Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades the Jacksonville Jaguars Made This Offseason
The Jacksonville Jaguars have so far enjoyed an excellent offseason. Head coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell used ample cap room and shrewd selections to significantly upgrade during free agency and the draft.
Some of their best work came via moves designed to solidify the trenches. Both lines are now stronger headed into the 2014 NFL season.
One familiar theme from this offseason has been the acquisition of greater team speed. This is embodied by new recruits at both linebacker and wide receiver.
Bradley has coveted faster units since taking over last season. This team now looks leaner and quicker, compared with the pedestrian state of affairs that developed under Jack Del Rio and Mike Mularkey.
Here's a more in-depth ranking of the biggest upgrades made to this roster. Moves are ranked by how they strengthened a particular position and how that positively impacts the whole team.
Adding Zane Beadles to the Offensive Line
The Jags couldn't enter the new season with the same five starters who manned the O-line in 2013. That group surrendered 50 sacks and barely assisted a 31st-ranked ground attack that averaged just 78.8 yards per game.
That's why it was so important to sign ex-Denver Broncos starter Zane Beadles during free agency. The scrappy, versatile and intelligent blocker provides vital experience and a marquee presence along a rebuilding front.
Beadles, a Pro Bowler during his time in Denver, will be trusted to provide veteran leadership from his left guard position, per TDDaily.com. His experience will be invaluable to a young group.
One member of the group is 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel. He'll moving back to his natural left tackle spot, following an injury-derailed rookie campaign.
If Joeckel lives up to his draft billing from a year ago, he and Beadles will form a very solid tandem on the left side. That combination can be the focal point of the blocking schemes in the running game, as well as a major boost in pass protection.
There's a lot to like about the Beadles signing. In fact, the only gripe that prevents it from ranking higher is the lack of other new recruits along a line that needed a massive overhaul.
New Playmakers at Linebacker
Bradley's defense needed more playmakers at linebacker to complement all-action man in the middle Paul Posluszny. That's just what he may have found in ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers rotation player Dekoda Watson and fifth-round pick Telvin Smith.
Of the two, Watson could make the more immediate impact. He has been ticketed for the new "Otto" role on Bradley's multiple base front. Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union has detailed what to expect from this new position:
This year, coach Gus Bradley has deleted the Sam linebacker from the playbook and replaced it with the Otto, a physical/athletic/versatile player who will be positioned along the line of scrimmage.
The goals in creating the Otto: Be more multiple in their looks without radically changing the personnel, help a run defense that was 29th in the NFL last year, provide another option for a pass rush that was tied for last in the league and have a player who is comfortable in coverage.
Dekoda Watson was signed on the second day of free agency from Tampa Bay to be the Otto.
The role is suited to Watson's 6'2", 240-pound frame and blitz skills. The position is sure to make the front stouter against the run, as well as offer a greater pass-rush threat.
That's the theory at least. The plans have been slightly hampered by Watson having to begin training camp on the PUP list, per NFL.com writer Marc Sessler.
That comes after offseason hernia surgery, but Watson is still expected to start the new season, according to another report from O'Halloran.
While potential changes on the strong side of the defense have been given their own name, there could be just as significant movement on the weak side. That's where Smith will push veteran Geno Hayes for playing time.
The former Florida standout wowed defensive coordinator Bob Babich with his athleticism and instincts during OTAs, per Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union.
Weighing just 218 pounds, Smith may be considered woefully undersized by many. However, it's worth noting that Bradley has made room for safety-sized linebackers in the past.
As defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks in 2011, Bradley was part of the staff who drafted last season's Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith. The 226-pounder lacked imposing size but had the speed and coverage range that Bradley's schemes demand at the linebacker level.
In Jacksonville, Bradley could turn to Telvin Smith as a key sub-package player. The rookie could see time in nickel and dime fronts.
What the Jags now have at linebacker are scheme-specific players. Watson and Smith can provide particular skills that are crucial to the overall defensive playbook. That means that after a season of teething problems, Bradley can now unleash his full system.
Only Watson's surgery and Smith's uphill battle to be a full-time starter as a rookie prevent this upgrade from being ranked higher.
Greater Dynamism and Potential at Wide Receiver
The Jaguars largely stood pat at wide receiver during free agency. However, that didn't stop them from snaring two potential playmakers in the 2014 NFL draft.
Caldwell wisely used consecutive second-round picks to select Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. That double deal has added some star value to an otherwise unheralded position.
The suspension and continuing troubles for 2012 fifth overall pick Justin Blackmon have robbed Jacksonville of a pass-catcher that opposing defenses will fear. But both Robinson and Lee have the potential to grow into that role.
Robinson is a catching machine, having snared 97 receptions during his final season at Penn State, per CFBStats.com. He's the kind of roving, big-bodied wideout who can create matchup problems at every level of a defense.
