The boys are back in town, and so, the evaluation begins.
There’s a lot going on around the Jaguars these days, with the first priority for new head coach Gus Bradley being hiring the remainder of the coaching staff. Focus will remain there while Bradley fills the final spots, but with the team’s top football decision-makers – Bradley and new General Manager David Caldwell – done with the Senior Bowl, the process of evaluating the roster is at hand.
It’s a critical process, one not seen around the Jaguars to this extent in a decade.
That was when James Harris and Jack Del Rio took over as general manager and head coach, respectively, in 2003, and a new staff and front office had to evaluate the roster and set a new direction. Since then, the general manager or head coach – or both – has returned from the previous season, so somewhere in the organization was a key decision-maker with previous history with the players.
Caldwell and Bradley each come into their roles new, and that means the film they study in the coming weeks – and the discussions they have with one another regarding what they see – will mark their initial in-depth look into the roster. After that – likely before the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Ind., Feb., 20-26 – they will formulate a working plan for free agency, which begins March 12.
This doesn’t mean a hard, fast plan necessarily will be set in stone. The NFL is not a blueprint you can set in Feb., and know what will happen in March and April, but over the coming weeks, Bradley, Caldwell and the rest of the Jaguars’ new key decision-makers will develop a game plan for how they will build, rebuild and retool the franchise.
As they begin that process, here are five pressing questions they will need to begin answering during the coming weeks and months:
1) Quarterback. Tim Tebow isn’t coming to Jacksonville – at least not with the Jaguars. Caldwell ended that possibility two weeks ago at his introductory press conference, and for the most part, it had the desired effect of quieting that issue. It also has left the dangling issue of what will happen at quarterback. The Jaguars hold the No. 2 overall selection in the NFL Draft – their earliest selection since selecting offensive tackle Tony Boselli and linebacker Kevin Hardy at No. 2 in 1995 and 1996, respectively – but the buzz at last week’s Senior Bowl and around anyone who talks draft is a quarterback may be a reach at No. 2. The question in the coming months will be, “Can West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith change that?” Quarterbacks have a tendency to make crazy runs up draft boards, and the desire to start a new era with a franchise quarterback can be strong. Caldwell witnessed how that can work in Indianapolis in 1998 (Peyton Manning) and with the Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan) a decade later. If the Kansas City Chiefs take Smith at No. 1, or if the Jaguars decide Smith isn’t the answer, then Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne are on the roster, and could be involved in a quarterback competition this offseason. There also is the possibility of a trade for Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers or Matt Flynn of the Seattle Seahawks. The question with those players could be if Caldwell and Bradley want a veteran with the idea of a dramatic turnaround now, or if the idea is for more of a slow build around a young player. If it’s the latter, then the most logical route might be to wait until the top of the second round and study players such as Mike Glennon of North Carolina State or Tyler Wilson of Arkansas. Neither quarterback in Sunday’s Super Bowl – Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco – were a Top 10 selection, so a later-drafted quarterback can work. On this issue, and the others that follow, Caldwell and Bradley haven’t said much publicly, but they’ll likely emerge from the evaluation process with a clearer direction.
2) Cornerback. This isn’t as high-profile as the quarterback decision, but it is important. The key to the process here could be Derek Cox. He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 12, and over the last two years when healthy he has played at a level that would make resigning him a priority. But during that time, he has started 22 of 32 regular-season games and although he finished this past season, he missed four games with various injuries. The Jaguars have the option of franchising Cox, which makes sense because you’d like to see him play an entire season at an elite level, but his franchise number is $10.688 million, which could be too high to use the tag. If the team doesn’t re-sign Cox or veteran Rashean Mathis, then second-year veteran Mike Harris becomes the best cornerback on the roster, with free-agent signee Aaron Ross struggling much of last season. This doesn’t appear to be a logical direction with the No. 2 overall selection, with no cornerback in this class considered a definite Top 5 possibility.
3) Outside linebacker. The Jaguars face a similar decision here as cornerback, but in some capacity they seem almost certain to address the spot in free agency or the draft. Outside linebacker Daryl Smith is perhaps the team’s best defensive player, but he missed all but two games with a groin injury and becomes a free agent in mid-March. He is entering his 10th season, and coming off the first significant injury of his career. The Jaguars probably won’t give him the contract he would have merited, say, three years ago, but he could be an option. Another question is how he fits into Bradley’s style of defense. On the other side, with Clint Session first unavailable then released, veteran Russell Allen started 16 games, but the team could look for a short- or long-term upgrade there in the draft. Free agency is an option at either position, with the question becoming how much money the team wants to invest in the short-term at the position if Caldwell and Bradley see the building process as a two-to-three-year period.
4) Right tackle. The answer here depends on how the new decision-makers feel about third-year veteran Cameron Bradfield, who won the starting right tackle job in training camp before losing it late in the season. Veteran free agency would seem an option here, particularly with the team showing signs of progress in the passing game late in the season, but if the team feels Bradfield can improve with coaching and experience, a veteran might not be necessary. The presence of two elite left tackles in the draft – Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M and Eric Fisher of Central Michigan – means you can’t rule out the possibility of a left tackle at No. 2 just yet, but left tackle Eugene Monroe has played better overall throughout his career than many observers believe. He is still a team strength at left tackle, and unless the team believes that Joeckel or Fisher are far and away the best option on draft day, there’s no pressing reason to move Monroe to the other side.
5) Defensive end. Just because this is last, doesn’t make it No. 5 on the priority list. The Jaguars have players in place here such as Jeremy Mincey, Austen Lane and Andre Branch, the first two of whom have played well in spots and the third of whom has potential to do so. That means those three could play a role in the future, but it does not mean the Jaguars are so strong at the position to preclude adding a player from what many believe a very strong draft class at the position. Mincey’s production dropped this past season after a career-high eight sacks in 2011 and Branch struggled throughout much of his rookie season, finishing with one sack. That would make pass rusher a logical selection at No. 2 overall, with the value at the position possibly matching need. Even if Mincey returns to his 2011 level, and even if Branch develops, there’s no such thing as too many pass-rushing defensive ends in the 4-3 scheme Bradley likes to use, making this an area to watch as the draft approaches.