Turnover has become commonplace on Jack Del Rio's staff during his four years as the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coach. If the team fails to meet expectations like last season, it's likely Del Rio will be the one looking for a new job.
The Jags have lots of talent, but they are wildly unpredictable. Last season, they blasted the Colts but lost twice to the Texans. They downed five playoff teams but lost games to Buffalo and Washington. Such inconsistency no longer is acceptable for a team that went 12-4 in 2005.
The hope now is the team will deal with fewer major injuries than it did last season and have more stability at quarterback. Coordinator Dirk Koetter was hired to install an uptempo offense, and that will be a key story line to follow early in the season.
Offense: A punishing rushing attack spearheaded by Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew was offset last season by instability in the passing game. Koetter, who has no NFL experience, likes to throw the deep ball off play-action and get his tight ends involved. The passing game will progress if wide receivers Reggie Williams and Matt Jones realize their potential.
Defense: This unit, which is filled with high-quality players, was hit hard by injuries last season. All of the players are on pace to return this season, and coordinator Mike Smith would love to have more stability on the depth chart.
Led by mammoth tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, the Jaguars don't try to confuse opponents with complicated schemes. They simply take advantage of their size up front and ample speed in the back seven.
QB Byron Leftwich: The club plays its best with Leftwich in the lineup, but Leftwich reportedly has been feuding with Del Rio dating back to the playoff loss to New England two seasons ago. Del Rio has communicated his desire to mend the relationship through his actions – he named Leftwich the starter heading into the offseason. Leftwich has a strong, accurate arm and has worked at improving his footwork. There's no questioning his toughness, but injuries continue to bother him.
Backup David Garrard, who started 10 games in 2006, also has a strong arm but doesn't see the field as well as Leftwich. Too many times last season, Garrard tried to make plays when the situation called for him to throw the ball away, and that led to turnovers. Garrard did little last season to prove he's a worthy NFL starter.
RB Maurice Jones-Drew: After nine seasons, Taylor still has home run speed and an array of nifty moves. He is most dangerous on power runs and cutback plays.
But Jones-Drew established himself as a star on the rise during his electric rookie season, when he rushed for 13 touchdowns and ranked second on the team with 46 catches. Defenders have a hard time spotting the 5-foot-7 Jones-Drew, who uses his low center of gravity and leg strength to run through arm tackles. Once in the open field, he can go the distance.
DTs Marcus Stroud and John Henderson: This unit is the strength of the defense. It excels at stuffing the run and generates the bulk of the pressure the team puts on quarterbacks. Stroud is big and powerful and plays with good technique. Henderson has the same skill set but is even bigger. He isn't as quick off the ball as Stroud, but both are rangy. When Stroud and Henderson go all out, they are virtually impossible to block, though both tend to wear down late in games. There also is concern over Stroud's lingering ankle injury.
CB Rashean Mathis: Mathis is the star of the secondary. His most impressive attributes are closing speed and soft hands, and he also has good speed and change-of-direction skills. Mathis comes up with turnovers, but his technique could use work. On the other side, Brian Williams lacks Mathis' ball skills but is aggressive and excels in bump-and-run coverage and run support.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Although Jacksonville has proved it can smack around opponents with physical play in the running game and on defense, the lack of big plays on both sides of the ball is a sizable concern.
Prediction: 8-8 (2nd in the AFC South).
This team continues to chase Indianapolis for supremacy in the AFC South, but the Jaguars won't catch the Colts unless they can overcome their maddening unpredictability and do a better job in close games. Seven of their eight losses last season came by seven points or fewer.
With more consistency from the passing game, a couple of those losses could become wins. The Jags' success hinges on the play of Leftwich; if he is healthy and efficient, they could get in as a wild-card team. But if they make it, don't expect them to stick around long.
Michael C. Wright covers the Jaguars for the Florida Times-Union and Sporting News.