JACKSONVILLE – This year matters to Johnathan Cyprien. A lot.
It matters for the reasons people think it matters, and the Jaguars' veteran strong safety is aware of why people believe it matters. The contract-year thing. The must-improve thing.
The time-to-prove-himself thing.
Yes, those things are real to the 2013 second-round draft selection, but the biggest thing to Cyprien is another chance to play as he believes he can play.
"Every year I see as a big year for me," Cyprien said earlier this offseason. "Every year is a blessing to be here in Jacksonville and to play in the NFL, but of course from the outside looking in it's a big year. It's the last year of my contract and it's also a year where myself and my teammates would love to see me in a Pro Bowl jersey at the end of the season."
That Pro-Bowl thing? Can that be a real thing?
"I'm definitely confident in myself enough to do that, and I believe that will happen eventually," Cyprien said. "But my mindset is to believe in the now and the moment and just do everything I need to do to put myself in the best position to succeed once the season starts."
Cyprien, a starter in 44 games in three seasons since joining the Jaguars, has a very real chance to hold that job again this season. He is the favorite, though he could face training-camp competition from second-year veteran James Sample.
The thought around the Jaguars is if Cyprien indeed wins the job he has a chance for the first time to play a true strong-safety role. The free-agent addition of free safety Tashaun Gipson was made in part to allow Cyprien to play closer to the line, where the team believes he excels.
How does he see his role next season? How does he feel about the competition?
Those were among the topics earlier this offseason when Cyprien sat down with senior writer John Oehser:
Question: A lot has been written about your role in 2016, about the opportunity for you to play nearer and more often the line of scrimmage. How do you see it?
Answer: Everybody has been writing about the role. My role is what the coaches come to me and talk to me about. There have been years where the coaches want me to be down in the box a lot. This year, there's more emphasis on it. Some of the plays put me in positions where last year I would have been further away from the ball on those same plays.
Q: And is that a good thing?
A: That is good for me. It plays to one of my strengths, definitely. At the same time, I am able to play away from the ball. That's one of the reasons I have been playing away the ball and doing both since I've been here. But of course playing to your strengths and focusing on one thing – being a master of one craft rather than being a master of many crafts – is definitely a benefit. I think that's what the coaches think and I've definitely bought into it.
Q: As we talk, you're preparing for Year Four – hard to believe?
A: It's definitely flying by. I feel like I'm starting to understand when my veteran friends around the league tell me, 'Man, I can't believe I'm already in Year Seven,' or, 'I can't believe I'm in Year Ten.' It's a good thing to hear, because that affirms to me, 'OK, I can still feel youthful … I can still feel like that second-year guy out of college as far as health and being in the league …' but it also shows you how quick it goes by. Once the season starts, it's over fast and then you're anticipating the next season, so it goes fast.
Q: And for the first time in your career perhaps, legitimate competition at the strong-safety spot with the presence of Sample …
A: The best players on a defense at some time or another face competition. It's healthy for the team. With that competition, it doesn't make someone who has been in a role give up. That's not the makeup of most players. It forces you to compete and brings out the best in you and the other person. In doing that, it constantly keeps you motivated to continue to get better and not let anyone catch you. Doing that brings the organization up with it.
Q:Were you excited when the team signed Tashaun?
A: I was. Tashaun is a proven player. He has led the league in interceptions before. He has made it to a Pro Bowl . He has done things that not only myself but our whole secondary aspire to do. He has made those strides. It's good to have someone around who has been there and done that. We have players in our meeting rooms and locker rooms who have talent to be in Pro Bowls and to do many different things, but who haven't reached that point in their careers yet. To have someone who has been there who can share experiences and see things from a different angle – that's a key element besides his skillset. That's a good thing and I was excited about it.
Q: The school of thought has been that because the secondary as a whole has struggled at times, perhaps you sometimes were asked to do more than you were comfortable doing … and that now, with Gipson here, you can focus on your strengths? Do you see it that way?
A: I don't honestly feel there have been too many things I've been asked to do that I didn't feel comfortable doing. There definitely have been times I could have done things better than I have. At the same time, I've done great things in that same position – just not consistently.
Q: That word – consistently – is really a key, isn't it?
A: Consistency is a huge thing, but I believe in myself. Being consistent and doing the things I've proven I can do will definitely help us be a great defense. That's one of the things I'm trying to focus on – not just on the field, but being consistent every time I walk into the building, every time I work out. I try to be consistent outside of football. What you do off the field reflects what you do on the field.
Q: Overall, it seems you're in a good place as this offseason starts …
A: My communication with my coaches and my position coach definitely keeps me aware of everything that's going on. I'm aware of what's at hand and I'm aware of what needs to be done – whether there are expectations for not only myself, but for our whole team. I'm one to embrace it. I always feel when the pressure in on most of the time I perform my best.
Q: And is there pressure?
A: I would say there would be some pressure on our team as far as us being expected to win and win now. At the same time, I look at it as, 'OK, winning is what you have to do in the NFL,' but for me, I'm in the moment and thinking about what I need to do to prepare myself. I expect myself to make the things happen that I'm imagining happening in the future. I believe wholeheartedly we're going to have a winning season. The sky's the limit. Going to the playoffs or competing for a championship next year – that's definitely the plan, but talking about it and talking about it usually doesn't get you anywhere. I understand as a reporter you have to inform the public about every little step that's going on, but enjoying that experience is what I want to do.