What is the biggest lesson from the recent Super Bowl? Defenses win championships, and old football cliches will never go out of style. With that, it's time we (finally) start to break down the Jaguars roster and see what changes must be made in order to take the next step and be a Super Bowl contender in 2008. The Jaguars defense suffered in 2007, starting with the slow recovery of Defensive Tackle Marcus Stroud and Defensive End Reggie Hayward and ending with a slew of players on Injured Reserve or simply out of commission (Mike Peterson).
According to the fine folks at Football Outsiders, the 2006 Jaguars defense was 3rd overall by their DVOA system, somehow the 2007 Jaguars only fell to 12th despite the injuries and some terrible performances by normally solid players. The normally solid run stopping Jaguars were 12th in yards allowed, 15th in passing yards allowed, 11th in rushing yards, and a 9th in Sacks. While the problems in stopping the pass were obvious, the decline of the Jaguars as far as stopping the run was a painful reminder of the aging and injuries on our defensive line. With the Jaguars biggest need coming at defensive end and the poor play by some big name players on the line, I decided to begin our position by position look with the big guys up front.
Without further adu, let's start with the Defensive Tackles:
Below you'll see the player stats for our Defensive Tackles. I'm saving myself the trouble of HTML code, so if it's a little small, I apologize.
John, in his 6th year in the NFL, had a disappointing season no matter how you slice it. He's fallen from averaging 52 solo tackles from 04-06 to a meager 32 in 2007. His notorious pressure and intensity were noticeably missing as he struggled to compensate for the lowered performance and outright absence of fellow tackle Marcus Stroud. 2007 told us that John Henderson struggles when he's the main threat on the Defensive Line, as more double teams looked his way without Stroud there to offset. The delicate ballet between the two giant towers is the anchor of our defensive strategy and it's clear that a weakened pair of tackles hurts our ability to stop the run. But I don't want to blame all of John's problems on Marcus Stroud's injury, he missed several practices with personal issues and clearly played like he had other things on his mind.
Let's not forget what makes John so good though. He demands a double team as his bull rush is enough to get him into the backfield on just about every play. He's almost impossible to block for an entire play and he can disrupt the quarterback on passing downs even when matched up on very good offensive lines. He's a two gap player when playing the run, and when he's normal, he plays with a nasty approach that lets teams know who they're lined up against.
John is still a giant force on our defense, and is under contract till 2011, so there's no concern there. He's physically healthy, and with Stroud further along in his micro-fracture recovery, should return as a dominant player on the line. Gregg Williams should be enough to light the right kind of fire under John to get him back up to his 2004-2005 type numbers.
One Word: Disappointment. Marcus went through Microfracture Surgery on his ankle (right, I believe) and never looked anything like he did in 2004-2005. This is the second below par year for Stroud as he underwhelmed in 2006 as well. Marcus, as he's turned 30, went from career years between 03 and 05, averaging 40 solo tackles and at least 3 sacks versus 19 solo tackles and 2 tackles over the last two seasons. Considering that he received a 6.5 million dollar signing bonus in 2005 and 5.2 million in roster bonus in 2006, combined with a 2008 salary of 5 million dollars works out to 238,000 a tackle, and that's just not an effective use of money. Stroud's contract demands 5 million on 07, .5.5 million on 08 and 6 million in 2009. I understand that the final year in most contracts is a "ghost year" designed to inflate the totals and make the player feel warm and fuzzy, but I don't see how Stroud in his current condition is worth even the five million he's due for next season. Even if you discount the injury, he missed games for a "supplement issue", and the team won without him. Stroud needs a contract adjustment that reflects a "prove it" approach, where a return to his better numbers (and we know he's got the ability) gives him the big bucks, but poor play at that high price is simply unacceptable.
Again, even though it's been a really long time since we've seen it, a healthy dominant Stroud is a fantastic thing. If there's any chance at all he can play at his former level, we want him next to Henderson, cause it's a dangerous combination. If, somehow, the two of them are at or near 100%, we can expect a return to Jaguars Defensive Greatness!
It all depends on that right ankle. If he can't get his first powerful step back and return to demanding double teams, he's simply not worth the five million dollars it will cost to keep him. The Jaguars are fortunate to work their contracts the right way, if we had to cut Stroud, he's only going to hit the Salary Cap for 1.75 million dollars. I don't see the Jaguars letting him go for free, his name and reputation are worth enough to merit a draft pick or a solid player in trade, if it comes to that. The Jaguars are pretty deep, in at least in theory, at DT, so Stroud could be somewhere else as the 08 season approaches.
A Sack, a Pick, and a Fumble Recovery. In the Playoffs. On the Road. Replacing John Henderson. As a 5th round pick deemed "too small". Lead Blocker on Maurice Jones-Drew's 96 yard kickoff return. Read this and you'll understand. Derek Landri should have been a nobody this season, hell maybe any season. But he's a hard worker, one of those guys that coaches love because they'll do anything. Special Teams, yup, a great blocker. Relieve Stroud or Henderson for a spell, no problem. Win a playoff game on the road by making a textbook fumble recovery in the snow in his first playoff game while filling in for a pro bowler, done and done. Can you tell I'm big on the guy, even though some consider him "too small" to be a legitimate defensive tackle? Look at him, he's 6-3, 288lbs and fills in for 6-7, 335 lb Henderson. So yeah, he's not the same type of player as our Big Duo, but Derek certainly carved out a role for himself in his rookie year. Best of all, he's cheap, he's got an incredible drive, and uses fundamental leverage and footwork to offset his size disadvantage. I don't know that he'll ever be a full time starter for us, but as part of a rotation, he's going to develop into something special.
