The Jacksonville Jaguars have been busy during the first two days of free agency. This is good news for loyal Jaguars fans who don’t want to see the losing trend the team has developed lately continue. Ownership and coaching are making smart, decisive moves to make the team more competitive for the 2014 season. Slowly but surely, the Jacksonville Jaguars are starting to get a little better with the help of free agency.
Jacksonville played terrible football through the first eight weeks of last season, and entered their bye week with an 0-8 record. However, head coach Gus Bradley jump-started the team in the second half of the season and the Jaguars finished the year with a 4-4 record down the stretch. Much of the success Jacksonville had during the final eight games can be attributed to a strong performance by quarterback Chad Henne. His stats may not have been MVP caliber, but his leadership on the field proved to be a difference maker. Henne managed to help turn the season around without his strongest weapons. Both Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts III missed time last season. Long time Jaguars’ running back Maurice Jones-Drew also had his worst full season as a pro, managing to gain only 803 yards on the ground. MJD only had one full season that was worse, but his 768 yard total in 2007 came with 33 percent less carries. The offensive line was not much help to the struggling Jaguars either. They allowed 50 sacks in 2013, the second most behind Henne’s former team, the Miami Dolphins. Needless to say, the offense needs help, and Bradley and crew have already begun to fix these issues through free agency.
Jacksonville addressed their lack of a consistent running game by signing former Minnesota Viking Toby Gerhart to a three-year deal worth $10.5 million. Gerhart, a former second round pick out of Stanford, has been Adrian Peterson’s back up all four years he has been in the league. He has only touched the ball 353 times in those four years, averaging a little over five yards each time he runs or catches the ball. Gerhart will turn 27 at the end of March, and yet his legs are as fresh as a second year player. MJD touched the ball for the Jags 384 times in 2011 alone. The Jaguars have signed Gerhart to a three-year deal that should see him play in the prime of his career. A running back with so much experience and so much gas left in the tank is a rare find in the NFL these days.
Sitting in AP’s shadow for the first half of your career can be tough. Gerhart has practically fallen in to obscurity since coming in to the league in 2010. Few remember how talented and successful he was during his college days at Stanford. Gerhart finished second behind New Orleans Saints’ running back Mark Ingram for the 2009 Heisman Trophy. He finished his collegiate career with 3,522 rushing yards, the second most in Cardinal history. His 44 career touchdowns is a school record, and he became only the second Stanford running back to notch back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. He broke the 100 yard barrier 19 times during his career, as well as the 200 yard barrier three times. Before coming to Stanford, Gerhart was the California High School Player of the Year, graduating with a state high school record of 9,662 yards. He has been a beast on the ground for his entire football life, and the Jaguars are in desperate need of a beast at running back.
To open holes for the new toy in the backfield and to help keep Chad Henne upright a little more often, Jacksonville has signed offensive guard Zane Beadles to a five-year deal worth $30 million. Beadles was drafted in the second round by the Denver Broncos in 2010, and has been protecting Peyton Manning for the last two seasons. He has played in every game of his NFL career, starting all but two of them. Beadles is a quick, strong, versatile offensive lineman. In his rookie season, he started six games at right tackle and eight games at left guard, making him the first rookie to start at least six games at two different lineman positions since 2002. Beadles was named to the All-Rookie team in 2010 and the Pro Bowl in 2012. He allowed only one sack in the 2012 season, where he played every offensive snap for the Broncos.
The 2013 season was a record-breaking one for the Broncos’ offense. Though the position players like Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas receive most of the glory, it is the offensive line that should get most of the credit. Beadles allowed just 1.5 sacks during the regular season, and his unit allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL (20). In addition, there was a league-leading six times when the offensive line did not allow a single sack. Though he is young, Beadles plays like a seasoned veteran. His leadership and presence on the field was a big part of the offensive line’s stellar season. The Jaguars have not only acquired a guard or tackle in Beadles, but an anchor as well.
Special teams are not the most glamorous part of the NFL, but they can be the difference between a win and a loss. Dekoda Watson has put the “special” in special teams for the Buccaneers the last two years. His three blocked punts is the most in the league during that span. He has had 35 career tackles on special teams, and has added three forced fumbles, and two recovered, toward his team’s cause. Jacksonville wasted no time in signing Watson away from their cross-state rival soon after free agency began.
Though special teams is how Watson was noticed, it is not where the Jaguars are intending him to play. He will be in contention for a starting linebacker position when the 2014 training camp starts. During his four years at Florida State, Watson started 32 games at linebacker. He tallied 184 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and forced five turnovers. He was “special” in college too, blocking three kicks, two of which he recovered himself. The Jaguars landing Dekoda Watson will not go down as a huge free agent signing. However, his contribution to the team may be the most significant of all the new Jaguar players.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are ready to put last season behind them and start a new winning trend in 2014. Through free agency, Jacksonville has already begun to get better. If the first few days are any indication, the Jaguars have just gotten started.
Commentary by Chris Chisam