Meanwhile, Lee offers the greater big-play dynamism, something else this passing game has lacked for far too long. CBS Sports analyst Rob Rang noted how Lee's speed threatens defenses:
Explosive straight-line speed that makes pressing him risky for even talented cornerbacks. Remarkably fluid athlete, capable of changing directions quickly and shows developing savvy as a route-runner, often using a hesitation move and shoulder-dip to get defenders off-balance.
His vision, elusiveness and acceleration make him a terror after the catch, whether as a receiver or returner.
Only injuries can prevent Lee and Robinson from immediately becoming major features of the Jacksonville passing game. Lee was brittle during his final season at USC. Both he and Robinson have already succumbed to slight injuries this offseason.
Fortunately, both receivers will be ready for camp, according to Jaguars.com writer John Oehser:
Allen Robinson is excited. Just as important, he’s ready.
The same is true of Marqise Lee, which means the Jaguars’ rookie wide receiver tandem – as well as the team’s entire wide receiver corps – should be on the field in close to full-go capacity when the team opens 2014 training camp Friday.
If Robinson and Lee stay healthy and deliver, the Jaguars will boast the first complementary pair of playmakers at wide receiver they've had since the days of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.
Of course, a lot will still depend on the ability of prospective starting quarterback Chad Henne to get them the ball. However, there is now genuine excitement about the Jacksonville passing game for the first time in a long while.
A Fresh Start at Running Back
It's hard to call any new running back an upgrade over Maurice Jones-Drew. After all, the mini-marvel is the Jags' second all-time leading rusher behind Fred Taylor.
However, despite his gaudy career numbers, things had grown stale for Pocket Hercules in Jacksonville. He had failed to crack 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons in the AFC South, as injuries and changing schemes took their toll.
The Jaguars needed a fresh start at running back, and that's just what they got by letting Jones-Drew walk and signing Toby Gerhart. The former Minnesota Vikings backup is ready for a featured back workload.
By adding Gerhart, the Jaguars have replaced a declining player who was struggling to motivate himself with an eager runner who is desperate to prove his worth as a lead workhorse.
Adding Red Bryant to the Run Defense
Bradley needed to fix a run defense that ranked 29th in the NFL last season. He found the perfect solution by signing ex-Seattle Seahawks defensive anchor Red Bryant.
The massive veteran has the size and tenacity to dominate the line of scrimmage and keep blockers off linebackers in Bradley's base schemes. At 6'4" and 323 pounds, Bryant is the perfect fit for the "Elephant" role on the Jacksonville front seven.
It's a 5-technique defensive end position that requires occupying and commanding double-teams. Bryant played the role under Bradley for three seasons in Seattle.
Even though former Tennessee Titans speedster Chris Johnson has left the AFC South, the Jags still need a stingy run front. Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton loves to attack with a power-based ground game behind overloaded offensive lines.
The Jags need Bryant to play a key role this season. Along with nose tackle Roy Miller, he can spearhead a fearsome new run defense.
Boosting the Pass Rush
If improving the run defense was a priority, upgrading an anemic pass rush was a necessity. The Jaguars managed just 31 sacks during Bradley's debut year in charge.
But the team showed a major commitment to improving in this area during the offseason. The highlight move was the acquisition of another former Seahawk, Chris Clemons.
The veteran knows how to thrive in the "Leo" role that is vital to Bradley's hybrid defensive schemes. As a player who flip-flops between D-end and outside linebacker, Clemons tallied 11 or more sacks in 2010, 2011 and 2012. All of those seasons came under Bradley's tutelage.
After suffering a serious knee injury in the NFC playoffs following the 2012 campaign, Clemons' production naturally dipped in 2013. He recorded a mere 4.5 sacks during his final year in Seattle. But a healthy Clemons can rebound this season.
But he isn't the only new face who could make an impact by chasing quarterbacks this season. Fifth-round pick Chris Smith will be Clemons' understudy at the Leo position.
Another intriguing arrival is former Pittsburgh Steelers starter Ziggy Hood. He has the size, speed and agility to work well as a 3-technique, interior pass-rusher in nickel schemes. Add Watson to the mix as a pass-rushing linebacker, and the Jags are suddenly loaded with pressure specialists.
This new quartet can combine well with incumbents like D-tackle Sen'Derrick Marks and rapidly developing "Leo" Andre Branch.
The Jaguars need this many pass-rushing weapons in a division featuring Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. With this level of talent up front, Bradley can craft various pressure alignments that allow the Jaguars to threaten the pocket and still drop seven into coverage.
That's a major schematic advantage for the defense.
Greater Team Speed
Greater team speed is evident at every level of Bradley and Caldwell's revamped roster. It's vital for competing in a modern NFL where defenses have better, more versatile athletes, while offenses rely on more spread-based concepts designed to release speed.
The Jaguars are now blessed with that quality at key positions. Offensively, the additions of Lee and Robinson have seen to that. Over on the defense, Watson, Clemons and the two Smith rookies will ensure a more fleet-footed group can execute Bradley's swarming system.
This is now a younger, quicker group of players. The remade Jaguars have been upgraded enough to spring a few surprises this season.
All statistics via NFL.com, unless otherwise stated.
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