Jaguars Making Improvements Without Fanfare

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006; 12:09 PM

Offseason Roundup: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the quietest 12-victory teams in recent NFL memory last season. They weren't a threat to win their division, not with the Indianapolis Colts chasing an unbeaten season, and they exited from the playoffs with a lopsided first-round defeat at New England after Coach Jack Del Rio went back to rusty quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was returning from a broken ankle.

They have, mostly, remained under the radar again this offseason, making the biggest splash with the recent abrupt retirement of wide receiver Jimmy Smith. But, without fanfare, they have made a few tweaks and improvements that should enable them to remain a top playoff contender in the AFC and perhaps overtake Indianapolis if the Colts slip a bit with the free-agent departure of tailback Edgerrin James.

Owner Wayne Weaver rewarded Del Rio for the Jaguars' successful season by signing him to a new three-year contract worth about $10 million, replacing the two years that the coach had left on a deal worth $1.3 million per season. Del Rio briefly had been the league's lowest-paid head coach following the dismissal in Minnesota of Mike Tice, who landed on Del Rio's staff in Jacksonville as a Jaguars assistant. The Jaguars have improved their record each season under Del Rio, going from 5-11 in 2003 to 9-7 in 2004 to 12-4 last season.

Defensive tackle John Henderson also got a new deal, signing a six-year, $34 million contract that included $13.6 million in guaranteed money and runs through the 2011 season. The Jaguars' agreement with Henderson came a year after they locked up their other defensive anchor, fellow tackle Marcus Stroud, to a similar extension.

The Jaguars are a small-market team with a defense assembled at big-market prices. The Henderson deal gave them five defensive starters--Stroud, Henderson, end Reggie Hayward and cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams--with contracts containing at least $9 million in guaranteed money. The club signed Williams in March in free agency to a six-year, $32 million deal, including $10 million in bonus money, after the Vikings removed the transition-player tag they'd placed on the cornerback in February.

The Jaguars lost linebacker Akin Ayodele, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys, in free agency but signed Nick Greisen, a former starter with the New York Giants, to replace him.

On offense, the team loses Smith, the seventh-leading receiver in NFL history and perhaps the most accomplished player the franchise has ever had. Smith had 70 catches for 1,023 yards and six touchdowns last season. But he turned 37 in February, and the Jaguars were going to have to prepare for the inevitability of his departure even if he'd hung around for another season. They used first-round draft picks in 2003 and 2004 on wideouts Reggie Williams and Matt Jones, and those two and Ernest Wilford are capable of being a productive trio of wideouts. The Jaguars also signed a pair of wide receivers, Randy Hymes and Troy Edwards, as low-budget free agents.

Leftwich's pass-catching corps got a boost when the Jaguars used their first-round selection in last month's draft on UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis. The club used its second-round choice on Lewis's former Bruins teammate, tailback Maurice Drew. He joins the Jaguars' running-back mix as a possible backup to veteran Fred Taylor. The Jaguars signed offensive tackles Mike Williams and Stockar McDougle as free agents to back up starters Khalif Barnes and Maurice Williams.

This is a good team headed in the right direction. A No. 1 receiver must emerge to fill the void left by Smith's exit, and Leftwich must be healthy going into the playoffs. But the Jaguars have assembled plenty of talented players on both sides of the ball, and there's no reason to believe they won't at least remain at last season's level.

Around The League

The NFL's team owners, as they wrapped up a two-day meeting in Denver Tuesday, set Aug. 18 as the target date for naming a new commissioner.

Paul Tagliabue originally had planned to retire as commissioner on July 31 but said last week he expected to remain in the job longer than that because he didn't think the owners will have hired his successor by then. The season begins on Sept. 7.

The eight-owner search committee appointed by Tagliabue, headed by Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney and Carolina's Jerry Richardson, is to present a list of three to five finalists to the other owners, and it will take at least 22 votes among the 32 teams to hire a new commissioner. Roger Goodell, the league's second-ranking official, is regarded as the front-runner. . . .

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he'd been approached to have his interest in the commissioner job gauged.

Bush said he'd been asked about his possible interest during a meeting with Rooney's brother, Patrick Rooney Sr.

"I met with Mr. Rooney and I said I'm doing my job until I'm finished and then I'm going to consider other things," Bush told the Sun-Sentinel. "But I'm not going to do anything until I finish."

Bush, the brother of President Bush, leaves office in January. He joins Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell among the political figures publicly identified as commissioner candidates. . . .

The owners did not select a stadium site in Los Angeles during their meeting but authorized the expenditure of $10 million for further studies of the two leading possibilities, the Coliseum and a site in Anaheim, Calif. . . .

The competition committee rejected a request by New Orleans Saints rookie tailback Reggie Bush that he be allowed to wear No. 5, his college jersey number at USC. NFL rules require a running back to wear a number between 20 and 49. . . .

The Kansas City Chiefs tabled their annual proposal to expand the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams before it could be put to a vote by the owners. The proposal apparently still lacked sufficient support to be approved. . . .

Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Paul Grasmanis retired after spending most of last season on the injured reserve list. He played only eight games over the last three seasons. . . .

Steelers linebacker Joey Porter is scheduled to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery today. He apparently also wants to have his contract reworked and has been absent from the team's recent voluntary offseason practices. He has two seasons remaining on his current deal, with salaries totaling just under $8.9 million. . . .

Green Bay offensive lineman Kevin Barry suffered a torn quadriceps tendon in his left leg during the Packers' minicamp last weekend and could miss the entire season. The Packers re-signed Barry as a free agent this offseason and he was to vie for a starting job at guard. . . .

Reggie McKenzie, the Packers' director of pro personnel, is scheduled to interview for the Houston Texans' general manager job today. McKenzie will be the second candidate to be interviewed as a possible replacement for Charley Casserly, who resigned after the NFL draft. The Texans previously interviewed Broncos assistant GM Rick Smith.

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