (from Texans), QB Blaine Gabbert (1st Round, Missouri), WR Cecil Shorts (4th Round, Mount Union), OT Tony Moll (from Ravens), OLB Gerris Wilkinson (from Giants), CB Drew Coleman (from Jets)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Mike Sims-Walker (to Rams), OG Vince Manuwai (released), MLB Kirk Morrison (to Bills), OLB Justin Durant (to Lions), P Adam Podlesh (to Bears), QB Trent Edwards (to Raiders), WR Tiquan Underwood (released), OG Justin Smiley (released), DE Derrick Harvey (to Broncos), OLB Slade Norris (released), CB Tyron Brackenridge (released), S Sean Considine (to Panthers), S Michael Hamlin (released)
QB: Now 33 and entering his 10th NFL season, Garrard was over .500 as a starter last season for the second time in five years since inheriting the No. 1 job from Byron Leftwich. The East Carolina product threw for 2,734 yards -- down from 3,597 in 2009 -- and had a 90.8 passer rating, up from an 83.5 mark a season earlier. His completion percentage was seventh in the league and his yards per pass attempt (7.5) were eighth, but he also was also sacked 33 times and committed an NFL-high 11 fumbles. Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Gabbert was the third of four quarterbacks to go in last April's first 12 picks, following Cam Newton and Jake Locker. The Jaguars traded up to get him, dealing away their first-round (16th overall) and second-round (49th overall) selections to the Redskins. In two seasons as a starter at Missouri, he was 18-8 and threw for 6,822 yards.
RB: Two-time Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew (1,324 rushing yards, 7 total TD) led the Jaguars in rushing for the third consecutive season and was fourth on the team with 34 receptions totaling 317 yards and two touchdowns. He started all 14 games he played before missing the final two with a knee injury, snapping a streak of 33 starts in a row. The knee has kept him in street clothes for most of the preseason, but Del Rio said without question he'll be ready for the opener. Jones-Drew's seven 100-yard rushing games in 2010 were a career high and included a streak of six straight, the longest in the NFL last year. Behind Jones-Drew, third-year man Rashad Jennings played in 13 games and started three while rushing for 459 yards and four touchdowns on 84 carries and catching 26 passes for 223 yards. The Jaguars were third in the league with a 149.7 yards per game average on the ground. Eighth-year pro Greg Jones starts at fullback and is considered one of the league���s best.
WR/TE: With Mike Sims-Walker off to the Rams, multi-dimensional Mike Thomas takes over the spotlight role at wide receiver after a season in which he was the team's receiving pass-catcher and top punt returner. He had multiple receptions in 13 games, finishing with 66 catches for 820 yards and four touchdowns. Thomas tied tight end Marcedes Lewis with six receptions of 25-plus yards as well and gained first-down yardage 38 times. He also led team with 34 punt returns for 358 yards and had 12 rushing attempts for 114 yards. Inexperienced Jason Hill, the No. 2 target, was claimed off waivers from San Francisco in November and played in six of the final seven games, catching 11 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. Now in his sixth season, Lewis went to the Pro Bowl for the first time after recording 58 receptions for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns. The receptions and yards were second-best in franchise history by a tight end.
OL: Twelfth-year veteran Brad Meester returns at center, where he'll be flanked by either rookie Will Rackley or free-agent pickup Jason Spitz at left guard and Uche Nwaneri on the right side. Left tackle Eugene Monroe and right-sider Eben Britton return as starters and each enter their third pro seasons after being high draft selections in 2009 -- Britton was a second-rounder from Arizona, Monroe a first-rounder from Virginia. Britton is rehabbing from a torn labrum in his right shoulder, which could yield playing time for sixth-year veteran Tony Moll, signed as a free agent in August. Rackley, a third-round choice from Lehigh in April's draft, has made a strong preseason push in his battle with Spitz to replace the released Vince Manuwai.
