With the NFL Scouting Combine now in the rear view mirror, there is only one stop left on the path to the 2013 NFL draft: the hectic and often surprising free-agency period.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will not be much more than outside observers for most of free agency, but there are still moves general manager David Caldwell can make to improve the team.
Jacksonville will bypass signing big-name and overpriced free agents in favor of building the team through the draft. The team has too many holes to fill in one draft, however, and Caldwell will have to sign free agents to be stopgaps until a long-term solution is found.
Free agency gets underway March 9, when players can begin negotiating with other teams. It gets in full swing three days later when players can officially sign with teams.
Here is a guide to what the Jaguars have done thus far in the offseason and what positions they should focus on in free agency.
Jaguars GM David Caldwell will have to manage the salary cap to successfully rebuild the roster.
The NFL increased the salary cap to $123 million in 2013 (via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling), which is up from $120.6 million in 2012.
With the increase, the Jaguars now have slightly more than $26.7 million in cap space (via Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports). Caldwell will have plenty of money at his disposal, but he will have to use it wisely to successfully rebuild the roster.
Managing the money starts with several key decisions that have to be made this offseason.
Caldwell will have to decide on the future for players with expiring contracts, such as cornerback Derek Cox, linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. He has to determine if the players are worth the contracts they will require.
Caldwell will also have to avoid overspending in free agency. Overpaying players in free agency will cripple the rebuild before it can even begin. This doesn't appear to be a problem, however, as Caldwell has said the Jaguars won't be "overly active" (per Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union) in free agency.
The success of the rebuild won't just be based on the caliber of players Caldwell signs, but also on how well he manages the salary cap.
The Jaguars have 21 players who are becoming free agents. Thirteen of the players are unrestricted free agents, six are restricted free agents and two are exclusive rights free agents.
Unrestricted Free Agents
- CB Derek Cox
- LB Daryl Smith
- DT Terrance Knighton
- C Brad Meester
- FB Greg Jones
- OT Eben Britton
- RB Rashad Jennings
- CB Rashean Mathis
- CB William Middleton
- CB Antwaun Molden
- QB Jordan Palmer
- RB Jalen Parmele
- C/G Steve Vallos
The Jaguars must decide which, if any, of the unrestricted free agents are worth re-signing.
Cox and Smith are unlikely to return to the team (per Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union) next season. Losing them would be a blow to the already low talent level of the team, but avoiding their contracts could help the rebuilding process.
Caldwell said (via Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union) the Jaguars will not re-sign veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis.
Some unrestricted free agents who could be re-signed include Meester, Jones, Middleton, Parmele and Vallos, but only if they aren't asking for too much money.
Restricted Free Agents
- FB Brock Bolen
- LB Kyle Bosworth
- C John Estes
- TE Zach Potter
- DE George Selvie
- WR Jordan Shipley
The Jaguars would receive compensation from any team who signs one of their restricted free agents, so they will all probably return next season.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
- DE John Chick
- RB Keith Toston
Chick and Toston can only negotiate with other teams if the Jaguars do not make them an offer. Neither player would warrant a high price tag, and they would be worth giving a chance to prove themselves in training camp.
The Jaguars did not place the franchise tag on any player this offseason.
Caldwell said (per Ryan O'Hallaran of The Florida Times-Union) cornerback Derek Cox was the only player he considered using the franchise tag on. Caldwell will instead try to work out a long-term deal.
The tag is worth a guaranteed $10.668 million for a cornerback, which would account for almost 20 percent of Jacksonville's salary cap. It would have been a major risk spending that amount of money on the oft-injured Cox, who has missed 17 games over the past three seasons.
The Jaguars will have to reach a deal with Cox quickly or risk losing him to free agency. Players can begin negotiating with other teams March 9, and the signing period starts three days later.
Cox's agent, David Sullivan, said he expects a "vigorous market" (per Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union) for the cornerback. If a deal is not reached between the Jaguars and Cox by then, he will most likely sign with another team.
Caldwell made a good decision not using the franchise tag on Cox. The team is in the first year of a complete rebuild. Franchising Cox would have tied up too much money that could help address other areas of need.
The Jaguars have yet to re-sign any of their players with expiring contracts.
