Jacksonville Jaguars' Top 5 Position Battles Heading into the 2014 NFL Season
The Jacksonville Jaguars fielded what was generally considered one of the weakest rosters in the NFL last year. This assertion was found to be true, as the Jaguars had the 31st-ranked offense and 27th-ranked defense (total yards per game). As expected, there was some much-needed roster turnover, leading to numerous position battles.
After a plethora of offseason moves in the draft and free agency, there are a number of positions that are open for competition. Most of these roster battles come on the defensive side of the ball, an area where head coach Gus Bradley excels and expects his team to excel at as well.
These battles will have a profound impact on how well the Jaguars are able to do this year. They play in a division with two very good offenses in the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans. The pressure is on for the players to perform so the Jaguars can climb out of the basement of the AFC South and prove they belong in the top ranks.
Main Battle: Mike Brewster vs. expectations
This battle is a bit different than the ones you will read about later in this article. For starters, this battle makes the list because it is something the Jaguars haven't had to worry about in 14 years after drafting Brad Meester, who started nearly every game since 2000. Meester decided to retire at the end of the season, leaving an unfamiliar void in the middle of the line.
This battle is different too because Brewster has all but been named the starter. His competition is fairly weak; Luke Bowanko is a late sixth-round developmental project, Jacques McClendon has started two games in three years and Patrick Lewis hasn't played a snap in two years. According to John Oehser of Jaguars.com, Brewster is the early favorite:
General Manager David Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley typically have mentioned Brewster first when discussing the position, with Bradley saying at the NFL Annual Meeting in late March the team felt confident when going through its end-of-season evaluations that Brewster 'could hold the fort down' at the position.
Now it is up to Brewster to live up to these expectations. He was a highly decorated center coming out of Ohio State, earning All-American and All-Big Ten honors as well as being a finalist for the Rimington Award, awarded to the nation's best center. He also logged 49 consecutive starts, one shy of a school record.
Despite all this, he wound up undrafted. He has played in 26 games with 10 starts, all at guard. He has had some injury issues to deal with, including an ankle injury he is still working on. Things got even shakier for him with the Jaguars' pursuit of Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack. Through it all, he never let it get to him, saying, via Oehser:
It was a good wake-up call for me to say, ‘Look, I’ve got to earn this.’ It was a good reinforcer to say, ‘Look, if you’re going to get this opportunity, just do what you need to do.’ In the past, I’ve always taken advantage of opportunities.
The starting center job is Brewster's to lose. As long as he stays healthy, he should have no trouble regaining the form he showed in college at his natural position. It would be a major shock if he did not end up as the starter.
4. Backup Running Back
Main Battle: Denard Robinson vs. Jordan Todman vs. Storm Johnson
The Jaguars have been spoiled when it comes to running backs. Since 1998, the Jaguars have had a top-tier running back in Fred Taylor ('98-'08) or Maurice Jones-Drew ('06-'13). This year marks the next chapter for the Jaguars as MJD moved on in free agency and Toby Gerhart was brought in. Gerhart was brought in to be the starter and thus far hasn't disappointed. However, the spot behind him is still up for grabs.
Robinson had a lot of expectations on him last year despite being a fifth-round pick. His versatility earned him the moniker "OW" for offensive weapon. The expectations weren't quite met as he managed only 66 yards on 20 carries, including a 24-yard run resulting in a fumble on the one-yard line.
Expectations seems to be a bit more controlled for him this year as he is just focusing in on the running back position. Now Robinson will be able to hone his physical talents to the position without worrying about being a receiver or return man. Physically he is the best man for the job, possessing an incredible combination of speed and agility for the position.
Todman is the veteran of the group, having been with the team since 2012. The fourth-year pro saw his first significant action last year, rushing the ball 76 times for 256 yards. Todman is not a spectacular runner, having been counted out of the race for the starting position before Gerhart's arrival, per ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco. Still, he knows the playbook and can get the job done when called upon.
Johnson is the newest addition to the race, having been a seventh-round selection. Johnson played college ball with the Jaguars' first-round pick, Blake Bortles. He had one really good year of production, which came last year, when he topped 1,100 yards and had 14 touchdowns.
Johnson has the skills that you like from a running back. According to Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com, Johnson has, "Excellent size and strength to run between the tackles. Has quick feet, gets out of the blocks well and shows some giddyup for a bigger back." Johnson also saw some action in the passing game, excelling at turning screen passes and checkdown passes into big gains.
As Nawrocki states, the major downside with Johnson is he had issues with fumbles (eight over the past two years) and issues in pass protection. These are two things every running back in the NFL must have down pat if they want to see significant time with the ball. Johnson must get these issued worked out soon or he could find himself just warming the bench all season.
I expect Robinson to win this battle. Even though he is still learning the position and Todman has more experience, the upside Robinson brings is too much to ignore. He has to learn the position, and getting him more touches will help. Johnson will most likely be kept to minimal action until he can work on his fumbling issues.
This position battle is important because it can be the difference between an explosive running back tandem (Gerhart and Robinson) and an average one (Gerhart and Todman). Still, it is not an area of the largest concern so it doesn't rank any higher.
3. Outside Linebacker
Main Battle: Geno Hayes vs. Telvin Smith
The Jaguars have been busy trying to get their defense ready for their new scheme change. They will be featuring a lot more of the classic 46 "Bear" defense with a new position created by Bradley called the OTTO linebacker. Dekoda Watson was brought in to be this new do-it-all linebacker, and Paul Posluszny will still be manning the middle spot. That just leaves the weak-side linebacker spot open.
Hayes manned the spot last year for the Jaguars and was a weak point for them. Hayes graded out as one of the worst 4-3 outside linebackers in the league, especially against the run with a minus-13.3 grade (fourth-worst) per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Despite this, he graded out as the seventh-best linebacker in the league in coverage, with a plus-6.8 grade.