No doubt that he'll be a part of the 2008 Jaguars. I'd imagine he'll still be a big part of special teams, as 5th round draft picks don't last long in the NFL if they can't pull their weight on kickoff returns. He loves blocking for Maurice Jones-Drew, who still owes Landri a touchdown from their days at De La Salle high school. Look for Landri to increase his role on the team and establish himself as the Jaguars "change of pace" defensive lineman.
One man's trash is another man's treasure. I'll tell you this, Falcons new head coach Mike Smith (remember him?) will wish Bobby Petrino hadn't cut Jackson so soon. Grady was a mid-season pickup by the Jaguars and certainly one of their best picks. Quite simply, he's huge, at 6 foot 2 and 362 lbs (at the VERY least). He stuffs the run as good as anybody in the league and can, amazingly, bring quite a bit of pressure up the middle. He's a different sort of "big guy" compared to Henderson, but can collapse the middle of the pocket and force a quarterback to move right into the arms of a defensive end. He didn't cost us much money, but he was worth every cent. Marcus Stroud cost us 238k per tackle, Grady was a mere 57k, and worth resigning. He only signed a one year contract with the Jaguars, and at the age of 34, might consider retirement. As far as we're concerned, he's an unrestricted free agent.
Resign, resign, resign. Give him a one year, 2 million dollar contract. Put in some performance incentives based on playing time and impact. Let the guy get paid, but keep him on the team. He's not going to be expensive no matter how you shake it. If Stroud or Henderson go down or not part of the team for whatever reason, he's a proven veteran who can make plays, he's a BIG piece of depth, and he's ready to go right now as we develop our younger players. I can't think of a single reason NOT to keep him, and when we've got 30 million in cap room, we can afford to make a low key signing right here. Think of him as the Jaguars Junior Seau.
Tony is a true "Jar on the Shelf" for the Jaguars. He was limited this season with a wrist injury and some hip issues carrying over from 2006, but he's a big guy (6-7, 295 lbs) who can develop into the eventual replacement for Stroud or Henderson. He's entering his 3rd season in the NFL, and has a few great games under his belt (2006, against Tennessee, 10 tackles and a sack). He's also cheap, considering that he was undrafted, only counting for 360k against the salary cap. Consider him a substitute sort of guy when you look at his numbers and performance and you'll see that he's going to be a rising force on the Jaguars defensive line. At 23 and under contract till 2008 (Restricted Free Agent), this is a year where we'll see what he can do before the Jaguars have to decide about his future.
It really all depends on what happens with our starters, but I'd imagine that he'll see his role increase as we limit the plays for Stroud and Henderson and try to keep them healthy for the entire season. If Tony can show in training camp that he's the real deal, we could have a fantastic problem of too much talent at DT, and I'm completely OK with that. If it comes down to a decision between Tony and Grady, I err on the side of youth, and keep McDaniel.
Talk about value, Rob was drafted by the Jaguars in the 7th round in 2000. What do we get out of him? A guy who can fill in for defensive tackles and ends and do just good enough to keep the Jaguars rolling. Rob is a true depth guy who probably stays on the roster because of his dual role on the line and his ability to just get things done. He's not particularly great at either, and at 30 is probably in his last year as a Jaguar, but for value and depth, a solid guy to have around. With the instability at Defensive End and his skill set, I'd probably keep him over Grady Jackson if I couldn't have both, but I don't expect Rob to be a Jaguar after this season..
Solid Substitution, but possibly more at defensive end. He's a dual threat player that's not really threatening. If that makes any sense. He's mainly used in obvious passing downs, as he's better at pressuring the quarterback, but a bit of a liability in the run. If anyone's getting cut, aside from the possibility of letting Jackson go, it's Rob who's packing his bags. Also consider that Rob's value goes away if the Jaguars go after a Defensive End in free agency or early in the draft.
The biggest question marks at Defensive Tackle revolve around Marcus Stroud. If he's able to return to form, little needs to change at Defensive Tackle. If Stroud is hurting, or we can get something of value (defensive end, wide receiver) for him, I think it would be worth parting ways. Of course, that means that some of our young talent, particularly Tony McDaniel would have to step up and assume a starting role. Health Stroud means that either Rob Meier or Grady Jackson probably goes away, considering that the Jaguars like to draft a young DT with a second day pick. Unhealthy Stroud means that Grady gets resigned, and we start planning for the future. I don't see the Jaguars spending a first day pick at the position.
Who is on the roster in September, without a doubt? Henderson, Landri, McDaniel,
Who is a question mark? Stroud, Jackson, Meier.
Who is gone no matter what? Depends on the ankle of Marcus Stroud and what the Jaguars do at Defensive End.
Next Up: Defensive Ends