Jacksonville Jaguars: Defensive Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been busy this offseason upgrading their roster so they can avoid another 4-12 season. Their offense has been overhauled with four new starters being brought in. While there hasn't been as many changes to their defense, it too has experienced some needed growth.
The defense has seen a few new additions this offseason, such as Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood. However, the Jaguars are relying more on players already on the team to answer some of the major questions that haunted their defense last year. The Jaguars were 25th against the pass and 29th against the run last year.
The biggest change to their defense has not been a personnel change but a schematic change. The Jaguars will be using more 46 "BEAR" looks as sub-packages. With the addition of Bryant, Gus Bradley's defense is starting to resemble the Super Bowl-winning defense he helped create in Seattle.
Given how many different defensive looks the Jaguars will have this season, I primarily broke down each position based on a standard 4-3 defensive look. I did include the special positions, such as Leo defensive end and run-stuffing defensive end, as separate slides. As for determining the depth at each position, I based it off Ryan O'Halloran's excellent article predicting the final 53-man roster on The Florida Times-Union.
Starters: Chris Clemons, Andre Branch
Depth: Ryan Davis, Chris Smith (R)
In the base 4-3 defense, Chris Clemons and Andre Branch should have no problem locking down the two defensive end positions. They will be expected to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, something the Jaguars failed to do last year, registering only 31 sacks, which was tied for last in the league.
Chris Clemons joins Gus Bradley, his former defensive coordinator in Seattle, after being a cap casualty for the Seahawks. Clemons' production took a hit last year as he missed the first two games of the season following a gruesome knee injury in the 2012-13 playoffs. He was also overshadowed by the emergence of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
Clemons is hoping to regain his form in Jacksonville. During Bradley's three years in Seattle, Clemons posted 33.5 sacks, leading the team each year. It will be tough for him to find that kind of production again at the age of 32, but with the release of Jason Babin, he must step up as the veteran leader at the position.
Andre Branch is the latest high-round draft pick the Jaguars have spent on defensive end. In the past, they have been burned by the likes of Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. Branch, a second-round pick in 2012, is hoping to turn their fortunes around.
Branch had a breakout season last year, compiling six sacks (second on team), despite not starting a single game. He still has some work to do on his pass-rushing moves and being able to beat left tackles one-on-one. So far, however, he has been doing a good job in training camps, earning praise from Bradley, who said, via The Florida Times-Union, "He is another guy with his pressure on the quarterback, just watching him do drill work, some of his vision that we talked to him about. He’s done a nice job."
Ryan Davis and Chris Smith will both provide depth at the position. Davis is in his third year with the team and has made very little impact while being stuck behind Babin, Tyson Alualu and Jeremy Mincey.
Smith, on the other hand, is a rookie who has been gaining some attention so far in training camps. Drafted in the fifth round, Smith fell in the draft because of his size (6'1") but posted 21.5 sacks in 43 games at Arkansas. Bradley was impressed by Smith's job in camp so far, saying:
Chris Smith as a rusher did a good job today in 2-minute situations and third-down situations. We saw a little pressure from him today. He did very good. He had a couple good rushes. He’s got the traits that we’re looking for. Now, we just need to see it in training camp.
Smith could be a late-round gem for this team.
Leo Defensive End
Starters: Chris Clemons
Depth: Andre Branch, Chris Smith (R)
Along with their base 4-3 defensive end position, the Jaguars use other types of defensive ends, including the Leo end. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, per fieldgulls.com, describes the Leo position as:
The best pass rusher on the team is usually the defensive end to the openside of the field. That puts him on the quarterback's blind side and makes him a C gap player in this defense. We often align him wider than this in order to give him a better angle of attack and allow him to play in space. We align him a yard outside of the offensive tackle most of the time. He has to play C gap run support but at the same time he is rushing the passer like it is third and ten. He has to be able to close down however if the tackle blocks down on him.