DL: The most familiar name on a largely anonymous defensive front is end Aaron Kampman, the two-time Pro Bowler whose last few seasons have been drastically limited by injuries. The former Packer missed five games in 2009 with a torn ACL in his left knee, then played eight games in his initial season with the Jaguars before tearing his right ACL in a November practice. In spite of the time missed, he tied for second on the team with four sacks and had 25 tackles, 13 quarterback pressures, two passes defensed and four tackles for loss. At the other end spot is second-year man Austen Lane, who made nine starts in Kampman's absence and totaled 20 tackles, 12 quarterback pressures and two tackles for loss. On the inside are returning starters tackles Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton. Alualu, the 10th pick of the 2010 draft, started all 16 games as a rookie and recorded 38 tackles with 3 1/2 sacks in a solid debut. Seventh-year end Matt Roth, who had 86 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks as an outside linebacker with Cleveland last year, will also be part of the outside rotation along with holdover Jeremy Mincey (31 tackles, 5 sacks).
LB: Newcomer Paul Posluszny joins the Jaguars at middle linebacker after four seasons with Buffalo, where he started 44 games and had 405 tackles, including three straight seasons of 100 or more. His 151 stops last season were a career high and he's also recorded four interceptions, three sacks, 14 passes defensed and four forced fumbles in his career. The Penn State alumnus was the first Nittany Lions player to record 100-plus tackles three times in a college career and won the Bednarik Award honoring the best defensive player in the nation twice. Veteran Daryl Smith (97 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) returns on the outside and owns a franchise-record 918 tackles and six straight seasons of 100-plus stops. Additionally, Smith is ninth in team history with 10 takeaways. Also outside is ex-Colt Clint Session (38 tackles, 1 sack), another offseason addition who missed 11 games with an elbow injury last year. His career totals include 261 tackles, four interceptions, five forced fumbles and 1 1/2 sacks. Third-year man Russell Allen (38 tackles) returns as the primary backup at all three linebacker spots.
DB: Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis (58 tackles, 1 INT) and Derek Cox (49 tackles, 4 INT) combined for 111 tackles, five interceptions and 16 passes defended for a Jacksonville secondary that allowed 300 passing yards five times last year and attributed to the team's poor total of 419 points allowed, the sixth-highest amount in the league. Mathis enters his ninth season in Jacksonville with franchise records in interceptions (29), interceptions returned for touchdowns (3), interception return yards (511) and takeaways (33). A second-round pick in 2003, he's also sixth in team history with 116 career starts. New to the fold at the free safety spot is Dawan Landry, who signed as a free agent after five seasons with Baltimore in which he started 64-of-66 games, intercepted nine passes and made 387 tackles -- including a career-best 111 in 2010. Joining him is Courtney Greene, who took over a starting role last season and made 77 tackles, defended four passes and intercepted one. Drew Coleman (41 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) was signed from the New York Jets as a nickel back and blitz- package threat and will supply needed depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: New punter Matt Turk (42.1 avg.) enters his 16th season as a 43- year-old, having entered the league as a rookie free agent in 1993 -- when Del Rio was still an active player. The three-time Pro Bowl selection and ex-Texan has played in 235 games for Houston, Washington, Miami, the Jets and St. Louis and has averaged 42.4 yards on 1,100 career punts. Only 38.9 percent of those kicks have been returned, while just three have been blocked. A relative newcomer compared to Turk, eighth-year kicker Josh Scobee led the Jags with 107 points and had 22 field goals last season. On punt returns, Thomas was sixth in the AFC and 14th in the NFL with an average of 10.5 yards per runback. Deji Karim, a second-year pro from Southern Illinois, returned 50 kicks for a 25- yard average last season, which ranked seventh in the AFC and 13th in the NFL. Second-year man Scotty McGee was drafted in the sixth round of last year's draft to be the main return man, but spent his entire rookie year on IR with a fractured scapula.
PROGNOSIS: The challenges come fast and frequently for the Jaguars, who host Tennessee, visit the Jets and host New Orleans in the season's initial three weeks. October features a challenging three-week stretch at Pittsburgh, a home date with Baltimore and at Houston, which is followed by two meetings with the Colts, a trip to Atlanta and visits from Houston, San Diego and Tampa Bay in the season's final half. Altogether, it looks like four months of trial for Jacksonville, which will be hard-pressed to meet -- let alone exceed -- its eight-win total of last season. Expect Gabbert under center by the end of 2011, and possibly a new head coach on the sidelines by 2012.