Everyone knew that this would be a key offseason for the Jacksonville Jaguars. When a team has plenty of cap space available and a number of holes to fill, it is bound to be an active time for the front office, led by general manager Dave Caldwell.
The second-year GM wasted little time addressing one of the team's most pressing needs, that of the defensive line, signing Chris Clemons and Ziggy Hood to four-year contracts and re-signing veteran Jason Babin to a three-year deal that was a major step in rebuilding a line that was woeful at times a year ago.
But Caldwell didn't stop there in solidifying the line. He also acquired former Seattle defensive end Red Bryant, who played under Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley when the latter served as Seattle's defensive coordinator.
Adding Bryant to the mix was key as he was in demand from several other NFL clubs. But one meeting with Bradley and Caldwell was all that it took for Bryant to ink a four-year deal worth $17 million ($5.25 guaranteed). The last piece of the defensive puzzle to be added came with the signing of linebacker Dekoda Watson. He'll be primarily a pass rushing end on third-down situations.
Caldwell also helped the offense. The first move came with the re-signing of quarterback Chad Henne, whose numbers were not overwhelming, but the support around him, both the blockers and the receivers, were not good.
The belief is that improvement in those two areas will spike Henne's numbers upward. Give him more time to throw the ball and he'll find the open receiver. Having better receivers who run better routes and do a better job of catching the ball will also lift Henne's production.
That was addressed when the Jaguars made guard Zane Beadles their first pick on the opening day of free agency. They hope that the former Denver Bronco will be the linchpin of a rebuilt offensive line. He was part of a Broncos unit that allowed an NFL-low 20 sacks last year.
Jacksonville had to address its running back position, where starter Maurice Jones-Drew and backup Justin Forsett departed. That prompted the Jags to make a successful pitch to Minnesota Vikings backup running back Toby Gerhart. Bradley and Caldwell were convinced after watching Gerhart's plays where he spelled Adrian Peterson, that Gerhart could become a full-time starter.
Offseason departures from the Jaguars came at the request of the team, as opposed to the players necessarily wanting to go elsewhere. There wasn't a player who left that the Jaguars made a strong bid to re-sign. Most noteworthy was Jones-Drew, who signed with Oakland, near where he grew up.
With the free-agent arrivals and departures now complete, it leaves the Jaguars with specific areas to address in the upcoming draft.
First and foremost will be the receiver spot. Last year's suspension of Justin Blackmon leaves the talented receiver in flux as to whether he'll be with the club in 2014. The Jaguars will go after a receiver early in the draft as this is a critical need.
Center must also be addressed following the retirement of veteran Brad Meester and the failure to lure All-Pro Alex Mack away from Cleveland.
With Russell Allen retiring, the Jaguars will also look to shore up their depth at linebacker. Another defensive end could also be in the picture as Bradley is a strong believer that you can never have too many quality defensive ends.
--It was more than a mild surprise when the Jacksonville Jaguars quietly released 27-year-old starting linebacker Russell Allen after five seasons.
It wasn't an upset to Allen, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and was cut three times before. That's because, as he told Sports Illustrated, Allen's health will not allow him to continue his professional football career.
Allen said he suffered a stroke on the field Dec. 15, 2013, in a Week 15 game against the Buffalo Bills. He hit center Eric Wood "dead center" while pursuing the ball, and walked away "buzzed."
"It was strange because it was so routine," Allen says. "We hit, I got off the block, no big deal. I felt something flash-like they say when you get your bell rung. I didn't lose consciousness. I walked back to the huddle and finished the drive."
There were no immediate signs to Allen or Jaguars medical personnel that he was injured. No concussion, certainly nothing as serious as a dead spot the size of a dime on his cerebellum.
Minutes later, Allen tells SI, he experienced serious symptoms including double vision. But after asking starting middle linebacker Paul Posluszny to look at his eyes, Allen strapped his helmet back on and finished the entire game.