This is the position Chris Clemons played while racking up his 33.5 sacks in Seattle. Given his familiarity with the position, he will be the starter for this position when they use it. Andre Branch earned himself the right to be a Leo end after having the second-most sacks on the team last year.
Chris Smith is an intriguing option at Leo since he is shorter than what is generally wanted at the position. However, he does have a huge wingspan (34 1/8 inches). Mike DiRocca of ESPN.com is on the fence about Smith being a Leo saying:
Smith doesn't have the size the team likes in a leo -- he's about three to four inches too short -- but he has long arms (34 1/8 inches) and that somewhat makes up for it. He is not a dynamic pass-rusher, either, but gets most of his sacks by being relentless. That's a good quality but he'd be even more dangerous if he were an explosive rusher.
Rick Stavig of RantSports.com differs from DiRocca:
His size, however, isn’t as much of a concern in a defensive scheme like the one HC Gus Bradley employs. In his defense, the ‘Leo’ position is essentially a hybrid defensive end/linebacker that almost strictly focuses on getting up field and pressuring the QB. Sometimes they’re stood up, sometimes they have their hand in the dirt, but either way they’re in out in space to capitalize on speed and quickness, two elements highlighted in Smith’s skill set.
Either way, Smith will have time to learn the position with Clemons and Branch ahead of him. If he progresses well enough, he could find more playing time. For now, he just has to focus on making the team.
Run-Stuffing Defensive End
Starter: Red Bryant
Depth: Tyson Alualu
Along with the Leo end, the Jaguars employ a large defensive end to help stuff the run. Bradley did this in Seattle with Red Bryant and it worked very well. Bryant, 6'3" and 323 pounds, is not your standard defensive end. His size would make him a defensive tackle in most 4-3 schemes.
However, his ability to create havoc in the run game helped Seattle maintain dominance in the trenches and force teams into throwing the ball rather than running. Bryant would line up as the 5-technique, across from the tight end, resulting in a heavy mismatch.
This is a role Bradley tried to slide Alualu into last year with little success. Alualu has been a bust so far for Jacksonville after being taken 10th overall in 2010. In his four-year career, he has amassed only 11 sacks and has struggled to find his place at either defensive tackle or end. Even when his primary responsibility was stopping the run, he failed to make an impact, grading out with a minus-6.3 grade against the run, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Bryant will easily be the starter for this role and will look to teach the role to Alualu. Bryant's presence should be an immediate boost to this run defense and help them control the trenches.
Starters: Red Bryant, Sen'Derrick Marks
Depth: Tyson Alualu, Ziggy Hood, Roy Miller, Abry Jones
When the Jaguars run their base 4-3, the top two tackles should be Bryant and Sen'Derrick Marks. Bryant will be a force in the middle, commanding double teams because of his size, leaving Marks to continue his fantastic job from last year as a pass-rusher.
Marks was a surprise contributor last year after being brought in from Tennessee in free agency. He had a breakout year for the Jaguars, registering four sacks and ranking as one of the top pass-rushing interior linemen, per Pro Football Focus. He was also credited with 12 quarterback hits and 23 quarterback pressures.
Alualu should see time as defensive tackle since he didn't fit well into the run-stuffing end role. He will have to make a good impression because the final year of his contract is voidable, which makes this his contract year. If he can't produce, he will not be back next year.
I've written previously that Ziggy Hood should be a cautionary tale for Alualu since Hood is also a first-round bust. However, he has been making some real strides in camp and has been impressive so far. Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union said of Hood:
...he is going to be a part of a four- and five-man rotation. What they like about Ziggy is that first step. During these sessions, obviously no pads on, but the way he knifes through the line, you can tell he is going to be a guy who is going to be able to get up field and maybe make some plays against the run.
Hood will likely be the first choice to step into the defensive tackle role when Bryant kicks out to the end.
Like most of the Jaguars defensive linemen last year, Roy Miller struggled mightily against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, he carried a minus-12.3 grade against the run last year. Still, he should find his place among this rotation, providing depth.
