JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – I'm not surprised, but I am impressed.
For what seems like forever, the Jaguars in free agency were a non-factor. And even when they were a factor, it didn't matter. Jerry Porter, Drayton Florence and Tory Holt were supposed to make a splash. They did, more looking like a belly flop.
A bunch of journeymen fill-ins barely made a ripple. Part of the fault was Jack Del Rio and Gene Smith thinking the Jaguars were better than they were. Just a few tweaks here and there and they'd contend. That turned out not to be true. Even in his first year of ownership, Shad Khan was told that if they acquired CB Aaron Ross, resigned Jeremy Mincey, and picked up WR Laurent Robinson, they've have a chance in the division. Instead, they won two games and Khan decided to go back to the drawing board.
In comes a new GM Dave Caldwell and a new head coach, Gus Bradley. A couple of free agent signings in the first year of Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller barely were noticed among the purge of players like Montel Owens, Daryl Smith and others. And while Marks and Miller exceeded expectations, there was no reason to think that the Jaguars of 2014 would be a player in the free-agent market where it would make a difference.
But all along Caldwell and Bradley have talked about "the plan" and clearly in the second year of their plan, free agency was a major part of the upgrade of the roster.
Before it even officially began, the Jaguars had agreed to terms with Red Bryant. Bryant, a DT off Seattle's world championship team was a team captain and brought in for not only his ability to stop the run, but his leadership as a locker room guy. Upgrade.
When the free agency period began, OG Zane Beadles signed here from the Broncos and will be plugged in as a starter. "I'm only entering my 5th year. In some people's eyes, that's not hugely experienced. But I've played a lot of football, a lot of snaps and been through a lot of situations." Upgrade
Shortly thereafter, RB Toby Gerhardt, the backup to Adrian Peterson in Minnesota signed a deal to play in a Jaguars uniform. Four years in the league, Gerhardt has less than 260 carries. "I'm a veteran without a lot of miles on these legs," is how he put his level of experience. He expects to start. Upgrade
Dekoda Watson wasn't impressed when he first saw downtown Jacksonville. "This is it? Is what I thought," he said with a laugh at his press conference announcing his signing. "But then they took me over the bridge and I said, O, K, !" Watson will plug holes AND rush the passer from the edge.
After day one, the Jaguars were a better team. Day two brought the signings of DL Ziggy Hood and DE Chris Clemons. Clemons had more than 30 sacks in three years playing under Gus Bradley in Seattle. Hood started every game for the Steelers last year.
In kind of a surprise, Jason Babin re-signed with the Jaguars saying it was the plan all along. "They knew this is where I wanted to be. They knew all along I would void my contract." While Babin is a known quantity, clearly Bradley thinks he brings enough to the table to give him a shot in competing for a spot here.
Add Will Blackmon's signing as a free agent and you get a picture of what the Jaguars are trying to do before the draft. Just about all of these guys are in their late 20's, have been around the league for 4 or 5 years, have played on some good and bad teams but all are either in, or about to be in the prime of their careers. They can be a core nucleus for Bradley and Caldwell going forward.
The other interesting part is how the players have gravitated to the Jaguars as a choice. Almost all said they heard about the energy Bradley brings to the team and admitted that they were curious but not convinced: Until they got here. Bradley's culture has a reputation in the league already, and it has some players curious. Besides their age and experience, the other thread that runs through these free agents is their work ethic. All are know for going full bore, competing and hard work. In other words, according to Bradley, they love football.
They still need help at WR (Emmanuel Sanders?) and on the offensive line but year two of the three year plan is starting to take shape.
Whether they do a little more in free agency or wait until the draft (right now they have 11 picks in 2014) they'll continue to follow Gus' mantra of "Get Better."