Many of the players who are hitting the open market are expendable, as they were the ones who were responsible for the franchise-worst 2-14 record in 2012. The franchise will need a fresh start on talent, and that begins with distancing themselves from many of these players.
Some of the players are worth bringing back.
Running backs Jalen Parmele and Keith Toston performed well in limited showings in 2012, and they have earned the chance to compete to be Maurice Jones-Drew's backup.
Center John Estes would be a good fit in Jacksonville's new zone-blocking scheme. At the very least, he would add much-needed depth to a thin offensive line.
Finally, wide receiver Jordan Shipley should be re-signed and could be a productive member of the receiving corps. He had 23 catches for 244 yards and a touchdown in six games with the franchise last season, and he added a spark to the return game.
Jacksonville's roster lacked talent at almost every position, but these players could contribute to the team moving forward.
The Jaguars have holes throughout their roster that will need to be addressed for the team to become competitive.
The biggest areas of need are on the offensive and defensive lines and at cornerback. Caldwell has also said (via AP's Mark Long) he plans to address the quarterback position this offseason.
The franchise will most likely wait until the draft to find help on the defensive line and at quarterback. Defensive ends would come with a high price tag the Jaguars will need to avoid in free agency, while there aren't any free-agent quarterbacks who would make a significant difference.
Jacksonville could look to add a right tackle and a cornerback in free agency, and the free-agent classes are deep at both of the positions.
The following slides will break down who the Jaguars could target at right tackle and cornerback in free agency.
Right tackle may be the one position Caldwell won't mind spending money to address. Poor right tackle play crippled the offense in 2012, and fixing it has to be the top priority in free agency.
New England Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer leads a strong free-agent class at the position.
Vollmer has been an anchor for the Patriots offensive line and would be a major upgrade over what the Jaguars currently have. He would instantly improve the poor pass protection, as he has only given up 1.5 sacks in his four-year career.
He is also rarely penalized, which is something that hurt the Jaguars last season. He committed just three penalties for 20 yards in 2012.
Vollmer does have back issues that could be a concern for the Jaguars, but he is more than talented enough to sign in the hopes that he can overcome the problems. He would make an immediate impact as Jacksonville's right tackle.
Atlanta Falcons tackle Sam Baker is another player the Jaguars could focus on to improve the offensive line.
Baker possesses good initial quickness and is agile for a player his size. His agility and body control are important as the Jaguars are implementing a zone-blocking scheme next season.
He is also very good in pass protection. He allowed just three sacks in 2012.
Baker is a disciplined player who rarely commits costly penalties. In fact, he has been flagged just 14 times in his six-year career, including zero times in 2008 and 2012.
Baker does have a history of back problems that has forced him to miss games, but he started all 16 games last season.
The Falcons have cleared cap room to try to re-sign Baker. If the Falcons are not successful in doing so, the Jaguars need to jump on him. He would significantly improve the pass protection and would be a nice fit in Jacksonville's zone-blocking scheme.
The Jaguars will also need to find starting-caliber cornerbacks this offseason.
With the departure of Mathis and possibly Cox, Jacksonville could be left extremely thin at cornerback.
Rodgers-Cromartie is an athletic cornerback who plays his best when he is able to get his hands on receivers. At 6'2", he has the size head coach Gus Bradley looks for in players at the position.
He has had a very productive career. Rodgers-Cromartie has 16 interceptions and 84 pass defenses in his five-year career.
Rodgers-Cromartie is only 26 years old and is entering the prime of his career.
With cornerbacks like Aqib Talib, Sean Smith, Brent Grimes and Keenan Lewis on the market, Rodgers-Cromartie could possibly be signed for less than market value due to the deep class.
Rodgers-Cromartie would be an upgrade over what Jacksonville has now and could become a shutdown cornerback for the team.
Fletcher is a physical cornerback who excels in a press-coverage scheme, which would make him a perfect fit in Bradley's defensive scheme. He has good size at 6'0" and 200 pounds, and uses it to jam receivers.
Signing him would be a risk. Fletcher has a long injury history and has undergone two knee surgeries.
His injuries could make him fly under the radar, and the Jaguars would be able to sign him cheaper than a lot of the top-tier cornerbacks.
Fletcher is only 26 and still has a ton of upside, and it's worth the risk to see if he can overcome the injury bug. If he can, he will be a very good player.