Heading into the third preseason game, one of the big points of emphasis to watch for the Jacksonville Jaguars is their offensive line. It's a unit that's struggled so far in two games, albeit without starting right tackle Eben Britton. In the 2009 NFL Draft, the Jaguars and then new general manager Gene Smith decided to draft offensive tackles with their first and second round picks. At the time, it was a great low-key coup to help build for the long-term. With the first pick (8th overall) the Jaguars selected left tackle Eugene Monroe. With their second round pick (39th overall) they selected right tackle Eben Britton.
At the time, it looked like a sly move by the new general manager and the epitome of his supposed "base hit" philosophy. Offensive lineman are generally very safe draft picks. If they don't work out at tackle, you can usually kick them inside and make effective guards out of them. Both Britton and Monroe started on opening day and showed flashes as well as looking like rookie tackles. The team in 2009 struggled passing the football and the offensive line as a whole gave up 44 total sacks. That's not wildly unexpected, given the team was starting two rookies at offensive tackle.
In 2010, the two rookies were expected to make their leap and solidify their positions. Monroe played a bit better, but still wasn't what you would expect from the 8th overall pick whom most expected to be the first offensive tackle taken in the draft. Britton on the other hand struggled a bit in pass protection from the get-go and wound up going down for the season with a torn labrum. The team allowed less total sacks in 2010 with only 38 allowed, but overall the pass protection still wasn't great.
Heading into 2011, we've heard all through camp about the shape that Eugene Monroe is in, and he is in fantastic shape, but he's still inconsistent technique wise. He's allowed pressure far too often in the first two preseason games and has more mental lapses just letting a guy straight up beat him off the edge than you'd like to see from your 8th overall pick in his third season. While Monroe certainly isn't playing poorly, he needs to be more than just "solid" at the left tackle position.
On the other side with Eben Britton, he practiced sparingly in the beginning of training camp with some injuries and recently had back surgery to repair a bulging disc he injured while doing squats. Even before Britton was injured, he didn't look very good in practice. He was whipped continuously by defensive end Austen Lane, who's slipped down the depth chart as practice has continued on. Britton's yet to play in a preseason game and isn't expected to be available until the home opener on September 11th against the Tennessee Titans, if that. He returned to practice yesterday in an extremely limited capacity, but I have my doubts he'll be ready to go at an effective level for the first game.
I mentioned Monroe was considered the top left tackle in the NFL draft in 2009 by most draftnicks, but he wound up being the third tackle taken overall. Both Jason Smith (Rams) and Andre Smith (Bengals) were drafted before him. Thus far, both of those players have been disappointments. Jason Smith was replaced at left tackle the following season by rookie Rodger Saffold and kicked to the right side where he's been solid. Andre Smith has started only 5 games the past two seasons and has constantly battled injuries. Even so, he's been kicked to the right side of the offensive line.
After Monroe was selected, the most known tackle in the draft Michael Oher was selected by the Baltimore Ravens. He spent his rookie season on the right side of the offensive line, as well as some last year. The Ravens just recently signed offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie to play left tackle and kick Oher back over to the right side.
So, that's three of the four left tackles taken in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft being kicked to the right side, where pass protection is a bit easier as you're typically not facing a teams premier pass rusher. I'm not suggesting Monroe be kicked to the right side of the line, because quite honestly there is no one else on the roster who can play left tackle anywhere close to the level on Monroe, but it does make you ponder if the offensive line was "fixed" or not for the long term at those positions.
Oddly enough, the best offensive tackle in the 2009 draft may have been second round pick Sebastian Vollmer, who made the 2010 All-Pro Team at right tackle after starting for an injured Matt Light at left tackle in 2009 and playing both sides throughout the 2009 season.
This is a position group that really has to take that next step for the Jaguars to be successful. It was expected the offensive line with the return of Eben Britton and the natural progression of Monroe would be a strong point of the 2011 Jaguars. With the loss of guard Vince Manuwai, it went from a veteran group of interior lineman to inserting a third round pick rookie in Will Rackley and two veterans. Monroe will not only have to make sure to shore up his technique and play more consistent, he'll now also have to pick up the slack for a rookie who's undoubtedly going to make some mental errors and mistakes early in the season.
Unfortunately, outside of the wide receiver position, it looks like the weakest group on the Jaguars is their offensive line. They should be fine running the football, but if they cannot significantly up their game in the pass protection department the Jaguars offense is once again going to spin their wheels in the passing department, regardless of who the quarterback is.