In Jacksonville, All Eyes Will Be on Leftwich
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; 11:16 AM
Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said at the annual league meeting that the Jacksonville Jaguars might be the NFL's most improved team. That might be a stretch, for the Jaguars will go only as far as young quarterback Byron Leftwich takes them. But they are, at least, a team on the rise again after four straight losing seasons. Those seasons were particularly disappointing because they came on the heels of the team's second appearance in the AFC title game under former coach Tom Coughlin, in the 1999 season.
The Jaguars surprised some in the league when they hired Jack Del Rio as head coach in January 2003. Del Rio was three months shy of his 40th birthday and had been an NFL coordinator for only one season, serving as the Carolina Panthers' defensive boss in 2002 under Coach John Fox. But the former Pro Bowl linebacker learned from some of the best, serving as the Baltimore Ravens' linebackers coach under defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and Coach Brian Billick before working for Fox, and he did not appear overmatched as a head coach last season even though the Jaguars went 5-11.
Del Rio made a significant change to his coaching staff this offseason when he fired his friend and former Dallas Cowboys teammate, Bill Bates, as his special-teams coordinator and hired Pete Rodriguez. Rodriguez doesn't come cheap, with a salary of about $500,000 per season, and he was dismissed by the Seattle Seahawks because of differences with Coach Mike Holmgren. But he is one of the league's top special-teams coaches, and he likely will make a difference for the Jaguars.
Jacksonville attempted to upgrade its defense in free agency by adding a pair of Del Rio's former Carolina players, safety Deon Grant and linebacker Greg Favors. But the Jaguars lost cornerback Fernando Bryant as an unrestricted free agent, and must find a new starter to go with Rashean Mathis. The candidates include holdover Kiwaukee Thomas and free-agent additions Juran Bolden, Dewayne Washington and Lewis Sanders.
Safety Donovin Darius has rejoined the club's offseason program after being told by Del Rio to stay away temporarily when he sulked about being kept off the free agent market by being named the team's franchise player. The Jaguars could use a return to form by defensive end Hugh Douglas, who had only 3 1/2 sacks last season after signing with the Jaguars as a celebrated free agent. He had 51 1/2 sacks the previous five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. But his play for Jacksonville was listless. He turns 33 in August, and some in the league believe he could be a salary-cap cut in June. That appears unlikely because the Jaguars didn't draft a potential successor, but another subpar season could prompt Douglas's exit. The team released veteran defensive end Tony Brackens, but still could re-sign him.
The show on offense now belongs to Leftwich, who enters his second pro season as the unquestioned starter after the Jaguars traded veteran quarterback Mark Brunell to the Washington Redskins in March. Leftwich appears to be the real deal but the Jaguars will have to live with some mistakes, and the talent around him on offense is not overwhelming.
The Jaguars seemed intent on using the ninth overall pick in the draft on a wide receiver, and had to settle for Washington's Reggie Williams because the top two receivers in the draft -- Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald and Texas's Roy Williams -- were off the board and USC's Mike Williams was made ineligible by an appeals court ruling in the Maurice Clarett case. Most executives around the league viewed Reggie Williams as worthy of a mid-first-round choice rather than a top-10 selection, but Jacksonville's two second-round picks -- Georgia Tech linebacker Daryl Smith and Florida State tailback Greg Jones -- could end up being well worth it.
Del Rio seems like a coach capable of returning the Jaguars to AFC prominence, but the club's followers probably will have to be patient for at least another year while the team endures Leftwich's growing pains.
Around the League
Collins to Visit Green Bay
Free agent quarterback Kerry Collins is scheduled to visit the Green Bay Packers tonight and Wednesday. Collins initially rebuffed the Packers' interest in him as a prospective backup to Brett Favre, but no other team has offered him a starting job and a contract to his liking. Still, it remains a long shot that Collins would sign with the Packers. Signing with the Oakland Raiders still appears to be his best shot at earning immediate playing time, and the Packers still seem to have Tim Couch atop their shopping list if they can work out a new contract with Couch and agent Tom Condon as a precursor to a possible trade with Cleveland (or wait long enough for the Browns to release the former top overall draft choice). The Packers also have hosted free agent Damon Huard.
Dolphins, Ogunleye Finally Talking About Long-Term Deal
The Miami Dolphins have opened negotiations with defensive end Adewale Ogunleye on a long-term contract. The club made a multi-year offer Monday to agent Drew Rosenhaus, who is scheduled to deliver a counterproposal within a few days. The sides appear far from a deal but at least are talking after being stuck in a stare-down contest for weeks. Ogunleye and Rosenhaus have threatened a holdout if the parties can't agree to a long-term deal, saying that Ogunleye will not play the entire 2004 season for the one-year, $1.824-million contract that the Dolphins tendered to the reigning AFC sack champion in restricted free agency.
Bowlen Understands Sharpe's Decision
Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said in a telephone interview Monday that he understood tight end Shannon Sharpe's decision to leave the Broncos to accept a spot on CBS's NFL studio show. Bowlen said he didn't like losing Sharpe as a player but knows that such jobs aren't available very often. Bowlen is the chairman of the NFL's broadcasting committee and will lead the owners' upcoming negotiations on a new television contract with the networks. . . .
Troy Hambrick appears to be the early front-runner to be the Raiders' starting tailback, ahead of fellow free-agent addition Amos Zereoue and holdovers Tyrone Wheatley and Justin Fargas. The Raiders signed Hambrick on Monday, only four days after he was released by Dallas.
Next: Kansas City Chiefs
© 2004 washingtonpost.com
_____ Jacksonville Jaguars _____ • Coach: Jack Del Rio (entering second season with team)
• Players Released
DE Tony Brackens
LB Michael Josiah
DE Javor Mills
LB Joe Tuipala
LB Eric Westmoreland
• Free Agents Lost
OL Leander Jordan (San Diego)
CB Fernando Bryant (Detroit)
LB Danny Clark (Oakland)
G Jamar Nesbit (New Orleans)
• Free Agents Added
TE Todd Yoder (Tampa Bay)
LB Tommy Hendricks (Miami)
G Mike Compton (New England)
CB Lewis Sanders (Cleveland)
CB Dewayne Washington (Pitt.)
S Deon Grant (Carolina)
K Jeff Chandler (San Francisco)
LB Greg Favors (Carolina)
CB Juran Bolden (Atlanta)
T Ephraim Salaam (Denver)
QB Doug Johnson (Atlanta)
• Free Agents Re-Signed
S Donovin Darius
LS Joe Zelenka
OL Sammy Williams
QB Mark Brunell (Washington)
CB Jason Craft (New Orleans)
WR Kevin Johnson (Baltimore)
• Draft Picks
Rd. 1 (No. 9 overall) WR Reggie Williams, Washington
2 (39) LB Daryl Smith, Georgia Tech
2 (55) RB Greg Jones, Florida State
3 (86) LB Jorge Cordova, Nevada
4 (118) DT Anthony Maddox, Delta State
4 (120) WR Ernest Wilford, Va. Tech
5 (137) K Josh Scobee, La. Tech
5 (150) CB Chris Thompson, Nicholls State
5 (159) T Sean Bubin, Illinois
7 (249) DE Bobby McCray, Florida