Abry Jones looks to be Miller's backup according to John Oehser of Jaguars.com. Oehser said of Jones,
Abry Jones is backing up Roy Miller at the Jaguars’ nose guard position, and it would be very surprising if he doesn’t make the roster. The Jaguars love his versatility. He played pretty much every defensive line position last year, including the “Leo” in run situations. That gives a team significant roster flexibility come game day, and that makes Jones very valuable.
The depth along the front line should do wonders in improving their run defense. If they can shore up the middle of the line and control the line of scrimmage, the overall play of their defense will rise.
Starter: Dekoda Watson
Depth: LaRoy Reynolds
The Otto linebacker is a new position created by Gus Bradley and replaces the strong-side linebacker position. Defensive coordinator Bob Babich explained what this new position would entail during a radio interview on Jaguars Today on 1010XL, per Big Cat Country, stating:
OTTO is kind of going to be on the edge, we'd like to have some pass rush ability, in a pinch he could go down in a third-down situation to blitz him off the edge. It's something that's new to us, so formulating exactly what he's gonna be. But, it's gone really well and our guys have adjusted to it and our guys are excited about it. He can be strong or weak and most of the time he's going to be on the line of scrimmage, standing up.
Dekoda Watson was brought in from Tampa Bay specifically to play this new position. The coaches thought his versatility would be excellent for the Otto spot. Unfortunately, things have not gone quite as smooth so far as they would have hoped.
According to The Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran, Watson has missed all 12 OTAs due to injury. This just adds more concern to Watson taking over at this position. He has played in 60 games during his four-year career yet only started six of them. He is fairly inexperienced and missing time now is devastating.
In his absence, LaRoy Reynolds has been taking first-team reps at the Otto position. Given the way he has performed in Watson's absence, it may be a more permanent move than originally thought. Bradley said of Reynolds, "I think he has the ability, it’s just to get a chance to see him. He played some of it last year where he set the edge. He’s got really good strength, good speed on the line of scrimmage so I think he has a faster chance to play there."
Starter: Paul Posluszny
Depth: Nate Stupar
There is no debate on who is manning the middle of the defense. Paul Posluszny has been a fixture in the middle since coming in as a free agent from Buffalo in 2011. Since arriving in Jacksonville, all Posluszny has done is rack up tackles. He has topped 100 tackles in each of his three years and has led the team in combined tackles during that span as well.
Last year, "Pos" had some issues against the run, an issue that plagued the entire defense. This should clear up given the changes along the defensive front. The additions of Bryant and Hood should help free up space for Posluszny to hit the gap the runner is trying to get through.
Posluszny is joined by fellow Penn State alumni Nate Stupar. Stupar was originally drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 draft by Oakland but has since landed in Jacksonville. He hasn't really stood out in training camp, something that can be said of a number of their linebackers, so hopefully Posluszny can stay healthy for the season.
Starter: Geno Hayes
Depth: Telvin Smith (R), J.T. Thomas
Geno Hayes did not have the greatest season last year. He was very good in coverage, sporting a plus-6.8 grade per Pro Football Focus, but was absolutely horrendous against the run, finishing with a minus-13.3 grade.
Things have not started off well for him this year either. He has been battling a knee injury that has kept him out of OTAs and training camp. Despite his inability to take the field yet, he should still slide in as the starter given his experience at the spot.
One player who could take advantage of his absence is fifth-round pick Telvin Smith. Smith was a part of a stout Florida State defense that ranked third in the country and helped lead the Seminoles to a BCS championship victory. Smith excelled at the combine, running the second-fastest 40-yard dash time for a linebacker with a 4.52-second time, per NFL.com.
The one knock on Smith is his size. 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 a tackler he is, which you can see here.
J.T. Thomas will be a good fill-in player at the spot in an emergency situation. Thomas only started the final two games of the season last year, but he did play in 15 games during the year. His contributions were most felt on special teams, where he recorded six special teams tackles and blocked a punt in the season opener.