Allen was admitted to the hospital for three days that week after disclosing his recollection of events in the game and on the sideline to trainers, who ordered an MRI. When he was given word that he had a stroke on the field, Allen didn't believe doctors. The denial went on for some time, but the Jaguars trusted the diagnosis. Coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell continue to offer encouragement and Bradley's promise, per Sports Illustrated, that Allen is a Jaguar for life, helped him find some semblance of closure.
"If I could go back in time I would do it differently," Allen told SI. "Being in it and knowing how I felt in that moment, the game feels so serious. You're thinking, I can't come out, because what if someone else comes in and takes my job? Or they need me out there, and I can't come out because I really want to win. But you can't do that, and I learned that the hard way."
Allen said Tuesday after the story was published that he told his story as an informational tool for other players who might ignore injuries in the moment.
"I told my story so athletes understand you can't ignore head injuries," Allen said via Twitter. "If you're not sure you have one, then you do. Report it immediately."
--Chad Henne explored the free-agency market, but the third-year Jaguars quarterback knew he wanted to stay in Jacksonville. Henne was with Miami for four years before signing with the Jaguars in 2012. He has 19 starts and has played in 25 games the last two seasons with the Jaguars.
"I definitely ended up where I wanted to be," he said. "I'm glad the deal got done when it did."
Now Henne is hopeful that the offense will be better in 2014 than it was a year ago.
"I like what they've done in bringing in Zane Beadles and Toby Gerhart," he said. "I think we have a lot to build on from last year. Obviously, there's still some places we want to improve but we feel confident with what we're here to do.
"Bringing in Zane and getting him that quickly was key. With a guy of that caliber, he was going to go off the board quick. It's a good think he liked what he saw here and where we're going."
--Some called the Jaguars signing of Toby Gerhart to a three-year deal worth just over $10 million a risk. Don't include Jaguars coach Gus Bradley among that group. Gerhart turned 28 in March, but with his limited action he's got young legs.
"When we watched his college tape and then we watched his reps that he did get, that's really what we're basing it on," the Jaguars coach said. "Talking to people that have been with him as a teammate all those things came together and said this is really clean. This is a great opportunity to get a guy in our locker room that we believe can help us.
"You still have to do it, but I think he's really looking forward to the opportunity. I think he's been waiting for this opportunity and wants to take advantage of it."
Count on Gerhart to play with a chip on his shoulder, at least in the early part of the season. Gerhart has heard the doubters, those that say he hasn't proven himself to be a team's No. 1 running back, something the Jaguars tagged him with when they signed him to a multi-million dollar deal.
"Yeah there's always a prove-yourself situation when you come to a new team," the former Vikings running back said. "There's always that added pressure to prove yourself. I haven't had that opportunity to play a full 16 games as a starter, so I think a lot of people are going to take a wait and see stance. The jury is still out on me, but I'm excited to get out there and show what I can do.
"Sure there's pressure to come in and try to replace a guy like Maurice Jones-Drew. He's been the man here for a number of years and has been a premier running back in the league. So there's a lot of pressure to come in and replace him."
--The Jaguars not only lost two good players in running back Maurice Jones-Drew (signed with Oakland) and veteran center Brad Meester (retired), but the team lost two of its locker-room leaders. Head coach Gus Bradley will be looking for everyone in the locker room to pick up that leadership slack in 2014.
"We're asking everybody to step up,. That's the challenge for us all," Bradley said. "I think that each of them needs to challenge each other to be their best and that's the type of leadership model we want to follow. I feel like if we can get 90 guys in our locker room that are challenging each other, then we're making great strides. Through that, I think even stronger leaders will develop and that's what's exciting."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
WIDE RECEIVER: If the Jaguars had an answer from the league office on the status of suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon, it could alter the need factor at this position. But even if Blackmon is given a thumbs up to return to the Jaguars, there's no guarantee that he'll last the entire season. As a result, the Jaguars are expected to believe that he won't be with the club. And that creates a major void at the receiver spot. Cecil Shorts is solid coming off of 55- and 66-reception seasons, but after that, there is no one that the Jaguars can turn to as a proven receiver. Without a second solid threat to throw to, the passing game will continue to be among the league's worst.
