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Free at last

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Jack Del Rio and the rest of the NFL will get their wish.

Those unrestricted free agents the Jaguars signed last week? And all of the others around the NFL who have been waiting not-so-patiently to begin working toward the 2011 season?

Beginning Thursday evening, they're going to get to practice.

That became the case Thursday afternoon, when the NFL and NFL Players Association officially announced ratification of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, signifying the start of the 2011 league year and clearing the way for players who had been free agents to practice with their teams.

Del Rio, entering his ninth season as the Jaguars' head coach, said while getting the free agents on the field was critical, the process won't be rushed.

"We will ease them into tonight's practice," Del Rio said Thursday afternoon between a pair of 2011 Jaguars Training Camp practices. "We're not just going to go full bore and put the pedal down when we're allowed to start working them. 

"They did not get that couple-of-day-ease-into practice and they won't get the same ease-into-practice completely, but we'll do what we can to be wise there and not subject them to too much too early. That'll be important for us."

 The Jaguars had been waiting on several key players to be able to practice, including linebackers Clint Session and Paul Posluszny, safety Dawan Landry, punter Matt Turk, offensive guard/center Jason Spitz and cornerback Drew Coleman.

All six signed from other teams in the last week, while Jaguars free agents who had been re-signed also could not practice. That group included safety Courtney Greene, defensive tackle Leger Douzable and tight end Zach Potter.

Aside from not having those players, Del Rio said practice has been productive despite new rules limiting padded practices, and he believes it will continue to be so.

 "We'll get the work done that we're going to need," Del Rio said. "It requires more due diligence on the part of the players, and the assistant coaches, in terms of teaching and learning and being responsive and maximizing the time we have in meetings and these 'hats' practices.

"We just are not going to get the typical number of live reps in full pads that you would get in camp pre-2011. We have to maximize that time when we're in meetings, or walkthroughs or hats practices, and make sure that's really sharp."

Del Rio said Thursday coaches have yet to meet regarding Saturday night's scrimmage, but said he believes there may be changes in that area.

"I think we'll probably have the scrimmage be a little more practice lead-in," Del Rio said. "We've done that the last couple of years where we've had a little bit of situational work prior to the actual scrimmage beginning. I think we'll probably just expand that a little bit."

Del Rio said he wasn't sure how many of the players previously held out of practice because of the CBA issue would be cleared to participate in the scrimmage.

 "We're ready and we're prepared and when we get the green light, we'll get those guys up to speed as quickly as we can," Del Rio said. "We'll ease them in."

One area that didn't change with the new CBA was the number of preseason games, something Del Rio said he sees as a positive. The NFL, as was previously the case, will play four preseason games, something Del Rio said he favors no matter the training camp or off-season schedule.

"In terms of preseason, I do think there is value to playing four and having your team for a month prior to the beginning of the regular season," Del Rio said. "I think there's a certain amount of polish that we all benefit from, players coaches, owners . . . I think we all benefit from this being the ultimate team sport.

"Because it's a team sport, I think there's a cohesiveness and an ability to function as a football team in a crisp way at a high level that you come to expect when you turn on an NFL game. We have four this year, and we're going to use four to prepare our football team."

Del Rio said having a full training camp could prevent what many observers expect to be a post-lockout fallout – in-season rustiness, particularly early in the season.

"It will just depend on how much teams are able to navigate the preseason and keep guys healthy and build the continuity," he said. "Has it been made a little more difficult? Probably, but our expectation level is to get it in gear and be ready to go.

"Right now, we're early in camp and we haven't even got 15 guys activated and able to practice with us yet. Certainly, we've got some ground to cover yet."

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