Smith was a fifth-round pick and part of a stout Florida State defense that ranked third in the country and helped lead the Seminoles to a BCS Championship victory. Smith had a great combine, running the second-fastest 40-yard-dash time for a linebacker with a 4.52 second time, per NFL.com. He showed great energy and leadership during his time at Florida State.
Smith is a bit on the smaller side for a linebacker, coming in at 6'3" and 218 pounds. He is going to need to bulk up a bit to withstand the physicality of the NFL, especially given how vicious of a tackler he is, which you can see here. If he can put on some muscle, he can be a versatile threat on their defense, similar to what Lavonte David is for Tampa Bay.
Despite his poor play last season, Hayes should be the front-runner for the starting role. Smith has a lot of work ahead of him to take advantage of his physical gifts. If he can quickly put on some weight and learn the playbook, he could take over for Hayes midseason.
This is the first of the defensive position battles to appear, and it does hold an impact as the Jaguars need an upgrade on the weak side. But given the fact that Smith likely won't be ready in time to take the job by the beginning of the season, it doesn't rank any higher.
2. Defensive Tackle
Main Battle: Sen'Derrick Marks vs. Tyson Alualu vs. Ziggy Hood
The Jaguars made a couple of moves along their defensive line, including the additions of Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood to beef up their interior line. Bryant should have a lock on one of the two starting tackle positions after excelling as a run-stuffer in Seattle. That leaves Marks, Alualu and Hood fighting for the final starting spot.
Marks has the best shot at the reclaiming the other starting role. Marks was brought in during free agency last year after four mediocre seasons in Tennessee. He ended up having a breakout year for the Jaguars, registering four sacks and ranking as one of the top pass-rushing interior linemen, per Pro Football Focus.
Marks excelled at getting after quarterbacks despite only logging four sacks. He was credited with 12 quarterback hits and 23 quarterback pressures. The one weak point in his game was against the run, where he graded out with a minus-8.4 grade, seventh-worst in the league, per Pro Football Focus.
Alulalu is flirting heavily with the bust label. After being drafted 10th overall in the 2010 draft, he has accumulated a paltry 11 sacks in four years. Head coach Gus Bradley tried switching him to defensive end last season but it ended with his lowest sack totals of his career (1.5).
There hasn't been any talk of it yet but I expect Alualu to shift back to defensive tackle since he was more productive there and has a better chance of seeing action. Alualu has a lot riding on his performance this season as he enters essentially his contract year since his final year (2015) is voidable, per Rotoworld.com. If he can't prove himself now, he is unlikely to return to Jacksonville.
Hood should be a warning to Alualu as his career played out much like what Alualu is facing. Hood was a first-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2009 but failed to make much of an impact, leading to him not being re-signed by the Steelers.
Hood managed only 11.5 sacks in five years with the Steelers as a 3-4 defensive end. The transition to 4-3 defensive tackle may take a little bit of time, but if he shows he is a quick learner, it will help his case substantially.
This battle really seems like Marks' battle to lose. He just needs a bit more work on his run stuffing, and he will round into a really good defensive tackle. Alualu will likely get the nod over Hood, assuming Alualu plays defensive tackle, since this is his last shot to make a good impression with the franchise. All three players will likely see a solid amount of time on the field.
This roster battle is of extreme importance for the Jaguars as they need to plug up their run defense. They ranked 29th in the league last year and face a number of good running backs this year, such as Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy.
1. Defensive End
Main Battle: Chris Clemons vs. Jason Babin vs. Andre Branch vs. Tyson Alualu
The Jaguars' pass rush has been walking the line of abysmal for a number of years. 2013 was the second year in a row the Jaguars finished last in the league in sacks and haven't placed in the top 15 since 2007. The Jaguars need to get after the quarterback, especially in a division where they have to play Andrew Luck twice a year.
Clemons had the best years of his career when Bradley was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. During that three-year span, Clemons racked up 33.5 sacks. Between dealing with injuries in 2013 and the emergence of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, he was held to just 4.5 sacks and was released by Seattle.
Clemons now joins fellow ex-Seahawk Red Bryant as Bradley looks to install in Jacksonville the same system he created in Seattle. Clemons hopes to put the 2013 season behind him and find himself reborn under Bradley again.
Babin is the other veteran at the position. The 34-year-old pass-rusher led the team in sacks last season, posting 7.5. Babin is certainly not the same pass-rusher he was when he posted 18 sacks in 2011 but he still has the ability to get after the quarterback.
Andre Branch is the latest attempt by the Jaguars to draft a high-profile pass-rusher. Branch was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft after posting 10.5 sacks in his final year at Clemson. He had a breakout year last season, posting six sacks, despite not starting a game. He now just has to prove he can handle the starting role in his third season.
Alualu makes his second appearance on this list, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. I stated earlier that I think he should make the switch back to defensive tackle, but there has yet to be any word of him doing that, hence his inclusion here.
Normally a player who put up the numbers Alualu did last season wouldn't be in consideration for a starting role. Yet somehow he managed to start every game despite Branch outplaying him.
I think Clemons and Babin will be the Day 1 starters for the Jaguars on each side. They have the most experience and, despite their age, could form an effective duo.
Branch should earn himself a lot more playing time after his performance last season. He seems to be a player on the brink of breaking out. If Alualu stays at defensive end, the only way I see him getting a significant amount of snaps would be due to his status as a first-round pick.
This battle tops the list because the Jaguars have had such an awful pass rush for a number of years. They need to get after the quarterback consistently to have a legitimate shot at playing well this year.
Some of the QBs they face this year include Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco. If they can't get pressure on these guys, their hopes of winning dwindle significantly.