7. An off-season reset. We’ll use this Magnificent Seven – the first of the 2012 NFL off-season – as something of an off-season primer. For the Jaguars, this a direction-altering off-season, and when you’re making changes on that scale, sometimes it’s good to catch your breath and figure out just where you are. That’s what we’ll try to do here, beginning with a quick thought on the coaching staff. New Head Coach Mike Mularkey made his final hire this week: offensive line assistant Ron Prince, a move that brought the total number of assistants to 21. It’s a veteran, experienced staff, and many around the league will tell you it’s a group of qualified professionals who will set the tone for an organization. The Jaguars hired Mularkey very early in the off-season – January 11 – and the thought was getting an early start would allow Mularkey to have a jump on the rest of the league hiring quality assistants. As it turned out, that appears to be true. Wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan is widely considered one of the best coaches at his position – maybe ever – and the staff has seven coaches with offensive/defensive coordinator experience: Mularkey, Sullivan, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, running backs coach Sylvester Croom, quarterbacks coach Greg Olsen, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and linebackers coach Mark Duffner. It’s impossible to predict how that experience will manifest itself, but what the Jaguars needed first from this coaching staff was to settle the atmosphere in the building and create consistency and discipline. Few doubt that will happen, and that’s a positive start to the off-season.
6. What’s happening? The news may be scarce out of EverBank, but the work going on is important on several fronts. On the coaching side, the new assistants are not only settling into new environs, the offensive staff is in the process of putting together a playbook/offensive scheme and the defensive staff is reevaluating and touching up its own playbook. That’s the morning. In the afternoon, the coaches are analyzing the roster, a process that for new coaches is about familiarizing themselves with the players with whom they’ll work moving forward. Coaches are also evaluating Senior Bowl tape and analyzing players from other teams who may become free agents. The scouting department has done similar work, and while the sides eventually will discuss their thoughts, they haven’t done so yet. “(Jaguars General Manager) Gene (Smith) has wanted us to do what we’re doing, which is to spend our mornings on the football aspect,” Bratkowski told Jaguars This Week on Wednesday. “He doesn’t want us to be influenced by any scouts’ opinion of a player or a free agent or a drafted guy. He wants us to all sit in our offices, get the film up onto the screen, then make our evaluations. As we get closer, that information will be transferred back and forth.”
5. What’s next? Here’s a breakdown of some key off-season dates: NFL Scouting Combine, February 22-28; Start of Free Agency, March 13; NFL Draft April 26-28. But the off-season is more about what happens between the key dates, so here’s how the off-season likely will play out. Between now and the combine, teams will continue finalizing coaching staffs and finalizing just how they feel about their rosters. You’ll hear news trickle from organizations about who will get the franchise tags, and about high-profile veterans likely to be re-signed or released. During the first few two weeks of March, teams will begin officially releasing veterans to create cap space and structuring their roster for free agency. Just how frenetic free agency will be will depend on how many players get re-signed before then. Almost certainly it won’t be as star-studded in March as it appears now, because teams will take players off the market by re-signing or franchising them. March, in addition to free agency, will be about scouts, coaches and general managers attending Pro Days at college campuses around the country, and by April, the final touches are being put on draft boards with prospects being flown in to visit with NFL teams for final pre-draft visits.
4. Free agency, Part I. The first step of free agency is determining which of a team’s own free agents to re-sign. For the Jaguars, the most high-profile this year are kicker
3. Free Agency II. With free agency opening March 13, expect the Jaguars to be active early and indications are the Jaguars will pursue two positions heavily – defensive end and wide receiver. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports ranks three defensive ends among the Top 12 players available in free agency: Mario Williams of Houston, Cliff Avril of Detroit and Robert Mathis of Indianapolis. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Jaguars pursue those players, pretty much in that order. Prisco’s top wide receivers: DeSean Jackson of Philadelphia, Vincent Jackson of San Diego, Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City, Steve Johnson of Buffalo, Marques Colston of New Orleans, Wes Welker of New England, Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis and Pierre Garcon of Indianapolis. Forget Welker. The Patriots almost certainly will franchise him, and the guess here is DeSean Jackson gets franchised, too. Undoubtedly a few others will be gone from the list, too, but if the Jaguars don’t get one of the first three or four on the list it probably won’t be because of a lack of effort. The guess here is two players off this list wouldn’t be a shock – maybe Vincent Jackson or Dwayne Bowe and Wayne or Garcon.
2. The Draft. Smith prefers to draft Best Available Player. The way to do that is to fill needs in free agency. That way, you don’t have to reach for positions of need on draft day. This year’s draft is an example of why that’s important. The two players everyone seems to be associating with the Jaguars at No. 7 are Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State and Quinton Coples of North Carolina. Blackmon is the Pick of Choice for most fans, because he is considered the draft’s best wide receiver, because he made a lot of big plays at Oklahoma State and because the Jaguars’ wide receivers struggled last year. But there are many who wonder if his game translates as well to the NFL as say, A.J. Green, last year’s first wide receiver selected and a player who made significant impact for Cincinnati as a rookie. Coples has people excited because of a monster Senior Bowl, but he was not particularly productive throughout college and some believe he’s very risky in the Top 10. Fill the needs at those positions in free agency and there won’t be quite the pressure to take potentially risky players in the Top 10 on Draft Day. The draft is a long way off, and so much will change between now and late April that it’s pointless at best and foolish at worst to project in early February, but I’ve made a career of being foolish and pointless, so here’s an early guess that the Jaguars draft cornerback in April. It’s a safe position on draft day, a position where players can contribute at a high level immediately, something that’s not always true of receiver and defensive end.
1. And finally . . . a word on the quarterback. When we spoke to Bratkowski on JTW this week, not unpectedly Gabbert was a major topic. Bratkowski discussed in detail what he had seen watching tape of Gabbert, and said the process of getting the snap from center, dropping back and getting the ball out properly will be the first focus of the staff when it’s allowed to work with Gabbert. Bratkowski said that’s an area at which Gabbert struggled at times as a rookie after playing in the spread offense at Missouri. “You’d be amazed for the guys who haven’t been under center for their four- or five-year college career, just getting a clean snap from the center, is a challenge,” Bratkowski said. “That’s the first thing. For any other quarterback, it’s subconscious. They don’t have to think about it.” Bratkowski said the process of getting comfortable dropping back is similar. “It’s not a natural process,” he said. “If you haven’t been doing it, it takes time.” One problem facing Gabbert and the Jaguars is under the rules of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the staff may not coach Gabbert until the off-season program officially begins in May. “You’d love to get your hands on a lot of these guys a lit earlier than we’ll be able to, but the reality of it is we’re not going to,” Bratkowski said. “There’s a certain point when we can start to talk football with them and when we get to that point we will. It’s the nature of the beast right now with the new CBA. There’s nothing we can do about it. Every other team is in the same boat, so we’re all going to be equal, but we’d love to get started today.”