In Sunday’s Colts-Jaguars showdown, premier GM with Jacksonville?

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Bill Polian has long been regarded as one of the NFL’s premier team architects, and rightfully so.

The Indianapolis Colts President’s accomplishments with his current franchise alone are remarkable, but not to be forgotten from Polian’s illustrious career are overseeing a Buffalo Bills team that went to four consecutive Super Bowls and building the Carolina Panthers into a NFC finalist in the organization’s second year of existence.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Polian is arguably the best NFL executive of his generation and a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. However, recent history within the Colts’ division, the AFC South, shows that Polian might very well have a challenger in the near future or perhaps the present, whether the rest of the sports world realizes it or not.

His name is Gene Smith, the first general manager in Jacksonville Jaguars history. His first-place team will be on display Sunday when the Jaguars attempt to clinch their first division title since 1999 in a huge matchup with the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

By Drew Allen

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Smith has been with the Jaguars as long as they have been a franchise, working primarily as a scout before being promoted to GM following the 2008 season. Since then, the Monroeville, Ohio native has quietly assembled a talented young roster through two drafts, particularly his first in April 2009. In fact, one might argue his 2008 and 2009 drafts have bested those of Polian.

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Well, let’s examine this a little more closely.

Each of Jacksonville’s first five picks in the 2009 draft (offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, cornerback Derek Cox and wide receiver Mike Thomas) are regular starters when healthy.

Monroe and Britton have excelled for the Jags at left and right tackle, respectively, bolstering the long-established run-first offense the team employs and helping running back Maurice Jones-Drew earn his first (and likely second) Pro Bowl selection. Knighton, who started all 16 games in 2009, has anchored Jacksonville’s defensive line, plugging up rushing holes and adding a pass-rushing element to his game with four sacks this season. Cox, like Knighton, started all 16 games as a rookie and has been a terrific complement to veteran Rashean Mathis. Thomas has amassed 649 receiving yards in 2010 and has been reliable at a position that hasn’t traditionally been good to the Jags.

While the Colts found three quality starters themselves in the same draft (cornerback Jerraud Powers, wide receiver Austin Collie and punter Pat McAfee), their draft as a whole didn’t turn out quite as successful. The team’s first two picks, running back Donald Brown and defensive tackle Fili Moala, have been up-and-down in their first two seasons and have only started when teammates higher on the depth chart have been injured. Sixth-round pick Curtis Painter was drafted mainly to back up Peyton Manning, but he has been largely unimpressive in the limited action he has seen, both at the end of the 2009 regular season and in the 2010 preseason. The two other selections in the class, defensive tackle Terrance Taylor and offensive tackle Jaimie Thomas, have been released by the club.

Have to chalk 2009 up to Smith and the Jaguars when comparing their draft to that of Polian and the Colts. Fast-forward a year…

Smith turned heads last April when he made California defensive tackle Tyson Alualu the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft, causing many analysts to accuse the Jaguars of reaching for a late first-round talent in the top 10. However, Alualu has silenced his critics and proven himself worthy of his draft position, having started all 13 games and nearly matching his counterpart Knighton with 3.5 sacks from the interior of the defensive line. We’ve heard all about the “Williams Wall” in Minnesota; it’s looking like we might have to come up with a catchy nickname for the Knight0n-Alualu duo in Jacksonville really soon.

As for the Colts, Polian nailed his second-round selection of linebacker Pat Angerer, but the executive himself has questioned the payoff of his first-round investment of defensive end Jerry Hughes to this point. While Hughes is playing behind two Pro Bowl pass-rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and probably wasn’t expected to be a major contributer right away, it seems the Colts would have liked for him to crack the rotation more thus far into 2010. Analysts point out Indy’s offensive line, which has been a trainwreck this season, and mention Rodger Saffold, the St. Louis Rams’ rookie left tackle and second-round pick (who played college football at Indiana, nonetheless). While Hughes still could develop into a playmaker for the Colts down the road, it sure seems like Saffold would have been a better option for an immediate impact in a position of need, which Indy certainly needs as Manning continues to age.

There’s no questioning Polian’s legacy or his greatness in evaluating talent. Many have questioned his decisions only to look like fools (see James, Edgerrin). However, his picks in recent years haven’t reflected his history, particularly his selections of offensive linemen (Thomas, tackle Tony Ugoh, guards Mike Pollak, Steve Justice and Jamey Richard). Granted, Smith’s had much more favorable draft positions, selecting in the top halves of rounds while Polian and the Colts have been stuck near the bottom. However, the production doesn’t lie; Smith’s picks have been producing consistently, and only a handful of Polian’s picks in the same time span have done so as well. Could we be seeing the emergence of a new premier football mind?

We might get some answers Sunday.

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