Going into the 2008 campaign the level of expectation was high on our veterans, specifically our past offensive first round picks of Matt Jones, Reggie Williams and Marcedes Lewis. As the year wore on we were forced to use a alternate definition not only for those players but for the season. Now as 2009 awakens, the Jaguars and their fans are forced to deal with the cold reality that rookies will make or break this season.
Of their 9 draft selections, 7 were taken to on offense. The names of Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton, Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard, Zach Miller, Rashad Jennings and Tiquan Underwood are all expected to serve some significant or critical role in helping David Garrd and Maurice Drew control the clock and put points on the board. Monroe and Britton are to shore up the line. Thomas, Dillard, Miller and Underwood will give David quicker weapons to extend the field. Jennings will add depth to the running back corps so as not to demand so much from Maurice.
The question we are then presented with is what should we expect from these rookies? I want to look at specifically the offensive side of the ball as that is where the true need manifests itself. It can be argued that on defense the lack of depth and DT and LB, as well as the inconsistent play of the DBs warrant discussion. Point taken. However, when you release\don't resign\trade 4 WRs, an OT and you're counting on injured lineman to regain a dominant form then that is where the rookie emphasis should be. I'll start with a brief breakdown of each area.
In recent years we have seen exceptional play from rookies at the running back position and from varied spots in the draft and beyond: Chris Johnson (2008-R1), Adrian Peterson (2007-R1), Steve Slaton (2008-R3), Marion Barber III (2005-R4 and, Ryan Grant (Undrafted-05 though practice squad and injury allowed 07 to be a "rookie" year for him). With Drew and Greg Jones sharing carries Jennings won't be required to shoulder any bulk of the load but with an injury just around the corner you don't want to be left with nothing on the shelf. Consistent play from Jenning’s should be sufficient, which translates to holding onto the ball when in the game and gaining positive yards.
The offensive line is really where the discussion should begin. No lanes+no protection=3 and out. Vince Mauwai, Maurice Williams and Brad Meester all need to show they have healed. Tony Pashos will look to rebound from a sub-par 2008 while Tra Thomas, a free agent acquisition, will fill the spot vacated by Khalif Barnes. Monroe and Britton come in as the pillars of a new line. With them, at the very least, brings depth to both tackle and guard spots. Though you want a top 10 offensive lineman to assume a starting spot it won't be a requirement. Eben may find himself seeing more snaps than Monroe if Manuwai struggles. What the Jaguars need is for the rookies to push the veterans and not be a drop off when rotated in.
Wide Receiver\Tight End
It goes without saying that for the past 4 years the Jaguars have been forced into the roll of a running team. With this off season's house cleaning the front office officially acknowledges it's past mistakes. Without the signing of Torry Holt the receiving corps would have been pedestrian at best, though I imagine Northcut would still be on the roster. Once you move past Holt you're pinning hopes on Mike Walker, who hasn't translated well from camp to season, and Troy Williamson, a player trying to redefine himself. Garrard, who himself has had issues feeling comfortable with receivers, will face a season with no one for whom he has a relationship with, much less the fact he will given 3 rookie WRs and 1 TE. In the passing game there is no margin of error. The receivers must get yards after catch and Miller needs to be what Lewis is not: a Dallas Clark type TE.
What then should the Jaguars expect to get from these rookies? With the RB position more of a luxury it will serve us to see how 1st year receivers and offensive linemen faired, starting with the 2004 NFL season. Though not absolutely scientific, I'll set the standard by reviewing playoff teams and their roster for the season.
San Diego-C, RT
Colts-LG, RG, C
As the table shows the offensive line is a position in which rookies can shine. This could be due to the ability to mask immaturity through schemes and shared assignments. The WR has the misfortune of having no one to compensate for his learning curve. Only 3, Saints, Colts and Eagles, had WRs who excelled in year one. Of those teams, all had top 10 quarterbacks, two with established passing threats. The good news is that when Peyton Manning and Drew Brees had production from their rookie WRs they also had a rookie lineman step up. The bad news is that the Jaguars have nowhere near the complimentary weapons those teams had.
The 2006 Saints rode a rookie RB (Reggie Bush), a rookie WR (Marques Colston) and a rookie RG (Jahri Evans) to the NFCCG. The rub: the Saints offense also had Joe Horn, Devery Henderson and Deuce McAllister. They also had a Pro Bowler in LT Jammal Brown and a healthy offensive line.
The rub? The 2007 Colts had Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday. This allowed 3rd WR Anthony Gonzalez and LT Tony Ugoh to shine around Hall of Fame talent.
With offensive line stability this team may find that it only needs a rookie WR to blossom. This may not be what indicates a playoff team but since 2004 there have been non-playoff rookie standouts.
2008 Eddie Royal Denver - 91 rec, 980 yds, 5 tds
2007 Dwayne Bowe KC - 70 rec, 995 yds, 5 tds
2007 Calvin Johnson Det - 48 rec, 756 yds, 4 tds
2006 Santonio Holmes Pit - 49 rec, 824 yds, 2tds
2004 Michael Clayton TB - 80 rec, 1193 yds, 7tds
2004 Larry Fitzgerald Ari - 58 rec, 780 yds, 8 tds
2004 Roy Williams - 54 rec, 817 yds, 8 tds
2004 Lee Evans - 48 rec, 843 yds, 9 tds
2004 Keary Colbert - 47 rec, 754 yds, 5 tds
The rub here? All of the playes above are picks in the first 2 rounds.
If we look to history as a means of forecasting the 2009 season, Jacksonville can hope for an outside chance that they get sufficient production from 2 positions requiring rookie impact. This will demand that Holt still has another gear and the Walker can actualize his preseason promises. The reality may be that the Jaguars will simply be competitive for 16 games, which will itself be a marked improvement over last year.