Jacksonville Jaguars  

 

Jacksonville Jaguars rising with Gus Bradley and David Caldwell

If you are a real football junkie, if you love the true building of a team, then feast your eyes on the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Really.

The Jags now have the right owner, general manager and head coach in place. They have a plan. Suddenly, it's a team that the great people of Jacksonville and Duval County can truly believe in. Suddenly, it's one of the most intriguing developing stories in the NFL. And the intrigue only builds with next month's NFL draft.

Third-year owner Shahid Khan picked the right football people last offseason when he tabbed David Caldwell to be his general manager and Gus Bradley his head coach. These hires, made over a 10-day span two Januarys ago, constituted a critical turning point for the franchise. Caldwell is a savvy and well-respected personnel man. Bradley has smarts and unmatched energy that players groove on.

Under the radar, the Jaguars' arrow is pointing way up.

Yes, at face value, last year's 4-12 record is an eyesore. But take a deeper look: Jacksonville started out 0-8 ... before going 4-4 in the second half of the season. The Jaguars could've rolled over and played dead after those first two months of utter ineptitude (when the average margin of defeat was 22.25 points per game). The fact that they didn't spoke volumes about the character of this team and the way these guys play for Bradley. It was significant.

In a wide-ranging, 18-minute interview with the vivacious Bradley on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," the coach rightly gushed about his players and how crucial that second half was for the franchise. He's 100 percent right.

Bradley and Caldwell stepped into an unenviable situation last year. The team was spiraling downward after Mike Mularkey's one-and-done head-coaching effort, and former GM Gene Smith left the talent cupboard bare. It was a 2-14 squad in line for some major rebuilding.

That seems like ages ago now. The vibe has changed.

Caldwell had a good first year as general manager, and Bradley maximized the talent he had. Bradley shares the same "competition at every position" philosophy as his old boss in Seattle, Pete Carroll. That collegiate spirit served Jacksonville well last year -- and will continue to do so with better talent flowing into the program.

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Quietly, the Jags have enjoyed a strong free agency period. On defense, Jacksonville signed Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, two guys who played for Bradley when he was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator. And on the other side of the ball, I loved the Toby Gerhart pickup at running back. He fits Bradley's style and will flourish with increased opportunities, now that he's no longer living in the great shadow of Adrian Peterson.

These are the smart Caldwell moves that don't attract major headlines but do change a culture and win games. And we haven't even gotten to the 2014 NFL Draft.

In a draft that is widely regarded as one of the deepest in memory, Jacksonville has five picks in the top 114, including the coveted third overall selection. That's huge.

Frankly, I would be shocked if Jacksonville took a quarterback in the No. 3 spot. I felt this way before my conversation with Bradley and feel the same way afterward. The other options are just too good. As I continue to say, there is no franchise quarterback in this draft. And when you swing and miss on a first-round quarterback, when you draft a QB higher than his value, it sets you back for years. Jaguars fans know this all too well. Look at what the prior regime did with Blaine Gabbert. (That's why the prior regime is the prior regime.) Caldwell traded away the former No. 10 overall pick last month, ending the Gabbert era -- or, better phrased, the Gabbert error. The Jags could get a potential future starter -- someone to groom behind veteran QB Chad Henne -- with either the 39th or 70th overall selection. Remember, Bradley comes from Seattle, where the Seahawks drafted a pretty solid quarterback in Round 3 by the name of Russell Wilson.

Right now, the Jaguars need more talent, plain and simple. Based upon value, quarterback just doesn't make sense at No. 3. While the offense needs weapons (Sammy Watkins, anyone?), defense makes the most sense in this slot. And assuming Jadeveon Clowney is gone (Bradley raved about the South Carolina product), Khalil Mack appears very enticing. When I told Bradley I thought Mack was the perfect fit for his team, the coach let out a hearty, noteworthy, prolonged chuckle before providing effusive praise.

"We had a chance to visit with him, and I know people can get caught up in the size, but just put on the Ohio State film and watch him compete and watch the energy level he plays at," Bradley said. "He's one of those guys you feel is going to play for a long time. Just extremely talented. ... There are so many different positions you can plug him in for. I know that each team probably looks and says, 'We have a place for him and he would fit in very nicely.' And I think we look at that with him and what he has to offer. But just a very talented individual that really has a passion for the game."

Passion for the game? Sounds like a Bradley player.

Caldwell and Bradley inherited a mess. It's a major credit to them to see such changes in personnel and attitude in 15 short months.

Heck, I give them a ton of credit for signing Alex Mack to a deal during his transition-tag experience. Yes, the Browns matched the offer sheet, thus keeping Mack in Cleveland, but let's not lose sight of the fact that one of the NFL's elite offensive linemen inked a deal with Jacksonville. Alex Mack wanted to be a Jaguar. This is significant. This wouldn't have happened in the recent past.

"We took a swing, we took a shot and that's what we're all about as an organization," Bradley said. "He was a great guy to have in our building for that short period of time. I do think it sends a message to our team -- and what a great message from our owner to allow us to have that vision and go after a guy like Alex."

Look for the Jags to be big draft-day winners and keep building. Look for them to be even more competitive this year.

Playoffs? No. Progress? Without question.

It took Carroll and John Schneider a few years to build the Seahawks. Give Bradley and Caldwell time. They are en route to building something Jags fans can be proud of.

Tune in now and you'll see.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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