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NFL Draft Preview: Jaguars on edge at No. 3

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JACKSONVILLE — When you consider that the Jacksonville Jaguars could produce a starting lineup in 2015 with as many as eight new starters BEFORE you take into account another 3-5 new rookie starters, it’s either been a.) a very productive offseason for the Jaguars or b.) Jaguars starters last year weren’t very good.

It’s likely a combination of the two, though those within the team circle will tell you it’s more the former than the latter reason. That’s how good the Jaguars’ crop of free-agent signings in March and April were.

The team made an instant splash in the market by inking six players on the first day. They weren’t just players the team elected to take a chance on with low risk vulnerability. Not when the top three signees hauled in guaranteed money of $24 million (tight end Julius Thomas, Denver), $22 million (defensive lineman Jared Odrick, Miami) and $14 million (tackle Jermey Parnell, Dallas). Those were the three “name” players Jacksonville came up with on Day 1.

Had they stopped with those three, it would have been gleaned a needed and successful acquisition. But the Jaguars weren’t done. They added three more players that day, including cornerback Davon House ($10 million guaranteed) from Green Bay, linebacker Dan Skuta ($8 million) from San Francisco and free safety Sergio Brown, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts.

Thomas could turn out to be the most important signing. He’s a tight end who runs the field as well as a wideout. Over the last two seasons, he latched on to 108 passes for 1,277 yards and most importantly, 24 touchdowns. A year ago, he had nine touchdown catches in the red zone, more than double what the Jaguars got from the tight end position inside the 20 in 2014. Thomas is now the team’s highest paid player with a $46 million deal over five years.

Close behind in importance among the free-agent signees, was the acquisition of Parnell to fill the opening at right tackle. It’s been a revolving door at that spot for several seasons and is the reason why Jaguars quarterbacks have been sacked so many times or forced to run for their life. The Jaguars like Parnell’s athleticism, the fact he’s only 28 and his 6-foot-6, 315-pound size. But he has but seven career starts at this level – the final five regular-season games and two playoff contests for the Cowboys last year.

Odrick has started 41 games and gives the Jaguars a versatile lineman who can play the strong-side end spot or move inside to a tackle spot. He started all 16 games for the Dolphins a year ago and at age 27 was a definite upgrade from last year’s Jaguars starter Red Bryant who was released a week after Odrick signed on.

Skuta is also an upgrade at the Otto linebacker spot and thus becomes an instant starter for the Jaguars. Last season was his most productive with 33 tackles, five sacks and three forced fumbles in 10 starts.

House and Brown will be starters entering training camp, but both must prove their value on the field. Neither has a lot of experience. House has 14 starts in four seasons, Brown has just 11 starts in five NFL seasons. Yet both appear to have the talent to displace last year’s starters in the secondary. If nothing else, they’ll add depth to a unit that struggled through much of the 2014 season.

Just when it appeared the six first-day signees would be the extent of the free-agent haul, they were able to lure former Oakland Raiders center/guard Stefan Wisniewski aboard. He’s been mostly a starter at center though he has also started at guard. He’ll likely open as the Jaguars center this fall, which could push last year’s rookie starter Luke Bowanko into a serious battle with guards Brandon Linder and Zane Beadles for a starting spot.

Sure the Jaguars missed out on a couple of their targeted free agents like New England safety Devin McCourty, Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb or Dallas running back DeMarco Murray. Had Jacksonville connected on even one of the three and kept the rest of their signees intact, it would have been an outstanding group of newcomers.

As it is, the Jaguars have plugged openings at a number of positions. More important, it has taken the pressure off to come up with several big-time college draft picks who might otherwise been counted on to come in and fill an immediate need.

As it stands now, defensive end (Leo spot) is the biggest hole the Jaguars must fill. That undoubtedly will happen with their pick of the No. 3 overall player in the draft. Beyond that, the Jaguars will look for depth at the wide receiver position and possible starting material at linebacker and free safety.

2014 Record: 3-13, 3rd in AFC South

First Draft Pick: #3 Overall

BEST FIT: DE/LB Dante Fowler, Florida

It’s all upside with Fowler who has the athleticism, the size and the speed to be a 15-sack player at the NFL level. He would fill the void at the Leo spot for the Jaguars who lacked production from this position in head coach Gus Bradley’s first two seasons. Williams has the versatility to be utilized in several different ways, which makes him a better choice for the Jaguars’ pick at the No. 3 spot than Southern California’s Leonard Williams.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Defensive end: A pass-rushing defensive end is a must for the Jaguars, who sorely need to improve on the pressure they put on opposing quarterbacks. The Leo spot in head coach Gus Bradley’s scheme must be quick and athletic, be physical enough to stop the run yet have the agility to get into the backfield on passing downs. If the Jaguars stay at No. 3, they are all but guaranteed of having a choice of either Dante Fowler from Florida or Leonard Williams from Southern California. They really like both. Williams is the more physical of the two, but Fowler’s versatility and the elite agility and power in individual drills that he showed in the NFL’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis may swing the nod to him. Either way, the Jaguars’ defense will be greatly improved with either player.

2. Running back: The two backs the Jaguars covet the most are Todd Gurley of Georgia and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin. But with both players slated to be mid-to-late first-round picks, the only way the Jaguars could land either would be to trade down and bypass selecting a defensive end. The good news is that the draft is deep with running backs and if the Jaguars stay at No. 3 and select their defensive end, the running back spot will almost certainly be addressed with their next pick at No. 36 in the second round. There are enough quality backs that will be available at that point for Jacksonville to grab. They like what Denard Robinson and Toby Gerhart showed in 2014, especially in the second half of the season. Still, neither player appears to be the long-term answer. Gerhart has been injury prone and Robinson doesn’t appear to have the endurance to be the No. 1 back for an entire season.

3. Wide receiver: The Jaguars really like their trio of receivers in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee, all of whom showed flashes of great potential at times during their rookie season a year ago. But it’s clear the Jaguars want to add to this depth, as was brought out by their pursuit of Greg Jennings who came in for a visit but who left without a contract offer. The addition of tight end Julius Thomas will surely help the passing game and could make it easier for one of the young receivers to have a standout season. But all are still young and have yet to show on the field they are capable of being a No. 1 receiver for an entire season. The status of suspended Justin Blackmon remains a mystery as the league has given the Jaguars no clues as to his availability for 2015. All this being said, the Jaguars will look to add a receiver from the draft to this group and hope that he has an even better year than last year’s trio of rookies showed.


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