Starters: Dwayne Gratz, Alan Ball
Depth: Will Blackmon, Demetrius McCray, Jeremy Harris
Much like Sen'Derrick Marks, Alan Ball was a surprise contributor for the team last year coming in as a free agent. He is a tall, lanky corner who fits perfectly into Gus Bradley's defense. He has the length Bradley covets, as he's able to use his long arms to jam receivers and swat away passes in coverage.
Given how good a year Ball had, intercepting two balls and recording 14 passes defensed, he is a lock to start the season again and help solidify the corner position with Dwayne Gratz.
Speaking of Gratz, he has played himself into the starting role this year after starting eight games last year and performing well. Gratz played his best when he was up on the line of scrimmage against receivers. He does have some room to improve though, as Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller mentions:
As an eight-game starter, he was asked to play on the boundary, which is where his aggressive style of play paid off. Gratz is tough at the line of scrimmage and does well to jam, flip his hips and run downfield. He must improve his awareness, especially in a trail position, before he can be counted on as a top-tier cover man.
Will Blackmon figures to get the starting spot at the slot corner position given his experience. Blackmon played well last year, grading out with a plus-7.5 grade per Pro Football Focus. He was especially good against the run, carrying a plus-5.3 grade.
One player to keep an eye on is second-year player Demetrius McCray. According to Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, McCray could very well see some serious playing time. O'Halloran mentions how McCray could even push for starting time, giving the Jaguars a trio of corners to choose from each week.
Starter: Johnathan Cyprien
Depth: Chris Prosinski
Johnathan Cyprien was the team's second-round pick from a year ago and played up to his billing as a high draft pick. He started all 15 games he played, recording over 100 tackles. He showed a lot of potential as the anchor for the team's secondary for years to come.
Cyprien found himself sixth out of 25 players on NFL.com's Making the Leap series. Chris Wesseling, who broke down Cyprien's potential, compared Cyprien to former Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward, saying, "Cyprien boasts the physicality, movement pattern and athleticism to match Ward in the running game while still holding his own in coverage." Wesseling outlined his expectations for Cyprien by saying,
It's reasonable to believe he will emerge as the premier player on a defense lacking in stars. The Jaguars desperately need Cyprien to graduate to a higher level as the quarterback of the defense, a movable chess piece capable of blitzing effectively, controlling the line of scrimmage and patrolling the middle of the field.
Since it is apparent Bradley is trying to form the Jaguars defense into a clone of what he made in Seattle, Cyprien would seemingly fill the same role Kam Chancellor plays as the enforcer. While Cyprien is a punishing tackler, his progression in the coverage game shows the potential he carries. In my opinion, Cyprien has the makings of an even more dangerous safety, one in the mold of Pittsburgh do-it-all safety Troy Polamalu.
Starters: Josh Evans
Depth: Winston Guy
While the Jaguars expected to start Cyprien as a rookie, Josh Evans was a surprise starter for them. Evans, a sixth-round pick, started 11 games next to Cyprien in relief of the injured Dwight Lowery. Evans played well enough, given the fact he was a surprise starter, that the coaching staff expected him to start again in 2014, according to The Florida Times Union, (h/t Rotoworld.com).
However, Evans has had a rough start to the 2014 season by missing all OTAs and training camp because he is still recovering from surgery on his foot. In his absence, Winston Guy has stepped up and has taken all the first-team reps.
Guy has taken full advantage of this opportunity, putting himself in a good place to be the starter instead of Evans. Guy has experience with Bradley as he was a rookie in Bradley's last year in Seattle. According to Mike DiRocca of ESPN.com, Bradley liked what Guy brought to the table, saying Bradley "saw him as a player similar to Earl Thomas: a hard-hitting safety with the ability to roam the back end. That allows the Jaguars to play Cyprien closer to the line of scrimmage without worrying about getting beat over the top."
Regardless of whoever ends up starting at the free safety spot, it seems the Jaguars will have a more-than-capable player and, much like the scenario with McCray and the two starting corners, they could rotate Evans and Guy to fit their week-by-week needs.