Lessons from a Jaguars GM

Phil Sears-US PRESSWIRE

The Jacksonville Jaguars need more talent. Where is a template for building a winning team? Why don't we start at the beginning?

Some things in the Jacksonville Jaguars' short history are fun to debate. Who is the best defender in Jaguars history? Who is the Jaguars best running back of all-time? Which is the best game in Jaguars history? How about the best play? The worst play? Who is the greatest Jaguars player of all-time? These questions usually spark a lengthy and healthy discussion among fans.

But some things really aren't up for much debate. Want a short exchange? Try this conversation starter:

Who is the best GM in Jaguars history?

Answer: Tom Coughlin

Yes, I know that neither Coughlin nor Shack Harris were actually in positions titled "General Manager" but they were the top decision-makers for personnel at the time they were employed with the team. Tom Coughlin was the best of these guys and it's really not even close.

Coughlin took a team without players and crafted a roster that made the AFC Championship Game and the end of his second season. By the fifth season on the job, Coughlin had built a team that had the NFL's best regular season record and was just one step away from the Super Bowl.

So how did he build a winning team? Let's look at the lessons we might learn from the glory days.

  1. Make your Top 10 Draft Picks Count

Coughlin had four Top 10 draft picks and none of them were busts. Tony Boselli (no. 2 overall, 1995) and Fred Taylor(no. 9 overall, 1998) have their names in the Pride of the Jaguars. The other two picks, Kevin Hardy (no 2 overall, 1996) and John Henderson (no. 8 overall, 2002) were long-term fixtures and productive players on the team. If your team gets a chance to take a player this high, you definitely cannot afford to pick a bust, but really you need a home run. All four of these players made the Pro Bowl at least once in their career. How about the seven other Top 10 picks for the Jaguars? 0 Pro Bowls.

Harris' best Top 10 Pick? WR Reggie Williams (no. 9 overall, 2004)

Gene Smith's best Top Ten Pick? LT Eugene Monroe (no. 8 overall, 2009)

  1. Don't Be Afraid to Trade

Before the Jaguars first draft, Coughlin made a bold move. He traded a 3rd and a 5th round pick for Third-year QB Mark Brunell. He had been drafted in 1993 and had been backing up Brett Favre. Brunell didn't even see the field his rookie season. In 1994 he appeared in 2 games for the Packers completing 12 of 27 passes (44.4%) for 95 yards and a 53.5 passer rating. Doesn't sound too impressive does it? For a team that already had Steve Beuerlein and needed to add as many players as possible, it seemed like a curious move at the time. Obviously Coughlin saw the qualities that he wanted for his team and pulled the trigger. Brunell went on to make 3 Pro Bowl appearances (1996, 1997, 1999) and became the face of the franchise.

Smith's best trade? Dwight Lowery from the Jets for a 7th round pick

  1. Know Which Positions Matter

Many observers believe that there are certain premium positions in football. QB, LT, DE, CB, and WR are often mentioned as 5 of the most important.

Coughlin's teams strove to have good players at all the most important positions. The first draft pick in the Expansion Draft? A Quarterback. The first draft-day trade? A Quarterback. The first draft pick in franchise history? A Left Tackle.

However, It didn't stop there. Coughlin relentlessly pursued talent at the key positions. He had drafted Two OTs in the 1995 draft, but that didn't stop him from signing Leon Searcy to be the highest paid tackle in the game to protect Brunell's blind side.

He had Beuerlein and Brunell on the team but that didn't stop him from drafting Rob Johnson in the fourth round on the 1995 draft.

Coughlin had Jeff Lageman, Joel Smeenge, and Tony Brackens on the team but that didn't stop him from claiming Clyde Simmons when he came available in the 1996 preseason.

Coughlin negotiated with cornerbacks in free agency, and drafted Aaron Beasley and Fernando Bryant.

Even after Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell had established themselves as one of the best wide receiver tandems, Coughlin continued to try to improve the position, drafting R Jay Soward in the first round of the 2000 draft. Although this pick was an unqualified bust, it showed what Coughlin thought of the importance of the position.

Coughlin wanted to be great at the most important positions and always tried to improve them, regardless of who had had drafted at those postions.

Harris' best player at a key position? CB Rashean Mathis

Smith's best player at a key position? LT Eugene Monroe

  1. Embrace Free Agency

Coughlin had some strikeouts in free agency, but he kept swinging and swinging big. Coughlin hit the ground running at the start of the 1996 free agency period he signed Alonzo Spellman and Quentin Coryatt to offer sheets which were matched by their teams. He negotiated with Aeneas Williams but was turned down. He signed Todd Lyght to an offer sheet which was later nullified on a technicality. He snagged Searcy, Andre Rison, and Keenan McCardell that year. He claimed Natrone Means off waivers.

Other notable free agents came later like Kyle Brady, Bryce Paup, and Carnell Lake. Obviously, some of these signings worked out much better than others. However, Coughlin just wanted to improve his team. He wasn't deterred by Rison's and Means' less-than-stellar reputations. He believed he could make it work with them in Jacksonville. Many Jaguars fans remember fondly the time that the team was a serious player for the league's top free agent talent.

Harris' best free agent? LB Mike Peterson

Smith's best free agent? LB Paul Posluszn

  1. Don't Lose Control of the Cap

One of the main reasons the Jaguars said goodbye to Coughlin is that the salary cap caught up with him. Good players were allowed to leave and the team just couldn't overcome the departure of talent and the inability to patch holes without money to spend. Coughlin was willing to spend the money to improve the team, but too much spending doomed the roster in the end.

So what should the 2013 Jaguars GM do with these lessons from the past? What if he combined them?

First of all, he cannot miss with our 1st round pick. Secondly, if there is a player at a key position available for trade that fits your vision for the future of the Jaguars, pull the trigger. Third, never stop trying to improve and fortify the most important positions on the field. Fourth, don't be afraid to use high-priced free agency if the player you target is at one of the premium positions, but limit the free agent spending for players in less important positions.

By the way Mr. Khan, I'm available to start on January 1st.

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