Shhhh. We're trying to keep this kind of hush-hush, so be careful who you talk to: There is a surprise party planned for the NFL playoffs, sometime in January, and -- get this -- it'll be at Jacksonville's place.
That's how a complete idiot might describe the Jaguars' outlook. However, it is true that the team has considerable cause for optimism, as it looks to build on its improvement over the second half of last year. Much will depend on the development of quarterback Byron Leftwich (H.D. Woodson), who had an impressive rookie season after taking over from Mark Brunell in Week 4. Leftwich accumulated 2,819 passing yards, the fourth-highest total for a rookie in NFL history; not surprisingly, Peyton Manning sits atop that list, but that the next two are Chris Weinke and Rick Mirer should be an indication that Leftwich still has room for improvement. "I'm pleased with the way he's progressing," Coach Jack Del Rio said. Del Rio wants to play a hard-nosed, ball-control style, so an effective running game is essential, and essential to that is the health of Fred Taylor. After missing 24 full games and parts of nine others in his first four seasons, Taylor has started the past 32 games and rushed for a team-record 1,572 yards in 2003. Defensively, the Jaguars have some holes but are strong in the most important place: the middle. Defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, the team's top picks in the 2001 and 2002 drafts, respectively, are nimble giants who were the primary reason Jacksonville ranked second against the rush last year. On the edges, however, Jacksonville isn't sure where its pass rush will come from after releasing erstwhile sackmasters Hugh Douglas and Tony Brackens; Paul Spicer has the most experience but much more bland than his name would suggest.
Behind them, the Jaguars have improved their personnel by bringing in linebacker Greg Favors and safety Deon Grant, both of whom played important roles in NFC champion Carolina's stingy defense.
Best Hands: When you think of Jimmy Smith -- if ever -- you probably don't think "Future Hall of Famer," but Smith already is in the all-time top 20 in receptions (718) and yards (10,092)
Worst Hands: R. Jay Soward, a 2000 first-round pick and current Toronto Argonaut, had 14 catches for 154 yards in 2000. He suited up for two games in 2001 and sat out all of 2002 because of team- and league-mandated suspensions.
Grading This Year's WRs: Jacksonville may find a happy medium elusive, as Smith isn't getting any younger and Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford (Virginia Tech) are rookies.
WRs Grade: C plus