Jaguars Hope for More Draft-Day Steals (Which Likely Means No Tebow)
"We want to raise the bar with the standard of expectations," Smith said.
Raising the bar was the goal last year, too, when Smith took full executive command of the club's football operations following a six-year reign of draft-day terror under former GM James "Shack" Harris. Considering Harris had the final say in taking long-gone busts Byron Leftwich, Reggie Williams and Matt Jones, along with struggling safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Derrick Harvey, with five of his previous six first-round picks, the bar Harris set for his successor was somewhere around Smith's shoe laces.
Few, however, envisioned Smith's first draft as the Jags' chief authoritarian would turn out to be the most underrated -- if not, the single-best haul -- of any team in 2009. The first four selections became starters; the fifth set a franchise rookie record for receptions; all nine choices made the 53-man roster.
"Last year was unique in that there was a tremendous amount of turnover and that created a lot of opportunity for players we had competing for time -- and they all ended up playing for us," said Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, whose team was 7-5 and in the thick of the playoff hunt heading into the home stretch until a four-game losing streak ended the season. "From that standpoint, it was a great jumpstart to our football team in this transition period we're in."
Jacksonville has six picks next weekend -- including the 10th overall, but no second-rounder -- and has needs at safety, wide receiver and middle linebacker. Smith, though, will stay true to the club's best-athlete-available philosophy, which means a quarterback (such as Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, if he's there) or running back (Clemson's big-play specialist C.J. Spiller should be there) can't be ruled out.
Neither can a trade down. For that matter, neither can anything.
"We're trying to get an A-plus on the test for player personnel," Smith said.
Smith has been with the franchise since its expansion birth in 1994, climbing the company ladder from the college scouting department to his title of GM/Senior Vice President-Player Personnel. In a little over a year with full football-ops command, Smith has altered the culture of the Jags' locker room, purging the clubhouse of bad seeds -- such as Williams and Jones, along with free-agent disasters Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence -- to the point that he's affectionately been branded "Clean Gene."
But what can he do for an encore?
The easy answer is draft Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, whose arrival would go a long way toward helping solve Jags owner Wayne Weaver's attendance problems. Seven of eight homes were blacked out on local television last season, with six drawing less than 50,000 fans.
Taking Tebow would upgrade the locker room and put fans in the seats, but wouldn't necessarily help Del Rio win games next season. Smith is a fervent believer in sticking to his draft board. After what he pulled off last year, no one should blame him for staying his course -- even in the biggest Gator town outside of Gainesville.
"Our goal always is to do our best," Smith said. "And our best is trying to get an A-plus [draft] by finding guys we target and are able to get."
Raising the bar. A-pluses. Smith likes a good cliche. He also likes good players, and apparently has an eye for them.
Last year, Jacksonville did the unconventional by taking offensive tackles in the first and second rounds, plucking Eugene Monroe with the eighth overall pick and Eben Britton early in Round 2. The Jaguars had other needs, but in one fell swoop they set their offensive line with a pair of bookends (Monroe on the left, Britton on the right) for maybe the next decade.
Taking defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, out of Temple, in Round 3 looked like a reach. And some eyebrows were raised when Jacksonville traded a future second-round pick to New England to grab cornerback Derek Cox out of William & Mary in the third round, also. Both selections were panned by ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- "Neither Knighton or Cox were worthy of third-round picks," McShay wrote in giving the Jags a C-plus grade -- but both players went on to start all 16 games as rookies.
Fourth-round pick Mike Thomas, a wideout from Arizona, caught 48 passes and was the club's top return-game threat, while the remaining four selections -- receiver Jarett Dillard, tight end Zach Miller, running back Rashard Jennings and wide out Tiquan Underwood -- combined to see action in 41 games.
At the time, Del Rio didn't know what he had in his '09 class, but recalled leaving his rookie mini-camp with a pretty good feeling.
"In terms of envisioning them starting, I don't know that that occurred right away," he said. "But our initial first impression was the guys we selected were the guys we evaluated on tape."
When conviction meets validation, teams get better.
And the bar is raised.
"We're not going to bat 1.000. We're humans evaluating humans and there are so many variables that go into success at this level," Smith said. "Good players make good scouts, good coaches and good teams. All we can do is bring the best player and person in here."