Jacksonville's 2008 season was over before it got started when they lost two offensive line starters in Week 1, didn't get good production out of their potential-laden receiving corps and ultimately went on to lose eight of their final 10 games.
The team went ahead and fortified their offensive line this offseason, not only signing veteran tackle Tra Thomas, but also spending their first two picks on offensive linemen: Eighth overall pick Eugene Monroe and second-round surprise Eben Britton. They also signed veteran receiver Torry Holt, who will be playing his home games outdoors for the first time in his 11-year career, and they also drafted three second-day receivers to help add depth to the receiving corps left bare following the releases of Jerry Porter, Reggie Williams and Matt Jones. And they handed the starting running back job -- and the majority of duties that come with it -- to Maurice Jones-Drew.
Suffice to say, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has some new players to toy around with.
With Jacksonville's one-year woes along the offensive line in the rearview mirror, Koetter talked to CBSSports.com about the Jaguars' refreshed offense and the outlook he sees not just for his wideouts, but for his running backs, especially the guys behind Jones-Drew on the depth chart.
It seems like for the third season in a row your receiving corps has a fresh look to it. I'd like to start with Torry Holt. We've done a lot of research on him but felt we needed to go to the source on this one -- aside from his experience, what about him do you like for your offense?
Koetter: Well, it's hard to say 'aside from his experience' because when you talk to Torry for five seconds, his knowledge of the game and enthusiasm for the game jump out at you the most. Torry's a football junkie. Having a guy who you know will be in the right place at the right time and knows how to get himself open whether it's versus man or zone coverage is a big plus for us. I like that, I like the fact that he's a film junkie; he's coming to me telling me what he'll work against a certain team or guy based on what he's watching. He gets chemistry, he gets swagger, he gets concepts and the combination of all that stuff is valuable. The fact that we re-did the receiving corps and added a bunch of young guys sort of made him a mentor to them, which is also huge.
How has he looked so far on the field?
Koetter: He's looked good. He doesn't run like he once did, and when we became interested in Torry we watched a lot of film on him and Torry has explained to me that he knows how to take care of himself and be ready when the time comes. You've got to take him on his word on that.
You mentioned that he's always in the right place at the right time. How valuable is that for you considering you didn't always have that in your past two years in Jacksonville?
Koetter: We have that with Dennis Northcutt, and I can see that for myself with Torry. Now I want to temper that by saying we're practicing in shorts, so I haven't seen Torry's game speed yet. I've seen it on film. He would admit to reporters that he's not as fast as he once was, but trust me that Torry is having no problem getting open in practice and winning in one-on-ones against our best defensive backs. And he does bring a very big comfort feeling to David [Garrard], I've definitely noticed that.
Jacksonville drafted three rookie wide receivers and has another youngster in Mike Walker on the roster. Who has stood out so far this offseason?
Koetter: All of them have had their days where they've looked good. I'll start with Walker -- I'm a big Mike Walker fan, and I don't think any of us could ever fully comprehend how tough of a year Mike had last year. He came off a 100-yard-plus game against the Steelers, feeling like he's coming into his own, and then he hurts that knee and gets that fluke staph infection. All of a sudden, he's in the hospital and they say he's out for four weeks. Then his best friend passes, then his father passes, just an unbelievable string of events. Right now Mike looks confident and healthy, and I think he's going to do some good things for us.
The rookies have all had their moments and they all have different strengths.
Mike Thomas is the compact, strong, explosive in a short field type. I think his effectiveness will carry over into pads.
Tiquan Underwood, I had him graded as a fourth- or fifth-round receiver, so when he was still there in the seventh, it was great. Everybody was watching Rutgers film because they had some other players like Kenny Britt, but Tyquan stood out. I like him a lot, and Tiquan has legitimate speed. He looks skinny, but not in his uniform. I mean, you look at his body weight and you go 'Man, this guy's got to be tiny.' But he plays strong and he plays fast. He tweaked his ankle on the last day of our OTAs, so he might be on the shelf for these last few practices, but he's really stood out and flashed here.
Jarett Dillard has really impressed me. I watched his college film; you have to love what Rice University does on offense throwing it all over the yard, but you have to wonder how it would translate over to the NFL. He has surprised me every day. He has a real natural feel for football. His timing, getting in seams, running option routes, showing great hands. He's exceeded my personal expectations after his college film. He's been working in the slot. Personally, I was somewhat leery because Underwood and Thomas played a lot more slot in college, so I was not necessarily envisioning Dillard there, but some other people in our organization were, and they were right -- he's looked good in the slot.
The great thing about all three of them is that they have great attitudes. They all have come in here and just worked their tails off.
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Is it safe to say that if any of these guys keep it up and have a great camp and preseason that you'll find playing time for them this year?
Koetter: I think that's safe to say. One thing I've learned in my short time in the NFL at the receiver position more than any other position is that we better not get too excited while we're practicing in shorts. You're not seeing any press coverage in OTAs, but when you get into those preseason games where you're going up against players that are pressing us, if we're still as excited then, it's safe to say those guys have a chance to get some playing time.
