AFC South: Gerald Rivers

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 NFL Nation's Michael DiRocco examines the three biggest issues facing the Jacksonville Jaguars heading into training camp.

Offensive line: Only one of the five spots is settled heading into camp: Zane Beadles, whom the team signed in March, is the starting left guard. Almost every other spot is up for grabs. I use "almost" because Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013, will start at left tackle, and the team drafted him to be the line's cornerstone. He spent the first four games last season at right tackle and played a quarter at left tackle before a season-ending injury. While the Jags believe he's going to be an elite player, he still has to prove it. Mike Brewster is the leader at center, but he has never snapped in his three-year career. Right guard will be a battle between Jacques McClendon and rookie Brandon Linder. Austin Pasztor started 12 games at right tackle last season but will be pushed by Cameron Bradfield, who started the final 11 games at left tackle after Joeckel's injury. Regardless of who wins the position battles, the line has to be better than it was last season. The Jaguars averaged a franchise-worst 78.8 yards per game rushing last season, and a big reason was the play of the interior of the offensive line.

Wide receivers: The Jaguars know what they have in fourth-year player Cecil Shorts (123 career catches). They believe they know what they've got in second-year player Ace Sanders, provided he continues to develop following his 51-catch rookie season. But who are Nos. 3-6? It would seem second-round picks Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson would naturally be the next two, but both missed most organized team activities and all of minicamp with injuries. They're supposed to be fully cleared for camp, but they missed valuable time working with receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, a technician of the finer points of routes, footwork and hand position. Rookie receivers are a crap shoot in the NFL, and there's no guarantee if both are healthy that they'll be able to contribute as much as Sanders did. Kerry Taylor and Mike Brown combined to catch 54 passes last season. Taylor is a bit bigger (6-foot, 200 pounds) than Brown (5-10, 200 pounds), but both can play in the slot or outside. Taylor might have a slight advantage because he was healthy throughout the offseason, while Brown was one of seven receivers who missed significant time because of an injury. A group of undrafted players, led by former Miami standout Allen Hurns, also will compete for the final two spots on the roster. It's important that this group stays healthy, too, because the injuries really affected the offense during minicamp. It was hard for any of the quarterbacks to move the ball consistently.

Pass rush: The Jaguars have had one of the worst pass rushes over the past five season and finished last in the NFL in sacks in 2013 and 2012. Buffalo led the NFL with 57 sacks last season. The Jaguars have 51 in the past two seasons combined, including 20 in 2012. The team took steps to remedy that by signing defensive end Chris Clemons (58 career sacks) and linebacker Dekoda Watson, a young player whom the Jaguars plan on using in their new otto position and rushing the passer on third downs. However, he sat out OTAs and minicamp with a groin injury and former undrafted rookie LaRoy Reynolds got the reps there. Third-year defensive end Andre Branch came on late last season (five of his six sacks in the last seven games) and had a great offseason, and the coaching staff is counting on him rotating with Clemons. The Jaguars felt good enough about Branch and young players Ryan Davis and Gerald Rivers that they released Jason Babin (62.5 career sacks) on the last day of the minicamp. However, Davis and Rivers have played in a combined eight games and have a combined eight tackles and one sack, so that's making a leap of faith that they'll be able to produce in a reserve role.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- His name was still atop his locker and there were a few items still in it -- some shirts, a towel, toiletries -- but that was the extent of Jason Babin's presence with the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday afternoon.

The team cut the defensive end early in the morning, a move coach Gus Bradley said was done now because of the development of some of the younger pass-rushers, but also as a sign of respect for the 34-year-old Babin to give him a chance to land with another team before training camps begin next month.

Babin
Marks
"We had to ask some tough questions about eventually the 53 guys that are going to be up on Sundays," Bradley said. "We feel that he still has some good games in him and some really good play in him. We were just juggling to try to find a way to get it done within our system. We feel like it was best to give him the opportunity to get out there and hook on with another team.

"I don’t know if there ever is a right time or how to do it. We try to do the best we can, but when we’re dealing with a man like Jason Babin that is tough on both sides."

Babin led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2013 and had nine sacks, 57 tackles and five forced fumbles in 21 games with the Jaguars. His teammates will miss him for more than that, though.

"Just the leadership he brings, the knowledge he brings," said defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, who had the locker next to Babin. "Knowing everybody and how we were with Babs, Babs left a lot behind just by the things he used to teach and the way that he carried himself. I’ll talk to Babs probably for the rest of my life just because of the type of guy he is.

"He was the same way every single day. I don’t want to sit here and talk like he passed or he died or something, but Babs -- he was just a great guy. He always was willing to teach and he’s always willing to help."

Second-year defensive end Ryan Davis is one of the younger players -- along with rookie Chris Smith and second-year player Gerald Rivers -- who will benefit from Babin’s release. He was still surprised by the move, though.

