JACKSONVILLE – We've saved the best for last.
That's assuming you consider position battles the best thing about an NFL preseason. And because many people do, we saved that element for the fifth – and likely, the final – entry in this lead-up series to Jaguars 2015 Training Camp.
This season, there is not only urgency to the Jaguars' training camp battles but a sense that the winners will have had to fend off some pretty serious competition.
The interior of the offensive line. The defensive backfield. The critical depth of the running back position. There are pre-camp leaders at a lot of these positions, but there is enough uncertainty – and there are enough good players – that nothing will be given on the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields.
To start this season, a player is going to have to earn it.
That has been the objective since General Manager David Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley took over in January 2013 – to have the competition Bradley preaches yield front-line starters. The Jaguars are a lot closer to that than at any time in the past three seasons.
Here's a look at five position battles to watch when training camp begins later this month:
1.Left guard, Zane Beadles vs. A.J. Cann.The Jaguars appear set at right guard, with Brandon Linder emerging last season as perhaps the best player of what appears to be a very good draft class. The left guard position is far less certain. Beadles signed with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent in the 2014 offseason, and struggled at times in his first season with the team. The team widened his stance (among other adjustments) during the offseason program as the line moved from a zone-blocking scheme to more of a gap-blocking emphasis; Beadles and the coaching staff were positive about the changes. But the Jaguars selected Cann from South Carolina in the third-round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and his brawn/mauling style fits well with the more powerful line the Jaguars envision. Beadles' experience likely gives him the early edge, but at some point in the not-so-distant future, Cann figures to be a critical part of the line.
Take a look at some of the best images from the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive linemen during the 2015 offseason program.
2.Center, Luke Bowanko versus Stefen Wisniewski.Cann and unrestricted free-agent right tackle Jermey Parnell were two of the key offseason acquisitions as the Jaguars moved to upgrade/deepen the offensive line; the third was Wisniewski, a four-year starting center for the Oakland Raiders. Bowanko started 14 games as a rookie for the Jaguars last season and the Jaguars liked his athleticism and improvement through the season. Wisniewski missed the offseason while rehabilitating a shoulder injury last season. Many observers have assumed that Wisniewski will start, but this competition is real and could continue throughout training camp and preseason.
3.Free safety, Sergio Brown versus James Sample.This is a key area, as free safety remains perhaps the biggest unknown in the secondary heading into training camp. The Jaguars felt strongly about upgrading the position and pursued Devin McCourty of New England in unrestricted free agency. When he re-signed with the Patriots, the Jaguars quickly signed Brown from the Indianapolis Colts and followed that by selecting Sample from Louisville in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Brown enters camp as the starter, and has the early edge because of experience – and because Sample is out at least the first two weeks with a fractured arm that kept him out much of the offseason. Brown appears likely to enter the season as the starter, but either player will be valuable as a backup and on special teams.
4.Running back, T.J. Yeldon versus Toby Gerhart versus Denard Robinson versus Bernard Pierce versus Storm Johnson.This competition runs deep, and while Yeldon still must earn the starting job the guess here is the 2015 second-round selection will be the feature back this season. If so, the Jaguars appear deep at the position, with Gerhart possibly playing a third-down, pass-receiving role and Robinson having shown in nine starts last season that he is capable of being the starter. It remains to be seen how many backs the Jaguars will keep, though the absence of a fullback in the offense could make room for an extra back. Keep an eye on rookie undrafted free agent Corey Grant, whose speed gives him a legitimate chance to make the roster as a returner.
5.Cornerback, Demetrius McCray versus Davon House versus Aaron Colvin versus Dwayne Gratz versus Jeremy Harris.The Jaguars feel very good about the potential of the above-mentioned players, but the question entering camp remains: how will the position shake out? McCray performed well as a starter last season and the team signed House as an unrestricted free agent from Green Bay because he should fit well into Bradley's defense as a press corner. Colvin, meanwhile, played well enough in six games as a rookie that many believe he's the best corner on the roster; look for the Jaguars to play him at nickel and find a role on the outside when he's not defending the slot. Gratz has 21 starts in two seasons and coaches liked his performance in the offseason program, with Harris also drawing praise during the offseason. This has the potential to be a strong young group, with as much competition there during camp as any position on the roster.