Starting this week, Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise, and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicked off with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns. Today it's the Jacksonville Jaguars.
By Russ Lande
Here's some easy, lazy Jaguars logic: they need to sell tickets, so they need to draft Johnny Manziel. Check please! Wait, not so fast: Jaguars coach Gus Bradley is defense-oriented, dedicated to careful building through the draft, and unlikely to make rash decisions. The Jaguars have many needs on both sides of the ball, and the best way to sell tickets is to make the team better. That doesn't mean the team won't draft Manziel, just that there are a lot of variables in play, and a team with the third pick in the draft and a pretty good cap situation can go in many different directions.
Problem: Find a quarterback who can lead the offense.
Solution: Like many scouts and experts (including me), the Jaguars misevaluated quarterback Blaine Gabbert when he came out of Missouri and now must find a new triggerman to lead their team. Talking to insiders around the league, I get the impression that the Jaguars will make every effort to re-sign veteran quarterback Chad Henne as the backup to whomever they bring in to be the starter. If they are able to bring back Henne, they are expected to release Gabbert, who has one year remaining on his contract. If Henne signs elsewhere, the Jaguars will likely keep Gabbert as a backup.
At this point, there does not appear to be a specific quarterback at the top of the Jaguars' draft board, but if they deem one worthy, they will select him with the third pick. There is some sentiment around the league that the Jaguars would prefer to select a pass rusher in the first round and try to find a quarterback in the second or third round. If they wait until the second or third round, the Jaguars could take a chance on Georgia's Aaron Murray, who was a highly productive passer in the SEC. Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell learned under Bill Polian and Thomas Dimitroff, who both place a ton of emphasis on film evaluation and college production.
Problem: Acquire a pass rusher.
Solution: When looking back at Gus Bradley's defense in Seattle, it was clear that he prefers a defense with moveable parts. That philosophy was most evident by the use of a "Leo" pass rusher in both Seattle and Jacksonville. The "Leo" lines up in many spots in the Jaguars' defense, both on the line with a hand on the ground and up for a two-point stance. The Jaguars liked what they got from veteran defensive end Jason Babin in 2013 and would like to bring him back in 2014, but he is scheduled to earn $6,000,000 in 2014 and 2015 so they will only bring him back with a restructured contact. Sources say that Babin enjoys playing for the Jaguars and is willing to take a pay cut to stay, but whether he will take enough of one remains to be seen.
With the third pick in the first round, the Jaguars will definitely be able to choose one of the elite pass rushers, but determining which one is a difficult task. While many, including me, have concerns about Jadeveon Clowney's consistency of production, Bradley may not be scared off, as he has shown throughout his coaching career that he can motivate players to compete hard and play aggressively on every snap. I still remember seeing him motivate his players at North Dakota State and believe he has the natural charisma/leadership to get Clowney to become a dominant player.
If another team takes Clowney before the Jags get the chance, then they will look toward University of Buffalo defender Khalil Mack. Mack is a versatile defender who can rush the quarterback from any alignment, is highly productive against the run and shockingly effective playing off the ball in pass coverage. If they do not take a pass rusher in the first round, they will likely sign a solid free agent like Corey Wooten (Bears) -- who has the size and length to be a versatile defender in the Jaguars scheme -- then draft a few pass rushers in later rounds.
Three names to keep an eye on after the first round in the draft that I feel would fit the Jaguars defense are Alabama's Ed Stinson, Virginia's Brent Urban and UCLA's Cassius Marsh. Stinson and Urban are long defensive ends who weigh over 285 pounds, are athletic enough to be disruptive pass rushers and are strong run defenders, so they could line up at defensive tackle or defensive end to spell Tyson Alualu, who currently fills the role of Red Bryant on the Jaguars defense. Marsh is the warrior-type defensive player who was productive lining up all over the field for UCLA. He would be an excellent rotational player and possibly even make an impact on special teams.
Problem: Improve the interior offensive line.
Solution: With their long time "rock" at center Brad Meester retiring, Will Rackley still struggling with consistency and finishing the 2013 season on injured reserve, and Jacques McClendon almost totally unproven, the Jaguars need to address issues on the O-line. Although they are committed to building through the draft and are not expected to go crazy in the free agent market, I am told that they will consider Browns center Alex Mack because he has the combination of size, strength, athleticism and toughness to anchor the interior for a long time.
The Jaguars would like to draft a top guard like David Yankey out of Stanford, but it would be a stretch to take him with the third pick in the first round, and he is unlikely to still be available when they pick in the second round. Instead, look for them to target a guard like UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo in the second or third round. Su'a-Filo is a "plug and play" guard who should start from the day he shows up in the NFL.
Problem: Find a new plan at running back.
Solution: Maurice Jones-Drew has been a highly productive back for the Jaguars for many years. The team would love to have him back, but they have already stated they are going to let him test the free agent market. This likely means he won't return, as some team should give him more money than the Jaguars will.
The Jaguars may try to sign either James Starks or Toby Gerhart. Neither has been a full-time starter, so their prices would be right, and both run with the strong, violent and aggressive running style that Coach Bradley wants to build his offensive identity around.
If the Jaguars don't address their running back issues in free agency, they will target one in the draft. Two names to keep an eye on are Bishop Sankey out of Washington and Andre Williams from Boston College. Neither one is a premier athlete likely to blow up the Combine, but they both should be available in the second or possibly third round. They both have shown the skills to contribute not only carrying the ball, but also in the passing game -- vital for a back to be successful in today's NFL.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.