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Jacksonville looking dim without its stars

Most of the players who steered the Jags to glory in the late '90s are gone and the replacements are untried.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002

Most of the players who steered the Jags to glory in the late '90s are gone and the replacements are untried.

The Jaguars are on the move this season. Veteran receiver Jimmy Smith just isn't sure whether they are moving up or down.

Salary-cap constraints forced arguably the team's biggest overhaul this offseason. With a host of new faces, many of whom will be starters, no one seems sure what to expect.

"Well, it can go one of two ways," Smith said. "It can continue to get worse, or it can get better. I don't know what's going to happen."

Like the Ravens, the Jaguars gambled in recent seasons, hanging onto several key players in hopes of remaining a contender. But thanks partly to injuries, they never got there, and this offseason found themselves roughly $28-million over the salary cap, prompting wholesale personnel changes.

The losses cut deep. At least 10 starters were released or not re-signed, including stars Tony Boselli, Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson.

The offensive and defensive lines were the hardest hit. Defensive tackles Gary Walker and Seth Payne were left exposed in the expansion draft and snagged by Houston, and defensive end Renaldo Wynn was signed as a free agent by Washington.

Boselli, a cornerstone of the offense, also was grabbed by Houston in the expansion draft. And his fellow linemen Shaun Rose (waived) and Jeff Smith (signed with the Titans) followed him out of the door.

The moves trimmed millions from the team's payroll, but left the Jags younger and far more inexperienced. Several rookies, including defensive tackle John Henderson and left tackle Mike Pearson, will be forced to start, some perhaps a lot sooner than the Jags would have liked.

"It's a time of change in our country and it's a time of change in the National Football League," coach Tom Coughlin said. "And it's a time of change for our football team and our franchise."

What may not change is the team's downward turn in recent seasons. The Jags, 6-10 last season after going 7-9 in 2000, simply have too many holes to fill.

Henderson and second-year pro Marcus Stroud will try to replace Payne and Walker, a Pro Bowl player, in the middle of the defensive line. Both are promising talents, but there are questions about Henderson's durability after back and ankle problems nagged him in college. And Stroud has yet to prove he can be a regular starter at this level.

Then there's the linebacker unit, which lost Kevin Hardy (contract voided), Jeff Posey (signed with Houston) and Nickerson (signed with Green Bay). Several untested players will fill those vacancies, although Wali Rainer, a three-year starter acquired in a trade with Cleveland, gives Jacksonville at least one proven performer.

On offense, the Jags will be hard pressed to find comparable replacements for Boselli and McCardell. Pearson, the rookie from Florida, improved his draft stock in the offseason, but having any rookie at tackle can be tricky.

Free-agent receiver Patrick Johnson, and perhaps R.J. Soward, will replace McCardell. In essence, that means the Jags are substituting for a guy (McCardell) who caught 93 passes for 1,110 yards last season with a guy (Johnson) who had five catches for 57 yards last season for the Ravens. You do the math.

The Jags, though, still have some firepower left from those glory days, when they came within a victory of reaching the Super Bowl in 1996 and 1999. And its those weapons -- quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Fred Taylor and Smith -- who will be counted on heavily to keep this team from sinking even farther.

While Brunell has struggled the past two seasons (he has been sacked 111 times and thrown more interceptions than the previous three seasons combined), he remains one of the league's better quarterbacks and still has a Pro Bowl target in Smith, who is arguably the most productive receiver in the league lately.

Taylor perhaps holds the true key to the team's fortunes. The nagging injuries that have limited his playing time (he has missed 24 of a possible 64 games) also have stalled the team's offense, weakening the running game and forcing the team to throw more.

Taylor claims to be healthy now and plans to try to minimize the pounding his body endures by avoiding violent collisions, partly by "stepping out of bounds" when possible. In fact, Taylor has been feeling so energized lately that he recently boasted that he will lead the league in rushing.

It's likely going to take a performance close to that to avoid another losing season. With so much turnover this offseason, the Jags probably will have to rely on what's familiar to them, such as Taylor, Brunell and Smith, and hope for the best from everyone else.

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