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View from the O-Zone: Caldwell facing tough task


INDIANAPOLIS – He's calm, capable and cool.

Admit it: You wish you were as cool as Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell.

But would you really want to be Diamond Dave? Maybe this week, because the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine is what general managers love: scouting players, prepping for the NFL Draft.

After that, not so much.

Because after that, Caldwell's job gets tough. Really tough.

That's because free agency is approaching, and that was a topic Caldwell – preparing now for his fourth season as the Jaguars' general manager – discussed when addressing the media at Lucas Oil Stadium in a sloshy downtown Indianapolis Thursday afternoon.

And yes, Caldwell admitted … with a bigger-than-expected salary cap this league year, the always tricky task of free agency is a bit trickier.

"I just think it limits the talent pool," Caldwell said. "Teams have the ability to sign the guys you thought might be free agents, so you don't have as many options."

Can improvement happen?

"Absolutely," he said. "They'll be some opportunities for us. It might not be the big splash or the big-name guys, but there will be guys of value."

And make no mistake: it's important that that's the case.

The Jaguars, remember, long planned for last year's free agency period and this year's to be ones in which they spent big – and added big pieces to their puzzle. The idea was to lay the foundation in 2013 and 2014 and supplement – really supplement – through free agency this offseason and last. The team made sure it had cap space for that purpose, which is why the Jaguars are expected to enter free agency with more than any other team in the NFL.

The foundation indeed is being laid, and around Indianapolis this week there's a widespread sense this franchise is moving in the right direction. There's also a strong sense that the Jaguars' offense has a bright future.

Here's where it starts to gets tough:

That record needs to improve next season. For the first time since Caldwell and Bradley took over in 2013, Jaguars Owner Shad Khan has talked publicly about a winning record being "everybody's reasonable expectation." To meet that, expectation, the Jaguars obviously must improve.

Specifically, the defense must improve.

Even more specifically, it almost certainly needs to improve through some free-agent moves, and that's where it gets really tough.

Improving through free agency is never ideal. The Jaguars need impact players – pass rusher, playmaking free safety, defensive speed. Impact players typically don't become free agents. That's because impact players re-sign with their own teams, and that's why the stories you have read this offseason about impact free agents such as Von Miller and Josh Norman center around those players re-signing with their former teams.

Elite is rare. Teams don't let it out of their building if at all possible.

The Jaguars' free-agent task this offseason is even tougher because more teams than usual have more cap space than usual. As Caldwell noted, that means players who might have been free agents in normal seasons might not be free come March 9. Olivier Vernon long was expected to be one of the top pass rushers in the 2016 free-agent class; now, most reports indicate Miami will find a way to re-sign him.

That's not expected to be the only such story in the coming days, with teams still having the franchise/transition tags and nearly two weeks of negotiating time to keep players from testing the market. Caldwell said, too, that the players that do hit free agency must be studied with a bit more scrutiny.

Take a look back at some of your Jacksonville Jaguars at the NFL Combine.

"You have to be cautious, and you have to look at why they're becoming free agents," Caldwell said. "If a team has the money and the financial capability of doing it, why aren't they doing it?"

Caldwell when speaking to the media on Thursday actually spent more time reiterating his long-held belief that the best way to really improve is through the draft than he did on free agency.

"Free agency, you're not going to find a sustainable improvement; you might be able to find a quick fix," he said.

Now, none of this is to say the Jaguars can't improve in the coming weeks. Not even close.

There will be free agents on the market, and the Jaguars' estimated $73 million in cap room is real. They'll target, they'll spend – in some cases overspend – and there's every chance they'll land their guys. Caldwell is good in free agency, and this Jaguars' regime can land players. The signings last offseason of Julius Thomas, Jared Odrick and Jermey Parnell show that.

But this task is tougher. And it's more urgent.

The Jaguars have the right guy in charge of that task. Few around Indianapolis would disagree with that.

But is he going to have that cool tested in the coming weeks?

Yeah, and few would disagree with that, either.

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