When we talked in 2007, you said you wanted to take advantage of defenses lining up to stop the run by throwing the ball off of play-action. Considering the new look of your receiving corps, is that still something you'll do?
Koetter: We are, and it worked well for us in '07. The problem in '08 was that people didn't have to line up to necessarily stop the run for two reasons: our O-line was banged up and we were playing from behind a lot. We were forced into throwing it and didn't have the option of making these guys defend the run and then get the good looks to throw against. We want to return to more of that formula from '07, and I think our additions and our health on the O-line will certainly be a big part of that. And then obviously you're always evolving as an offense, always adding and growing, it's a copy-cat league. You're always studying what teams are doing well and trying to see how you can adapt some of that stuff into your own offense.
I can tell by the Jaguars' draft choices that offensive line was a priority for you this offseason. How much of a problem was it for you last year to have so many banged up guys up front?
Koetter: I'll just say this -- we go through all these OTAs, all the training camps, all the preseason games -- but at one point last year we brought an offensive lineman into our building on Tuesday and he started on Sunday. And he actually did a pretty good job, it was Milford Brown, but it's just mind-boggling to me. All of the hours and hours we spend with these guys, and then all of a sudden we brought in a guy off the street and he started the first week he was here. Wow.
How confident are you now in not only your additions, but the return of linemen who were hurt last season?
Koetter: Very. The return to health by a couple of our key guys inside and then the addition of two draft picks and the addition of Tra Thomas have all played a part. I've been impressed with what our O-line has been doing in OTAs, and our depth -- knock on wood that we can stay healthy -- could lead us to seeing some real battles not only for a couple of starting jobs, but for who makes our team.
How have those rookies looked?
Koetter: Eben Britton is playing guard and tackle, so he's got a little bit more of an adjustment than Eugene Monroe does. I think Britton is one of those guys who, when the pads go on, his style will lend itself to be better in pads. I think he's going to be fine. We really like him and the fact that he's playing two positions is nice. You can see that he's more comfortable at tackle than at guard but we're cross-training him.
Eugene's athleticism is just so far off the charts at left tackle. He does a couple of things every day that you just go, 'Wow!'
And it's behind that offensive line where Maurice Jones-Drew will run. I spoke with him earlier this offseason and he's excited about being given the chance to be "the guy." We're excited for him, but we'd like to know how it's shaping up behind him and how it might shake out on the field.
Koetter: First of all, I think Maurice was very patient in waiting his turn to become a feature back, and he's worn a lot of hats in his three years in the league. He's been a third-down back, he's been a short-yardage/goal-line back, he's shown that he can be a first- and second-down back. His numbers speak for themselves.
Inside the Jaguars, we're high on Greg Jones and Greg made himself into a fullback and one of the best in the league in our opinion. But really, Greg is a halfback trapped in a fullback's body. He's had a couple of injuries he's had to overcome, but if you look at the year Le'Ron McClain had for Baltimore last year, I could see Greg being that type of a runner, a physical punisher. And for as good of a fullback as he is, he was only playing maybe 20 snaps a game since we didn't always use a fullback. So if we bump him up to, say, 35 snaps per game and he played some halfback, I think we're going to like what we see.
Elsewhere, we've got a good competition going on between two or three other guys at running back that we're anxious to see. Chauncey Washington had a nice offseason, is improving like any young player would, and he got better throughout the year last year. And for a running back to show everything, he's got to be in pads. Can he make people miss? Can he break tackles? Can he hold up in pass protection? Now Rashad Jennings was a guy we first got to look at when we were coaching the Senior Bowl and he's really flashed in OTAs. He's smooth, he's fast, he's a good learner and he's been real impressive catching the ball -- I didn't realize at the Senior Bowl that he could run and catch like that. So that's going to be a nice competition, and for a guy that we took in the seventh round, I was surprised he was still there and I am glad that he was.
It's been a quiet offseason for David Garrard. Have you seen an improvement in Garrard's game so far following his weight loss?
Koetter: He seems more efficient in his movement, he's spinning it as good as ever. Dave's a real upbeat guy by nature, and I know Dave hears the grumbles out there. 'Is it the 2007 Dave or the 2008 Dave?' And I know Dave feels like the '2007 Dave' every day. There were obviously things beyond his control that happened last year, and I think any quarterback worth his salt will try and take on more responsibility when things are going wrong around him, sometimes to his own detriment. I think Dave just has to get back to playing within himself like he did in 2007 and let other people do their jobs and trust in others and not do too much. He's worked very hard this offseason -- he's done a nice job in the classroom, he's lost the weight, he's bonded with the receivers, stays out every day working extra with the receivers. I think Dave's anxious to get to the season.
What else can you tell us about the Jaguars heading into training camp?
Koetter: We've been studying the numbers and the things that make offenses translate into winning: the turnovers, the explosives, sacks, third-down conversions, red-zone touchdown percentages and rushing touchdowns. Those are the things that we're pushing for and trying to figure out ways to be more explosive and cut down our turnovers, cut down our sacks. Those are things that are proven year-in and year-out to lead to winning football, and we're trying to figure out ways to be better in those areas.
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