The 2008 Jacksonville Jaguars secondary, as of now, consists of some combination of Rashean Mathis, Drayton Florence, Brian Williams, Reggie Nelson, and Gerald Sensabaugh. Toss in a few undrafted free agents like Isaiah Garder and Michael Grant and you've got a decent group of folks to choose from. Some, like Nelson and Mathis are homemade drafted talent, Williams and Florence both high priced free agents.
With the exception of Sensabaugh and the recent signings, they were also one of the worst units in pass coverage last season. The 2007 Jaguars allowed 8.6 yards per pass attempt, a number that could have been worse had the team played better quarterbacks. 425 yards allowed against the New Orleans Saints was the low water mark of a secondary that suffered from injuries (Sensabaugh and Mathis), first year rookies (Nelson) and quick veteran fixes (Sammy Knight and Aaron Glenn).
The most glaring issue in the secondary might have been the disappearance of Brian Williams in many games, particularly against the Indianapolis Colts. Wayne, sadly, destroyed Williams, having a 100% success rate against him in both games. 14 of 14 catchable passes toward Wayne were caught. For the season Williams allowed 15.4 yards per attempt. Provided the quarterback could get the ball off, a throw toward Williams was almost a sure-fire first down.
To be fair, a disappointing secondary is part of a larger unit. The absence of pass rush allowed quarterbacks more time to make their throw and required cornerbacks and safeties to cover for a longer period of time, thus allowing bigger plays through the air or the accumulation of hundreds of yards in dink and dunk underneath passes.
The Jaguars attempted to address their secondary with the addition of San Diego's Drayton Florence with 12 million dollars in guaranteed money for a guy who's proven he can be slightly better than average. Of course, he's never played a snap for the Jaguars, so it's yet to be seen if he'll excel under Del Rio and Williams. Reggie Nelson will have another year of experience with the passing of another offseason, and Gerald Sensabaugh will play with two healthy labrums, rather than two torn ones. If you combine this with the Jaguars two defensive ends recently added through the draft there is a reason to be fairly optimistic about the defense. They'll be healthy for the first time in a long time and with a bit more experience as well. The only question is really where Drayton Florence "starts", considering that Brian Williams is still the corner opposite Rashean. 12 million in guaranteed money is an awful lot for a nickel corner, though the Jaguars do run a significant amount of 3 cornerback defenses.
If the statements made by Florence are true, he expects to be the starting cornerback, with Brian Williams moving to safety. Mystery solved, right?
The Jaguars, reportedly, are considering trading 2009 draft picks for Philadelphia's Lito Sheppard.
Frankly, I don't like it, not one bit.
Lito Sheppard is a difficult cornerback to understand. He's been to the pro bowl, he's played in a super bowl, he's got the good interception stats. But there a serious lack of consensus about his talent and skill as a cornerback. When respectable football scientists like KC Joyner or Football Outsiders declare that he has a lack of coverage skills, and that 41% of passes thrown at Lito are caught, that raises an eyebrow. That he's also never played a full season without missing time due to injury, other than 2004 is also a problem.
When you combine that with the fact that Lito is only able to shop himself because he's wanting a big new contract like Asante Samuel and cannot fathom the idea of sharing a secondary with the former Patriot, it only further frightens me.
The Jaguars are doing a fantastic job building an impressive 2008 roster. Trading any 2009 picks for Lito Sheppard is a gross overreach. Lito is not as good as his interception total, and for the contract that he'd demand, I expect a shut down performance.
I agree that the combination of Mathis, Florence, Williams, Nelson, and Sensabaugh would be rather intimidating, but the cost to performance difference with and without Sheppard, based on current performance seems negligable, especially with the cost of putting one of those five players on the bench. If putting Sheppard on the field means benching Florence in non nickel situations, why are we paying Drayton starters money?
More importantly, at what point do the Jaguars go too far in order to win this season? The Jaguars are not in a one year window, they've got youth, a starting quarterback with low miles, a re-signed head coach, and some nice talent on the bench. If 2008 takes us just short of the Super Bowl, it won't be the end of the world as far as the current roster goes. To sacrifice too many draft picks or invest too much salary in the secondary hurts the team in 2009. The Jaguars can expect on picking late in each 2009 round, but to have fewer picks after only 5 in 2008 will severely damage the flow and development of the roster depth. I contend that while the Jaguars have the potential to be very good, what's gotten the team to that point is the patient development of the roster through the draft. Suddenly signing each flashy free agent emerged as the tactic de jour, combined with trading draft picks leads us to small high-risk drafting where missed picks leave us empty handed.
Signing Lito Sheppard does not seem like a reasonable approach toward making the 2008 Jaguars into a significantly better team. Yes, the team must beat players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but there is more to that than just getting the flashy names. Lito Sheppard's performance does not match his price, and putting him into a rotation with Drayton Florence, or moving the latter to Nickel seems overkill.
If Lito is traded and has an outstanding year with the Jaguars and the secondary becomes the best in the league, then yes, I'll wear the egg on my face and eat my hat and all that nonsense. But anything less than that and the team as wasted a foolish amount of money and draft picks. Gene Smith, James Harris, Jack Del Rio, and the rest of the coaching staff MUST see something on film that says "he's the key, he will take us to the Super Bowl", for this move to make any sense. It reeks of desperation and short sightedness. I want to be wrong, I assure you. I'll welcome and cheer for Sheppard just as I would any other signing.
But I can't stop thinking about what 2009 will look like if we've traded a "package" of draft picks to the Eagles. It's not one pick, that's not a package. The plurality of package makes me worry that if it's not one, it could be more than two, which would leave me huddled in a corner crying.
There is of course one caveat to this, and that's the "unknown factor". Perhaps there is an injury that is as yet unannouced. If the Jaguars have a concern about the health of Mathis or Williams, then getting someone like Sheppard, for the right price, is more understandable.
It's understood that if Sheppard is to be traded, it will be before the Eagles "rookie mini-camp" this weekend. Andy Reid wants to speak to Sheppard before then, probably to assure him that he's still "the guy" with Samuel being there, though I hardly imagine that will settle things.
Obviously, we'll have more coming on this issue in the next few days.