JACKSONVILLE – This is the way back to the light.
It's not always easy, this business of building an NFL roster. Following the right path usually isn't easy. The motives and reasons for things may not always be clear, either, but what the Jaguars are doing these days – or, in some cases, not doing?
The decisions they're making? The moves being made?
This is the way, the only way. It's the necessary way. It's the right way.
It's the logical way.
The reason for the timing of this editorial is three-fold. One, teams could begin talking with potential free agents at 11:59 Friday, and there was the expected gurgling of concern in the in-box over the weekend that there was little or no word of the Jaguars doing so.
Another reason: free agency begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and there, too, was gurgling about the Jaguars not being poised to make any high-profile moves.
But for the most part, fans seem to get that. They grasp that new General Manager David Caldwell wants to build through the draft, and grasp, too, that new Head Coach Gus Bradley wants to emphasize competition next season, likely with some turnover – a lot of turnover, actually. Caldwell/Bradley has the mandate from Shad Khan to go young, to build the right way, and for the most part, fans get that the Super Bowl may not be guaranteed in 2013.
But here's what fans maybe most need to grasp:
That this thing the Jaguars are doing now, this thing that started with the January hirings of Bradley and Caldwell and continues with the recent roster decisions, is not a "rebuild," although that's the word that gets used a lot.
This is a "build," plain and simple, a build from a lot of years of losing. The reason Caldwell is here is the Jaguars were 2-14 last season. The reason he is here is to look objectively at a roster that won two games and decide which players should return and which ones shouldn't.
The moves and non-moves haven't been about saving money, or about making the Jaguars worse. They're about making the Jaguars better – for the short-term and the long – and that brings us to the biggest reason for the timing of the editorial:
The news late last week that the Jaguars released safety Dawan Landry and cornerback Aaron Ross. That came with the news that the team had opted to let 13 players become unrestricted free agents, and because the list included a lot of relatively big names – names familiar and to varying degrees near and dear to the hearts of fans – this was a difficult day of misunderstanding.
Add to that the news that the team planned to not extend tender offers to six restricted free agents, and the reaction wasn't gurgling, and it wasn't even close. It was for a while a full-fledged gusher.
That's understandable, because at first glance, what happened last week seems drastic. Not only was Ross released, but the UFA list also included Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox. Those were the Jaguars' top three cornerbacks entering last season. The UFA list, too, included linebacker Daryl Smith, maybe the team's best defensive player when healthy the last two or three years.
The other UFAs: Center Brad Meester, fullback Greg Jones, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, offensive linemen Eben Britton, running back Rashad Jennings, cornerback Will Middleton, quarterback Jordan Palmer, running back Jalen Parmele, cornerback Antwaun Molden and offensive lineman Steve Vallos.
The restricted free agents not tendered: center John Estes, wide receiver Jordan Shipley, tight end Zach Potter, defensive end George Selvie, linebacker Kyle Bosworth and fullback Brock Bolen.
It's a lot to digest, but break it down, and there's nothing drastic in last week's announcement. Age and injury last season kept Mathis from being the player he was. Ross never performed to his contract; never came close. Landry was reliable, but the feeling is he can be replaced by a younger player – a player who will develop – with no dropoff.
And that's a key thing to remember in this: something Caldwell said at the recent NFL Scouting Combine. To paraphrase, he doesn't want to be in a situation where he's playing an older player – 30 and up being older – when there can be a younger player in the same role developing into part of the future core.
Keep that in mind, and there's little about the last few days that's confusing.
Most of the UFAs – from Britton to Jennings on down – won't be significant on-field losses. The RFAs? A few may be re-signed, but they weren't core players. Meester and Jones? The team would like to re-sign them if a price can be reached. They are players who can be part of the transition, and the hope is that will be the case.
Which really leaves Smith, Cox and Knighton.
Smith is in his 10th year, and while he likely will play somewhere at a very high level for a year or two, when you're transitioning to a 3-4 defense and going younger, it's tough to pay a plus-30 linebacker elite money.
Cox and Knighton are about getting the salary structure right, something that simply must be done for an organization restricting and trying to build for the long term. Cox and Knighton are talented players. They have shown they can be good players, perhaps even elite, but Cox has been unavailable too often to pay him core player money, and Knighton has been too inconsistent to pay him that way. There is a chance they can hit free agency, find the market less than what is their ideal and return to Jacksonville at a salary structure that makes sense.
If so, great. If not?
Well, the "if-not" part is the part that sets good general managers – the ones with a long-term vision and an understanding of roster building – apart from those who don't.
If not, the Jaguars will move on. They will draft and sign collegiate free agents according to plan. They will sign a few veterans at a few positions to fill needs, but they will be short-term, cap-friendly players – guys who will play a year or two, keep the cap pure and shake hands in a year or two and make way for a younger, core player.
That's what you do, and in so doing, you make unpopular decisions that aren't first aren't clear to fans. You crawl before you walk, but you don't get to crawl and compete your way out of 2-14 and rebuild a roster and set a new tone for an organization without doing some things the only regime wouldn't have done.
What do you do? You do the things the Jaguars have been doing for the last week.
You make long-term decisions that are based on reason, and you do things that any reasonable general manager looking at the situation with a clear, objective eye.
You do things the logical way, the way back to the light.