Bold but practical. Aggressive but analytical. Free-spending but smart-spending.
That should be the Jaguars’ strategy when the free-agent negotiating period opens at 4 p.m. Monday, followed by the signing circus 48 hours later.
To end their streak of five consecutive years with at least 10 losses, the longest current run of futility in the NFL, the Jaguars need to be balanced in their approach.
They need to Go For It.
Don’t think like the other 31 teams. The Jaguars have a league-high $89,829,145 in salary cap space. Use it creatively.
“There are select targets we’ll be very aggressive with,” general manager Dave Caldwell said.
But they also need to Follow The Leaders.
Emulate what the best teams do. Dissect their personnel and schemes. Don’t waste money.
“Whatever we do this year, we’re going to keep an eye on the next couple years to make sure the core of our team [stays together],” Caldwell said.
The four key categories the Jaguars should focus their free agent strategy on and which teams they have to catch up to.
Jaguars free agent strategy
What the top teams had: Star power, depth and athletic quarterbacks. The Bills (LeSean McCoy/Tyrod Taylor), Carolina (Jonathan Stewart/Cam Newton) and Seattle (Marshawn Lynch/Thomas Rawls/Russell Wilson) had productive running back-quarterback combinations. Minnesota and Tampa Bay had work-horse backs in Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin.
Why the Jaguars struggled: They were unable to sustain a running game when T.J. Yeldon was injured.
Yeldon rushed for 740 yards in 12 games. When he missed one week with a groin injury and the final three with a sprained medial collateral ligament, the Jaguars had no solution, failing to reach 100 yards in any of those games. They weren’t explosive (only eight rushes of at least 20 yards) and their five rushing touchdowns were tied for second-fewest.
There were only seven 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL last year so the two-back system is here to stay. The Jaguars need to find a player who can spell Yeldon in-game or take over his full-time duties in case of injury.
“You better have somebody in that back-up position because of the number of hits the starter takes,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “And that back-up better be capable and understand their role. I don’t know if it’s more important than five, 10 years ago, but you’re seeing a lot of teams having two backs because they don’t have the Adrian Peterson type of guy.”
What’s the solution: The Jaguars should sign a veteran running back like the Redskins’ Alfred Morris and a guard or center.
What the top teams had: A variety of strengths. Baltimore’s interior offensive line was outstanding, the Jets were led by veteran center Nick Mangold and Arizona and St. Louis have spent big money on guards (Mike Iupati and Rodger Saffold). And it should also be pointed out that the Jets, Ravens, Cardinals and Giants all have veteran quarterbacks who know when to get rid of the football.
Why the Jaguars struggled: They allowed 22 fewer sacks than in 2014 so it wasn’t all completely bad, right?
“Still too many,” Olson said. “We didn’t feel like we were solid enough up front. We’re athletic at tackle, but we have to build the pocket better so Blake has a little bit more room to step up.”
It was too many sacks, the total bloated by allowing five sacks to Carolina, six apiece to Tampa Bay and the Jets and eight to Houston in the debacle of a season finale.
There wasn’t an abnormal trend to the sacks allowed — 15 on first down, six on second down, 29 on third down and one on fourth down. And 25 of the 51 occurred with a three- or four-man rush.
Out is left guard Zane Beadles, cut last Thursday. A.J. Cann will play one guard spot and Brandon Linder could be moved to center.
What’s the solution: The in-house improvements will be a third year for Bortles as a pro and second years for Yeldon as a pass protector and guard A.J. Cann. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is at a critical stage of his career after allowing 10 sacks last year.
Since the Jaguars are committed to Joeckel and right tackle Jermey Parnell, look for them to add an interior starter.
What the top teams had: Stars. Houston’s J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus were first (17.5) and tied for sixth (12.0), respectively. New England’s Chandler Jones was fifth (12.5), Denver’s Von Miller tied for eighth (11.0).
Why the Jaguars struggled: They had a vanilla scheme and not enough good pass rushers.
The Jaguars rushed at least five players on 26.6 percent of the opponent’s drop-backs, up from 12.9 percent in 2014. But it didn’t work. The Jaguars weren’t creative enough in their pressures and they were blocked accordingly — only 18 of their sacks occurred when sending extra pass rushers.
Defensive line coach Todd Wash was promoted to coordinator and is expected to be more diverse and aggressive than predecessor Bob Babich.
The loss of first-round pick Dante Fowler was crippling and then the Jaguars got little out of his two main replacements, Andre Branch and Chris Clemons (combined seven sacks). The same goes for defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, who played only four games because of injury.
The Jaguars need to add more than one pass rusher. Last year, Kansas City had seven players with at least four sacks and Denver had six. Pittsburgh had no player with more than Cameron Heyward’s seven, but had eight players with at least 3.5 sacks. The more, the better.
What’s the solution: Nine of the top 10 teams in sacks reached the postseason so there is a definitely correlation and why teams are preparing monster offers for the perceived top free-agent pass rushers. Sacks win games.
The Jaguars are expected to pursue Miami transition-tagged pass rusher Olivier Vernon and multiple defensive backs, the belief being that better coverage will help the pass rush.
“It’s a combination of rush and some coverage stuff,” Wash said. “You can see the snaps last year when we did it right, it looked really good. It’s not just the defensive backs, it’s the pass rush, too. We have to get that addressed.”
What the top teams had: Elite play-makers on the back end. Kansas City’s Marcus Peters led the NFL in interceptions (eight), Carolina’s Kurt Coleman was tied for third (seven), the Jets’ Marcus Williams fifth (six), Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu and Reshad Johnson had five apiece to tie for sixth-most with the Jets’ Darrelle Revis and others.