JACKSONVILLE – We focus today on defense, and make no mistake:
As the Jaguars move into what is expected to be a busy 2016 offseason, much of the team's analyzing, projecting, signing and drafting is expected to done on that side of the ball.
Pass rusher. Speed in general on defense. Depth. Free safety.
The Jaguars almost certainly will seek all of the above in the coming months – and with the team possessing the No. 5 overall selection in the NFL Draft and ample salary-cap space, they no doubt will acquire at least some of what they're seeking.
The Jaguars ranked No. 31 in the NFL in points allowed in 2015, and also ranked No. 31 in third-down defense. They struggled throughout the season to pressure quarterbacks, which contributed mightily to both aforementioned statistics.
The team is expected to go heavy on defense in the April 28-30 NFL Draft, and significant moves are expected when free agency begins March 9. The team also is expected to announce a new defensive coordinator in the coming days, with Bob Babich – the coordinator the past three seasons – having been dismissed two days after the 2015 regular-season finale.
Here's a look at the Jaguars' defense entering the 2016 offseason:
Others:Dante Fowler Jr., Ryan Davis, Chris Smith, Quanterus Smith.
Free agents:Branch, Davis (restricted).
Outlook:This will be one of the major areas of focus in the offseason. That makes sense because it was an area of focus during the 2015 season – and hardly in the best of ways. The pass rush was perhaps the team's most glaring weakness, and this group registering just 11 total sacks was a huge reason. Branch (four) does not appear likely to be re-signed, and Clemons (three sacks) also isn't expected to be retained. Overall, this area likely will feature a major overhaul in either the draft or free agency – and very possibly both. A key here will be Fowler, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft who missed his rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But one player won't solve the Jaguars' issues here. That means a busy, important offseason at the spot.
Defensive end/strong side
Free agents: None.
Outlook:The lack of a pass rush caused many observers to paint the entire line as a problem. That's not an accurate picture, because Odrick – who signed as an unrestricted free agent in the 2015 offseason – and Alualu had good seasons. Alualu moved inside to start at the three-technique tackle position when starter Sen'Derrick Marks was injured, and Odrick also played inside at times in passing situations.
Starters:Roy Miller, Sen'Derrick Marks.
Reserves: Michael Bennett, Abry Jones, Richard Ash.
Free agents:Jones (restricted).
Outlook:This area was hurt significantly by Marks' 12-game absence, as was the line as a whole. Miller played at/near a Pro Bowl level much of the season, and he was a big reason the defense spent the first part of the season in the Top 10 in run defense. But the Jaguars missed Marks' 8.5 sacks and his ability to penetrate against the run. Jones is one of the team's most underrated players and a top backup, while Bennett's playing time increased late in the season. This area also was helped by Alualu/Odrick playing inside.
Starters:WLB Telvin Smith, MLB Paul Posluszny, OLB Dan Skuta.
Reserves: Thurston Armbrister, Hayes Pullard, Joplo Bartu (OLB), Jordan Tripp (OLB), Sean Porter (OLB),
Outlook:This is a difficult area to assess entering the offseason. Smith without question is one of the building blocks on the defense, and has the look of a future Pro Bowl linebacker. He is one of the fastest players on the team, and his speed makes him a playmaking linebacker of rare ability. Posluszny had one of his best seasons against the run, and Skuta was strong against the run when healthy, but overall the linebacker group must get faster. Does that mean upgrading Otto, or getting faster in passing situations at middle linebacker? Perhaps. Either way, adding speed and depth at this position appears to be an offseason priority.
Starters:Aaron Colvin, Davon House.
Reserves: Dwayne Gratz, Demetrius McCray, Nick Marshall.
Outlook:This will be an area of focus in the offseason, though it appears doubtful the Jaguars will use the No. 5 overall selection here. Colvin and House appear to be productive, starting-level NFL corners, with House intercepting a team-high four passes with a franchise-record 23 passes defensed. Colvin started on the outside, playing nickel in passing situations. Gratz and McCray struggled enough that the Jaguars moved Marshall into to the nickel role by season's end. Could this position be upgraded? Probably? Is it the same priority as free safety? No.
Starters:Johnathan Cyprien (strong safety), Josh Evans (free safety).
Reserves: Sergio Brown.
*Others: *James Sample, Craig Loston, Earl Wolff.
Outlook:In addition to pass rusher, free safety is perhaps the glaring area of need on the defense. Evans started 12 games in 2015 with Brown starting four, but neither is the sideline-to-sideline, above-the-Xs-and-Os playmaker the Jaguars – and many other teams – covet at the position. Cyprien had a solid stretch in the middle of the season, and while he struggled at times, the Jaguars believe he can be more effective as an in-the-box defender if the free safety position is improved. Sample played just four games, starting two, before a shoulder injury ended his season. He showed flashes and could compete with Cyprien in camp next season. How the Jaguars approach the position likely will depend on what is available in free agency and the draft. If they can find a true "free safety," then they likely will play strong/free. If not, they may lean more toward the two players playing more similar roles.