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View from the O-Zone: A day for smiles, hellos


JACKSONVILLE – This was a day for smiles and hellos.

Granted, there are many such days in an NFL offseason. Free-agent signing days, free-agent intro days, draft days …

The offseason, after all, is about optimism and hope with a bit of giddy thrown in. And if it's not fair to call Thursday the '15 offseason's giddiest day around the Jaguars, there was still plenty of hope and smiling with some wide-eyed optimism thrown in.

It was a good day, a fun day.

It was Rookie Premiere Day, the day the team's 17 rookies – the eight players from the 2015 NFL Draft last weekend and the nine players signed as undrafted free agents immediately afterward – showed up en masse at EverBank Field.

They're here for a two-day minicamp that begins at EverBank Field Friday and ends Saturday. The practices are open to the public and promise enthusiasm, rosiness and overall good feelings – and if those promises of enthusiasm and hope sound familiar, that's a fair assessment.

Enthusiasm and hope, after all, have been common around these parts the last two offseasons, the first two offseasons of the Dave Caldwell/Gus Bradley era. Those have been followed by difficult regular seasons in which the realities of a long rebuilding process played out again and again. And if you are an avid follower of this team you're within reason to be wary of another giddy offseason. But there's a different feel to this year's enthusiasm and hope, a "realer" feel that goes beyond the positive quotes and is felt by players and coaches. This hope comes with a sense that the long-term build that has been taking place is getting close to yielding on-field results.

But we digress, for that topic is one we'll cover a lot in the coming weeks and months.

This weekend's minicamp is about getting the 17 aforementioned rookies – not to mention the 28 tryout players also signed for the weekend – into shorts and helmets and onto the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields. It's about getting them familiar with the offense and the defense. Those days will be about getting them in front of the fans, too. (Did we mention the days are open to the public?)

Thursday was also about getting a few of the draft selections in front of the media, and therefore giving fans a sense of just who these players were that made up a 2015 Jaguars draft class that brought with it more hype and more good grades than has been seen around this franchise in some time.

It does indeed seem at first glance a good class, even beyond the draft-day grades of the Mel Kiper Jrs.  and Todd McShays of the world. It's a well-thought-out class, one that filled needs early, added potential starters in the middle and potential depth late. It's a class that includes an edge pass rusher in Dante Fowler Jr. that some believed was the draft's best player, and a class that included a serious effort to improve the running game in running back T.J. Yeldon. It also included value selections such as A.J. Cann, Rashad Greene and Michael Bennett, a trio of players many thought would be selected far earlier than they actually came off the board.

Those are the on-paper impressions. Five of the players – Yeldon, Greene, safety James Sample, Cann and seventh-round wide receiver Neal Sterling – gave us at-podium impressions Thursday. And while on-field trumps at-podium in terms of importance, maybe a podium highlight or two can give you a better idea the person behind the players. So, a few highlights.

Yeldon is a quiet, serious player and you don't get the feeling he'll be seeking out interviews. Cann appears every bit the brawling, physical guard the Jaguars want him to be, while Sterling at first glance is what the scouting report said – a player of intriguing physical size for his position.

Sample got the laugh of the day when he commented that the days after the draft had been notable for him learning a lot about his family he didn't know.

"You get a lot of phone calls from cousins you don't know about," he said, smiling.

Greene, a productive wide receiver from Florida State, said he looked forward to working with wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and that the veteran coach didn't seem "like he got too rowdy." A case could be made that Greene might learn otherwise at least once, but Greene, too, came as advertised – giving the impression of a serious, focused player who earned a lot of what he did on the field at FSU with work and dedication off of it.

More will be said this weekend, too. Players will talk Friday and Saturday after the practices that are open to the public (did we mention that?). After that, rookies will remain in town for the offseason conditioning program, and they will be around organized team activities and minicamps through May and June, too.

So, yes, these few days are only the beginning of the process for these players, for fans, for coaches, for everyone. Far more important, football-centric days await. That's for another time, for the future.

For the present, Thursday was what it was designed to be. We got to know five rookies of a much-talked about rookie class a bit better.

We got to say hello. We saw some well-founded optimism, and a place where smiles have been pretty common the last few weeks saw a few more.

Neal Sterling, James Sample, T.J. Yeldon, Rashad Greene and A.J. Cann met with members of the media at EverBank Field on Thursday.

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