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2014 offseason: New year, new roles


Dwayne Gratz remembers the feeling well.

Johnathan Cyprien does, too, and while both are focused on their immediate task at hand – i.e., growing into their potential in a young Jaguars secondary – both also recently shared a sentiment as this weekend's 2014 NFL Draft approaches:

That it hardly seems possible it has been a year since they lived their NFL Draft moment.

"It's weird, because I was in that same position they were – anticipating where I might go, getting nervous, thinking about what my future might be," Gratz said recently as Jaguars' veterans continued 2014 offseason workouts at EverBank Field.

"Now, understanding the game, it's kind of cool to see that whole process for what it is from the outside, and to see new talent come on the team. It is kind of weird."

This weekend's NFL Draft is about more than new talent. It's about the end of life as rookies for players such as Gratz and Cyprien and it's about the new roles – and new responsibilities – that accompany a change of seasons.

"I think I'm ready for it," Cyprien said. "I was new last year, but now, if I have to go to the back offices, I know where to go. I can talk to anybody on the team. In the meeting rooms, I can express myself.

"You don't want to step on any toes as a rookie and make a bad impression."

First impressions for Gratz and Cyprien are well in the past. Their present is about helping the Jaguars' defensive backfield become one of the league's better secondaries. That's a lofty goal, and an important one to the Jaguars' organization.

"That's reality, and that's what's expected," Cyprien said recently.

The first step toward that goal came in last April's draft. The team took Cyprien, a safety from Florida International University, with the first selection of the second round, and then selected Gratz – a cornerback from Connecticut – with the second selection of the third round. The team followed that by selecting safety Josh Evans in the sixth round and corners Demetrius McCray and Jeremy Harris in Round 7.

Cyprien started 15 games as a rookie, improving significantly and assuming a leadership role in the second half of the season. And while Gratz missed six games with injuries, he started eight games with two interceptions and showed a knack for making plays on the ball.

Including 13 total starts at free safety by Evans and second-year veteran Winston Guy, and counting one start early in the season by McCray, rookies or second-year players accounted for 37 starts in the secondary.

And while the group, particularly the young players, showed potential last season, Cyprien said it's understood that more is expected this season.

"I'm not going to put the pressure on anyone and say, 'You have to do better than last year,'" Cyprien said. "I believe the approach we take from last year to this year is automatically going to be better because we did it already. We know better. We should be better.

"We should automatically improve. You're going to be better than what we were last year. I'm not going to make the same mistakes later in a season as I did earlier in a season, so it will be a case of how much we improve, but we're definitely expecting to be better than last year."

Gratz said such expectations are normal, and they're among many factors he feels more prepared to handle in Year 1 than in Year 2.

"I thought I knew a lot about the NFL before I got here," Gratz said with a laugh. "I learned it's a business. That was one of the biggest things to get used to, is knowing that it's a business and you take nothing personal. You just go out and do your job.

"That's it, really. I picked it up pretty easy, but everyone's naive going into that situation. To experience it is very different."

Both Cyprien and Gratz get that being a year removed from the draft is about more than reminiscing fondly on a memorable time. It's a common adage around the NFL that a player improves most dramatically from Year 1 to Year 2, and Gratz said he understands why. He said he feels mentally and physically more prepared this offseason than last, having had a chance in recent months to rest, recover and regroup from a year that began with the pre-draft preparation in January and didn't end until late December.

"We got time off to allow our bodies to heal," Gratz said. "Then you have time to go back to workouts, to training and work on some things you didn't do so well throughout the season. Now that my body is back where I need to be, I can understand why they say there's a jump."

Cyprien said the defensive backs as a group late last week talked among themselves about goals for next season.

"We sat in together … no coaches, by ourselves," Cyprien said. "We created standards for ourselves, not only in the field, but in practice, how we carry ourselves in meetings – standards of how we do things so it can translate when the season comes around."

When Gratz and Cyprien sit in such meetings now no longer do they sit there as wide-eyed rookies. That time is past, even if it hardly seems possible that their draft moment is already a year in the rearview.

"It's just funny to me," Cyprien said. "It's different. I was just there last year, being analyzed by Mike Mayock and all of those people. It's funny to look back. It kind of flew by."

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