Thursday, August 31
Expectations still high in Jacksonville

Don't be shocked if the Jaguars are in for another Titan-ic struggle this season.

It's difficult to imagine the Jaguars playing better than they did last year. If they stay healthy, the Jaguars are the most complete team in the NFL. Jacksonville will play with a sense of urgency this year.

The injuries they've sustained could unify them; they'll feel they have to share the load now that Leon Searcy and Carnell Lake are down for the season. Devastating injuries to key players can bring a team closer together and can elevate the talent of the players still standing.

Last year the Jaguars' only three losses all season were at the hands of the Titans, including a 33-14 whipping administered in the AFC championship game. It was the fourth straight season in which the Jaguars crashed and burned in the playoffs.

This year Tennessee figures to be just as tough a rival in the AFC Central ? especially considering the way the injury gods have conspired against the Jaguars.

Eight projected starters sat out Jacksonville's victory over Kansas City the third week of the preseason, including four Pro Bowlers -- offensive tackles Tony Boselli (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Leon Searcy (torn quadriceps muscle), defensive end Tony Brackens (hamstring) and safety Carnell Lake (foot) -- and featured running back Fred Taylor (knee).

Boselli has vowed to be ready for the season opener in Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Brackens should be in the lineup vs. the Browns -- unless he makes good on his threat to walk out on the team if it fails to give him a hefty new contract before the opening gun goes off. Lake, a steadying influence in the Jaguars' defense, is definitely out for the year. Searcy is a long shot to be back for the 2000 stretch drive. The injury-prone Taylor, who missed seven games with a hamstring injury last season, could miss the team's first two games.

The Jaguars' biggest concern is an offensive line that allowed seven sacks vs. the Chiefs. In addition to being without Boselli and Searcy, center John Wade remains out of commission with a foot injury.

In spite of all these aches and pains, however, the Jaguars remain a very viable threat in the AFC.

Quarterbacks: Mark Brunell has proved to be an extremely reliable regular-season performer, but his performance vs. Tennessee in the AFC championship game, when the Jaguars never mounted a serious drive after falling behind early in the second half, raised doubts about his ability as a big-game quarterback.

Mark Brunell
Mark Brunell threw only 14 touchdowns during the 2000 season.
Brunell's backup will either be Jonathan Quinn or Jamie Martin.
Grade: B

Running backs: When he's healthy, Taylor is as good as it gets, as evidenced by his 90-yard TD run vs. the Dolphins in the playoffs last year in which he demonstrated his considerable breakaway speed. If he misses regular-season games this season, however, it will mark the third straight season Taylor has sat out a game or games due to injuries.

Stacey Mack, who struggled in his first start ever in the preseason vs. K.C., is the main backup, with seventh-round rookie Shyrone Stith (78-yard TD run vs. the Chiefs) possibly figuring in the mix.
Grade: B+

Wide receivers: Jimmy Smith, who caught 116 passes for 1,636 yards and six touchdowns and had nine 100-yard games in '99, is clearly one of the league's top receivers entering the new millennium. No. 2 WR Keenan McCardell (78-891 in '99) is still a solid option.

The third receiver likely will be first-round draft choice R. Jay Soward, who was repeatedly open in training camp but struggled with his hands. Tight end Kyle Brady, a big, strong, powerful blocker, has improved his receiving skills, but the main target at the tight end position is fourth-year player Damon Jones, who has great talent but is a bit of an underachiever.
Grade: B+

Offensive linemen: With offensive tackles Searcy and Boselli hampered by injuries, the strength of this unit the past four seasons has turned into a huge question mark. Zach Wiegert was to be the starter at right guard, but with Searcy out, he will now start at right tackle. Wade should be fully recovered in time for the season.

Rookie Brad Meester, an impressive-looking space-eater, is the expected starter at left guard. The Jaguars dealt a future draft choice to the Chiefs in exchange for Brenden Stai, who will start at right guard.
Grade: B-

Defensive linemen: Brackens (12 sacks in '99) gives the Jaguars the pass-rushing presence it needs, but there's still a danger his contract situation could have an extremely adverse effect on the team. Defensive tackle Gary Walker (10 sacks) was among the NFL's best at his position the first three months of the '99 season.

Seth Payne is a quality run defender at the other tackle, and the team thinks highly of Larry Smith, a second-round draft choice last year who can rush from the tackle spot and play the run. The other end is Renaldo Wynn, a former first-round draft choice from Notre Dame who has five sacks in three seasons.
Grade: C+

Linebackers: This is a once-questionable area that might have become a team strength. Weak-side linebacker Kevin Hardy had a career-high 10 1/2 sacks last year and emerged as the best young all-around linebacker in the NFL.

Middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who was added via free agency (Tampa Bay), is getting up there in years (35 by the time Week One rolls around) but has looked fresh-legged and powerful during training camp. Nickerson's addition allows Lonnie Marts, a natural outside 'backer who played in the middle last season, to move back outside, where he feels more comfortable.
Grade: A-

Defensive backs: This unit made huge strides in '99 and was a major reason the defense improved from No. 25 to No. 4 overall. But it will definitely miss Lake, who will probably be replaced at free safety by Mike Logan, a former second-round pick in '97 whose progress has been hindered by injuries.

Perhaps the secondary's biggest improvement was the addition of cornerback Fernando Bryant, the team's first-round draft pick last year. By midseason, teams were throwing to the other side of the field, where veteran cornerback Aaron Beasley had the best season of his four-year career (six interceptions). Strong safety Donovin Darius is a huge hitter who improved in coverage last season.
Grade: C+

Special teams
The biggest change from last season is the addition of special-teams coach Frank Gansz, who coached special teams for the Super Bowl-champion Rams last season. Gansz's primary concern is a kickoff-coverage unit that has traditionally been an area of concern. Otherwise, the specialists are solid.

Kicker Mike Hollis is consistently among the NFL's most accurate kickers, and punter Bryan Barker is as good at pinning opponents inside the 20 as anyone in the NFL. Fifth-year incumbent Reggie Barlow is expected to be challenged by Soward for the team's kick-return duties.
Grade: B

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