Notes from the first practice session of the Jacksonville Jaguars' 2007 training camp:
The obvious No. 1 issue in Jacksonville is Byron Leftwich, who suffered through injury, inconsistency and management skullduggery in 2006. And perhaps the most telling thing I noticed all day was Leftwich's entrance into the practice area. He walked up the chute from Alltel Stadium beside enormous DT John Henderson, and as they casually sauntered by, the fans shouted "BIG JOHN! BIG JOHN! OVER HERE, BIG JOHN!"
I mentioned this to a Jags fan in the bleachers later. "There are a lot of mixed emotions," he said about the apathy toward Leftwich. No kidding. Backup QB David Garard received a much more enthusiastic fan welcome, both coming and going, and was himself much more gregarious than Leftwich, who struck me as reserved and a little wary.
On the field, nothing the Jags quarterbacks did struck me as particularly sharp. Nobody threw any interceptions during the morning's 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 passing drills, but there were no deep passes, either -- the majority of the completions were check-downs to the backs, or short slants and drags. And to be blunt about it, nobody seemed to be getting the ball out on time. Had there been a live pass rush, things would have been ugly.
Quinn Gray is injured, so we got to see a lot of Ricard Lester, a rookie free agent out of Tulane (6-2, 228). He isn't as consistent as the veterans, but he looked athletic and fluid, with a nice delivery. In fact, he looked more like a prototypical quarterback than either Leftwich or Garrard. I knew this before, but it really struck me in person: Leftwich is lanky to the point of awkwardness, with a lengthy delivery that unfolds like a baseball pitcher's. Garrard has a compactness to him that catches your eye, but he's not particularly accurate and has proven himself to be one thing: a good career backup.
But what is Leftwich? I think he's an above average passer but only an average NFL starting QB -- entirely capable of being successful with a good team, but requiring a good team to succeed. But here's the thing: You get the sense from being here that the fans and the coaches have fallen out of love with Byron, and that maybe the feeling is mutual. Apparently it was a big thing to the folks down here that management passed on Brady Quinn -- twice. When the fan base is anxious for a guy like Quinn (and there was one guy who was anxious for Quinn GRAY, repeatedly shouting that Gray was the guy who would lead the Jags to the promised land), instead of their former No. 7 overall pick who is entering what should be the prime of his career, that's a bad sign.
It's early, obviously, but it really looks like a full-bore RBBC in Jacksonville. Fred Taylor gets the initial snaps, but Maurice Jones-Drew is hot off the bench. The running back group is clearly the strength of this team, with Taylor looking just as trim and fast today as he did 10 years ago when he was a jaw-dropping rookie out of Florida. There's an elegance to Taylor, whose 228-pound physique is sculpted and lean. Jones-Drew looks like a pitbull by comparison.
LaBrandon Toefield and Alvin Pearman look like less-lethal versions of the Jones-Drew prototype, and Greg Jones looks healthy a year after tearing his ACL. But if there was a surprise in the group it had to be this rookie free agent named D.D. Terry. He's 6-1 and 202 out of Sam Houston State, and who knows what he'll look like once the pads go on -- but brother, watching this kid cut and accellerate, you just had to be impressed.
A little more on Jones-Drew: He really can't THROW a football. I know that's not his job, but that usually means someone's hands are undersized. After watching him toss a ball in drills, I watched carefully to see how he looked CATCHING the ball. Would those small hands give him problems? And the answer is...no. He looked fine as a receiver... Jones-Drew has cut off all his hair... he really walked through the early drills, picking up the pace only once the intensity of practice rose. And when he left the field? Jones-Drew ignored fans who called to him for autographs. No player got more calls from the fans -- no player ducked them more blatantly.
Janet and I used to watch a lot of Vikings games and became fans of Jerome "Mrs." Wiggins (it's an old cultural reference). With Kyle Brady gone, Wiggins has come to Jacksonville as the blocking tight end. I like the guy because he's just a workman-like player who gets stuff done, even though he doesn't look the part. He had a good practice, and lined up a lot at fullback as a lead blocker.
But it's really obvious who the tight end is going to be this year: Marcedes Lewis, who is simply HUGE. Very athletic. Ran some nice routes. Didn't strike me as particularly fast, but if the Jags continue to struggle with deep routes, Lewis could see a lot of stuff coming his way.
As is often the case in training camp, this is a crowded group. And given the unsettled nature of the depth chart, it wouldn't surprise me if some unknown made this roster.
First, let's get this out of the way: When you watch Reggie Williams run drills, you understand why people get so excited about him. He looks great moving in and out of his cuts -- simultaneously fluid and tight and explosive and graceful, as if he was made from a different material than his coworkers. But during drills? His best play of the practice was a drag route, and I seldom saw him get separation.
In other words, I'm not sold on him as a breakout candidate, but if there's going to be one from this group, I'd pick him.
Matt Jones fascinates fantasy guys, but I saw nothing at this first practice to indicate that Jones arrived with a chip on his shoulder, ready to take that next step. He closed out 2006 with other players in the league questioning his toughness -- to be blunt, questioning his manhood. He's a tall guy with 4.3 speed, but to be honest, he didn't look fast, he wasn't getting open, and he looked kinda... bland. This is not to say he wasn't working or lacked motivation... but he didn't show much to get you excited. He won't get cut, but Jones isn't a lock to start, either.
Dennis Northcutt couldn't stay healthy in Cleveland and wouldn't go over the middle. He looks practically emaciated, and had to be worked and stretched by a trainer in the middle of the morning practice. I'm not putting money on this guy... but it's worth noting that he took his first catch to the end zone, long after the play had been blown dead.
Jacksonville has a big, nasty defense, some first-rate defensive backs, and a solid running game. But the offense has a long way to go, and there's just something unsettled about the Leftwich situation. I don't see him returning, which would make him one of the top free agents of 2008, but that probably means another year of turmoil and inconsistancy.
And you know what? That's not the quarterback's fault. That's a coaching issue. Jack Del Rio and Leftwich don't like each other, but their destinies are intertwined. If the 2007 season turns into a continuation of 2006's soap opera, both will be history by February.