QUARTERBACK: At some point during the draft, the Jaguars will select a quarterback. That's a given. When they select him will determine how serious they are about having him start. The team would prefer not to add a must-start quarterback, especially since there is not a proven NFL-type quarterback who can be expected to step in as a starter and do well immediately. Chad Henne is locked down for the next couple of years, but he's certainly not the long-term answer. He is however, adequate with the right personnel around him. And having learned under Chad Pennington when he came into the league, Henne knows the value a veteran quarterback - like himself - can be to a rookie. Henne's ego is in check and he would be a very good coach-on-the-field for a newcomer. If the Jaguars pick a quarterback in the first two rounds, look for Henne's teaching skills to be utilized to their fullest as quickly as possible.
CENTER: It's a position that Brad Meester held firm for the past 13 years. But with his retirement, it leaves a serious hole in the middle of the offensive line. The team also is in search of a right guard to replace the departed Uche Nwaneri, but a mid-round pick in the draft may be able to handle that spot. But the center position must be addressed with a quality player. Mike Brewster has been mentioned most prominently among those currently in camp, but he did not show enough promise, which is why the Jaguars made such a strong push to sign the talented Alex Mack away from Cleveland. So they may need to draft higher at this position than they would like, just to make sure they have the right guy for the job.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--DT Kyle Love (not tendered as RFA) is listed as a starter even though he played in just one game a year ago. He battled a shoulder injury that never did improve but has since had surgery and should be at full strength by the time OTAs begin. The Jaguars will do whatever they can to sign him to a new deal.
--TE Allen Reisner (not tendered as RFA) started three games and played in two more before he was placed on injured reserve in early October. He came off IR in mid-December but didn't see any action. He may not fit into the Jaguars plans for the future and may not be re-signed.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--DT Brandon Deaderick has only started 15 games in his four-year NFL career but he's played in 47 games and provides good depth to the D-line. He played in 13 games for the Jaguars last year and the team will try to re-sign him.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--CB Will Blackmon: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--DE Jason Babin: UFA; terms unknown.
--T Cameron Bradfield: Potential RFA; $3M/2 yrs, $1.225M guaranteed.
--WR Mike Brown: ERFA; terms unknown.
--TE Clay Harbor: Potential UFA; $3M/2 yrs, $1.35M SB.
--QB Chad Henne: Potential UFA; $8M/2 yrs, $4.5M guaranteed.
--DT Sen'Derrick Marks: Potential UFA; $18M/4 yrs, $800,000 SB/$4.8M guaranteed.
--T Austin Pasztor: ERFA; terms unknown.
--FB Will Ta'ufo'ou: ERFA; terms unknown.
--RB Jordan Todman: ERFA; terms unknown.
--T Sam Young: Potential UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--G Zane Beadles: UFA Broncos; $30M/5 yrs, $12.5M guaranteed.
--DE Red Bryant: FA Seahawks; 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--DE Chris Clemons: FA Seahawks; terms unknown.
--WR Tandon Doss: Not tendered as RFA by Ravens; terms unknown.
--FB Bradie Ewing (waivers Falcons).
--RB Toby Gerhart: UFA Vikings; $10.5M/3 yrs, $4.5M guaranteed.
--DE Ziggy Hood: UFA Steelers; terms unknown.
--S Sherrod Martin: FA; $780,000/1 yr.
--C/G Eric Olsen: Not tendered as ERFA by Steelers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Dekoda Watson: UFA Buccaneers; terms unknown.
--LB Russell Allen (released/failed physical).
--WR Stephen Burton (retired).
--RB Justin Forsett (released).
--QB Blaine Gabbert (traded 49ers).
--RB Maurice Jones-Drew: UFA Raiders; $7.5M/3 yrs, $1.2M guaranteed RB.
--C Brad Meester (retired).
--G Uche Nwaneri (released).
--WR Taylor Price: UFA Seahawks; terms unknown.
--DE D'Aundre Reed (released).