JACKSONVILLE – One by one, they appeared at the microphone. They were six men, fresh from a whirlwind few days and far wealthier than the day before.
They were happy, these men – and not just because of that new wealth.
Julius Thomas …
Jared Odrick …
Jermey Parnell …
One by one, the six men at the center of a frenzied Free Agent Celebration signed contracts with the Jaguars Wednesday morning. They smiled, and shook a lot of hands. They met coaches and took care of logistics. Around mid-afternoon, they walked one by one into a room in EverBank Field, and sat at a podium before a microphone.
Dan Skuta …
Davon House …
Sergio Brown …
One by one, the biggest single-day group of free-agent signings in franchise history told the gathered media why they made the decision they did, why they chose to sign with the Jaguars.
They were significant stories for the players, and significant for the franchise, too.
Money was a reason. Of course. The Jaguars had $60 million of salary cap space entering 2015 free agency, and neither General Manager David Caldwell nor Owner Shad Khan minced many words in the last couple of months when asked if the team was going to spend it.
Put those things together, add in a free-agent class with high-profile, talented players, and pretty much everyone knew this was going to be a different free-agency period than the first two under Caldwell's general manager-ship. Money was going to flow.
Money indeed flowed and money was a factor in the free-agent decisions, because this is professional football and money is always a factor.
But when the six free agents sat at the microphone shortly after 2 p.m. and for two hours thereafter, there was a story other than money, and it was a story that mattered. All six told their own versions of the same story, one that built a bit during the three-day negotiating window that preceded the opening of the 2015 free-agent period. It built more Tuesday, as parameters magically and rapidly became real.
"Hear the same thing about #Jaguars in FA as I did while they searched for coaches: Things have changed," NFL Network and NFL.com insider Ian Rapoport tweeted Monday night. "People want to go there now."
That was maybe the first hint – the first hint, nationally, anyway. Those of us around EverBank Field, and around Jacksonville – those of us who talk to players and feel the vibe here every day – get that the culture of the Jaguars under Head Coach Gus Bradley and Caldwell and Khan is something unique, that it has continued to be strong even when the team has struggled at times on the field the past two seasons.
But if Rapoport's tweet was a hint or a tiny jab, then Wednesday was a roundhouse knockout blow -- with players arriving at the 'Bank and being …
Well, pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.
Surprise? Yes, there was an element of that on Wednesday. The first wave of unrestricted free agency, remember, is an odd means of player acquisition. Players communicate second-hand and by telephone through agents, not on site and not in person, so it's hard for them to have full knowledge of their destination. So, while the six who signed Wednesday all said they had heard good things about Jacksonville, they didn't have any sort of a hands-on feel …
Not until Wednesday.
On Wednesday, they got their first dose of Gus Bradley 101. On Wednesday, they saw EverBank Field, the pools. They saw themselves in a Jaguars uniform on the video boards. On Wednesday, they saw what this version of the Jaguars is about, and the effect was dramatic.
"I was impressed," Thomas said. "The facility is top of the line. Going through, taking the tour, seeing the facilities, the strength and conditioning, the training room, even being able to see the stadium, it's a beautiful facility. I feel great to be able to call this home.
"I was looking at those TV's (video boards) that are about the size of basketball courts, that was pretty exciting."
Odrick echoed that sentiment.
"You hope you don't get that pitted-stomach feeling as soon as you sign your name to the contract: 'Oh, boy, what did I get myself into?'" Odrick said. "I've had a smile on my face all day and it's not because I saw a certain number. It's because of the people that I've been meeting."
Odrick added of Bradley, "Gus is obviously very, very positive and very, very high energy. When you have someone establishing something like that, it's really hard to lead somebody in the wrong way."
The others echoed the thoughts, too, and that was Wednesday's story, the one bigger than money: The story was about Jacksonville being a place players wanted to play.
The story was about the Jaguars being a team for whom players want to play.
Now, know this:
Positive offseason energy does not a winning season make, and we have heard these stories the past two offseasons. And this without question is a season when victories must begin to accompany the building process of Caldwell and Bradley.
But there was little question on Wednesday that the six players who signed with the Jaguars believe that that process is working, and that what's being built here has a solid foundation. As they sat before the mic, that had as much importance as their wealth. They believe in what's going on. They want to be here.
One by one on Wednesday, they made that very, very clear.