JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser looks back on what we learned at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine …
1.The defense may be tweaked.Head Coach Gus Bradley said during his appearance on Jaguars.com LIVE Friday that the Jaguars need to be open entering free agency to tweaking the defensive scheme to benefit players. "It's about trying to get the best players on the field," Bradley said. "We have our core principles. We have our core beliefs. But if it needs tweaking to get the best players on the field, we have to be flexible enough to do it." This may nor may not represent a dramatic change in philosophy, but it's worth watching as the Jaguars try to improve a defense that has ranked 24th or lower in total yards each of the last three seasons.
2.Marqise Lee is far from done.Not that anyone around the Jaguars ever indicated otherwise, but Bradley and General Manager David Caldwell each spoke positively of the third-year wide receiver this week. Lee needs to be healthy not only during the season but during the offseason, but the team wants his dynamic playmaking ability on the field. A possibility is playing Allen Hurns in the slot in some packages with Lee and Allen Robinson on the outside.
3.Marcedes Lewis has a good chance of returning. The veteran tight end wants to return for an 11th season with the Jaguars, and the team wants him back. Caldwell said he's optimistic a deal can get done before free agency opens March 9.
4.Toby Gerhart could return, too.The veteran running back is under contract for next season, though many have speculated he could be released. Gerhart has been largely ineffective and oft-injured in two seasons, but Caldwell said of Gerhart Thursday, "I think he has a role on our team."
5.The draft class at the top is impressive. Joey Bosa. Noah Spence. DeForest Buckner. Jalen Ramsey. Myles Jack. There's defensive, impact talent at the top of the 2016 NFL Draft – certainly enough to make the No. 5 selection a good one for the Jaguars.
6.Free agency could be tough …As March 9 approaches it's clearer and clearer that the league-wide increase in salary-cap space will make this a tougher – and much more expensive – free-agency period for the Jaguars than once anticipated. Teams have far more money to retain their own players than originally expected. "The fun is to know you have it and it's at your disposal if you need it," Caldwell said. "The challenge is to be able to find the players to spend it on. You can't create players to spend it on. The nature of free agency, you're going to overpay. If you want a player, you have to overpay to get him."
7. … but the Jaguars still will be aggressive … The Jaguars will have at least $75 million in cap space entering free agency, and nothing has happened to indicate they have changed their plans to be very aggressive on the market. The team needs to add edge rusher, free safety, cornerback and interior line – at least – this offseason. They will be in on some of the bigger free-agent names.
8. … and they still will probably add high-profile pieces.Yes, they'll have to spend far more than what seems reasonable – and probably even more than Caldwell would like – but there seems little question that this team will spend enough to add impact pieces defensively. What will those pieces be? Stay tuned.
9.Older free agents are a possibility.Caldwell largely has avoided older free agents in his first three years as general manager. It seems likely he will look at players in the 30-to-32-year-old range this time around. "You can minimize the risk to a degree by the contract, but realize it's not a long-term fix, but a fix until you can draft guys and develop your own," Caldwell said.
10.The draft will be defense-heavy.OK, this isn't exactly news, but Caldwell emphasized it when speaking to the media Thursday. "We have eight draft picks, and as you guys all know, we'll probably devote a large portion of those to the defensive side of the ball," Caldwell said.
11.Nick Marshall remains a factor.The rookie free agent struggled at times as a nickel back last season, but the team clearly loves his natural ability. "Nick is intriguing," Bradley said. "He had some growing pains. … So he's very intriguing to us. I think it's very important that we try to get him as many reps as possible in OTAs [organized team activities]."
12.The run game matters.This was a major emphasis last offseason, and the Jaguars never quite got the run established as much as they wanted last season. That will be an offseason focus, and a big reason the team wants to improve the interior of the offensive line.
13.Brandon Linder could play center next season. Bradley mentioned this is as a possibility last week, and the more you listen to people around this team, the more moving Linder – who started at right guard as a rookie in 2014 and three games there last season – makes sense. Look for the Jaguars to pursue a free-agent guard – particularly if Browns center Alex Mack returns to Cleveland.
14.Leo end Dante Fowler Jr. is progressing well.The No. 3 selection in the 2015 NFL Draft missed his entire rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained in a May rookie minicamp. Caldwell said this week if he's not on the field for the opening of the offseason, he will be close. The team will be cautious with his return, but that's the expectation.
15.The direction remains right.Yes, the 5-11 record last season was frustrating, but national observers still see the Jaguars moving in the right direction. "I think very quietly this team could be a playoff team next year," NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock said.