JACKSONVILLE – Moving forward, this story may not always be critical.
This is a pre-2014 Training Camp look at the Jaguars' most-recently signed free agents, and if the building process goes according to plan, veteran free agency will be less important in the future than it was this past offseason.
The long-term plan under General Manager David Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley is to draft and develop, and eventually to have the roster as home-grown as possible.
But that's the future, and for the present, free agents are critical to the storyline at Jaguars 2014 Training Camp, which opens Thursday when veterans report to EverBank Field.
The first 2014 Training Camp practice is scheduled for Friday at 9:55 a.m.
The Jaguars were more active in free agency this offseason than last, signing several high-profile free agents (guard Zane Beadles and running back Toby Gerhart among them) and addressing specific needs. And while most fit the team's ideal free-agency profile – fifth or sixth-year veterans entering the primes of their careers – the Jaguars broke from that on the defensive line, signing Red Bryant and Chris Clemons from Super Bowl champion Seattle.
Bryant and Clemons are familiar with Bradley, the Seahawks' defensive coordinator from 2009-2012, and the idea is they will fit quickly into the defense and be immediately comfortable and productive in their roles.
The Jaguars also addressed needs on the offensive line, as well as linebacker, running back and receiver, though at no position were they as active as defensive line, where in addition to Clemons and Bryant they also signed defensive tackle Ziggy Hood.
Here's a look at five 2014 free agents to watch when training camp begins:
1) Chris Clemons, defensive end.The Jaguars made a slew of moves along the defensive front this past offseason, but none so high-profile – and perhaps none as critical – as signing Clemons. An 11-year veteran, Clemons registered 33.5 sacks for Seattle from 2010-2012, playing the pass-rush oriented Leo defensive end/linebacker position. He had 4.5 sacks in 14 games last season while returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained in the 2012 postseason. The Jaguars have ranked 30th or lower in sacks four of the last five seasons. Clemons isn't solely responsible for improving that, but pressuring the passer will be critical for the front this season.
2) Red Bryant, defensive end.The Jaguars wanted to get bigger and deeper up front defensively, and the addition of Bryant addressed each issue. A seven-year veteran who spent his first six seasons in Seattle, Bryant started 47 of 48 games for the Seahawks the past three seasons, developing into one of the NFL's best defensive ends against the run. Bryant (6-feet-4, 323 pounds) is expected to start at the team's five-technique defensive end spot, and with five-year veteran Tyson Alualu also available at that spot, the position is significantly deeper and better than a year ago.
3) Toby Gerhart, running back.We mentioned Gerhart early in our training camp series as a potential "riser," but he deserves mention here, too. The Jaguars' signing of the five-year veteran early in unrestricted free agency marked the end of one era and the beginning of another, with Gerhart replacing Maurice Jones-Drew as the feature back. Gerhart spent the past four seasons as a reserve in Minnesota behind All-Pro Adrian Peterson, and was productive when he had the opportunity, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He also averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2011, the only season he started more than one game. The Jaguars' running game has struggled the last two seasons, due in part to injuries to Jones-Drew and to a struggling offensive line. Gerhart can't change that by himself, but the belief is he is the right combination of youth (27) and experience (four seasons) to be productive behind what should be an improved offensive line.
4) Zane Beadles, offensive guard.Beadles is far from the only change on the offensive line, but his addition is critical. Beadles, a Pro Bowl selection following the 2012 season, started 16 games in each of his first four NFL seasons with Denver, and was one of the top guards available in free agency. Along with tackle Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, Beadles is expected to solidify the left side of the offensive line, and the Jaguars liked what they saw from that area during organized team activities and minicamps. Beadles' 64 career starts are more than the rest of the Jaguars' offensive line combined, and more than double the career starts of the other four projected starters. His experience will be key.
5) Ziggy Hood, defensive tackle.The Jaguars wanted to get deeper on the defensive front, and they wanted to improve pass rush. If Bryant and Clemons were critical to those areas, Hood may have been equally so. The Jaguars liked the production they got last season from starting tackles Roy Miller and Sen'Derrick Marks, but believed many of their front-line defensive linemen played too many plays. That was particularly true of Marks, who played 946 plays. The Seahawks, by comparison, had just one defensive lineman over 600 plays. That made Hood's signing important. He'll have to adjust from playing 3-4 end in Pittsburgh to 4-3 tackle in Jacksonville, but the belief is tackle is his more natural position. He said during the offseason he likes the change, and the Jaguars believe his quickness gives him the ability to help the interior pass rush. If that's true, the Jaguars have more pass rush and are deeper on the interior than they have been in several seasons.