"It was shocking," Davis said. "Jason was a key piece of this team, definitely helped this team in leadership. We were such a young team and he helped in my development. ... Whenever I needed to know something I’d go ask Babin and Babin would direct me or tell me what the best move was or pre-snap keys and stuff like that. [He taught me] how to prepare for a game. Babin was very instrumental in stuff like that. Not only that, he’s a great guy."

Babin might have come to Jacksonville in 2012 with a bit of a reputation as a surly guy, but that was not the case with the Jaguars. In fact, Bradley called Babin a "tremendous" leader and said he was a big help to him during the team’s rough start to the 2013 season.

"He ended up being one of our strongest leaders," Bradley said. "We went through some tough times and I leaned on him. He did a great job.

"... He’s a big part of what we’re building here and always will be."
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jason Babin's release is a mild surprise only in that the 34-year-old defensive end didn’t even make it to training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was going to be a bubble player after the addition of several pass-rushers via free agency and the draft.

Babin
That he was released Thursday morning is an indication the Jaguars are not only pleased with how veteran Chris Clemons, whom they signed as a free agent, has performed in organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp, they are excited about several other young pass-rushers.

Coach Gus Bradley has consistently praised third-year player Andre Branch, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2012, throughout OTAs. His burst off the ball and quickness around the edge is noticeable, and he has consistently been in the backfield during 11-on-11 drills. Though the players are only wearing helmets and prohibited from full contact, Branch appears to be ready to become the kind of consistent player he was during the second half of the 2013 season, when he recorded five of his six sacks in the final seven games.

"You see Andre Branch really focused and really capturing every opportunity," Bradley said.

Fifth-round pick Chris Smith doesn’t fit the Jaguars’ typical measurables for what they want in a LEO -- a hybrid end/linebacker whose primary responsibility is rushing the passer -- but they liked what they saw from him during Senior Bowl week so they took a chance. The 6-foot-1, 266-pound Smith is a little shorter than ideal, but he has long arms and runs well.

"He had a couple good rushes [Wednesday] and I think he’s a guy that the more comfortable he gets and the more reps he gets we’ll see what he’s doing," Bradley said. "He’s got the traits we’re looking for. Now we just need to see it in training camp."

Second-year player Ryan Davis played in seven games last season and had one sack and made one huge play: an interception that sealed the Jaguars’ victory in Houston. He is another player who doesn’t have the typical LEO size (he’s 6-2, 260) but he’s an effort guy and the Jaguars are intrigued by his development.

Gerald Rivers is another second-year player that has worked at LEO. He has the prototypical LEO size (6-5, 258).

The key traits Branch, Smith, Davis and Rivers all share are youth and potential. At 34, Babin wasn’t going to get any better. It’s likely, even with reduced snaps because of the addition of the 32-year-old Clemons (58 career sacks), that he was going to be less effective. But there is room for improvement for the four younger (and cheaper) players, and that is better for the health of the roster beyond the 2014 season.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars’ already-struggling pass rush took another hit Monday when leo Jason Babin, the team’s sack leader in 2013, voided the final two years of his contract and became an unrestricted free agent.

Babin
That leaves the Jaguars with just two leos on the roster: third-year player Andre Branch and Gerald Rivers, an undrafted rookie the team claimed in December. Red Bryant, whom the team signed on Saturday, plays on the opposite side and that end’s primary responsibility is stopping the run.

The Jaguars were already expected to be active in free agency in trying to find another pass rusher but Babin’s decision adds a little more urgency. The team may address the area in the draft -- with Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack in the first round, for example -- but it still would be beneficial to have a veteran presence at that spot the locker room.

There’s a solid chance Babin, who turns 34 in May, will re-sign with the Jaguars, albeit at a much more reasonable salary than the $6 million he was scheduled to make in each of the next two seasons. He’s not a double-digit sack guy any longer, but he did lead the team with 7.5 sacks last season and coach Gus Bradley and defensive coordinator Bob Babich both said he has played better than his stats indicate.

Right now the Jaguars’ best pass rusher is Branch, the team’s under-achieving second-round draft pick in 2012. Gus Bradley, defensive line coach Todd Wash and Babich got Branch to be more consistent last season and he ended up finishing second with six sacks and nine quarterback pressures. Rivers played in two games with St. Louis before being cut and did not appear in a game for the Jaguars.

The market for pass rushers wasn’t that deep anyway and most of the remaining available players that fit as a leo -- a hybrid end/linebacker whose main responsibility is rushing the passer -- in the Jaguars’ scheme are second- and third-tier free agents.

Babin was able to void his contract because of a rule in the new collective bargaining agreement that allows a vested veteran claimed after the trading deadline -- which the Jaguars did in 2012 -- to declare themselves a free agent after the season following the season in which he was claimed.

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