JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- NFL free agency isn’t quite like college recruiting. Sure, in many places facilities are pretty similar, the possibility of playing time plays a role, and it can be a lifelong dream for a player to join a certain team.
But in the NFL, money is often the No. 1 factor -- and in some cases the only factor -- when a player makes his decision on where to sign.
However, it appears there is the beginning of a twist involved in the Jaguars’ pitch to free agents. Something in addition to the $11 million in upgrades to the weight room and locker room and the plethora of holes in the roster.
Coach Gus Bradley is quickly becoming a crucial part of the draw players are feeling toward the franchise.
Money and fit in a team’s scheme are still the most significant factors for free agents, but Bradley is beginning to gain a reputation around the league as a coach who is good to play for. More importantly, he is becoming known as a coach who is fun to play for.
When multiple offers are relatively equal, something has to serve as the tiebreaker. If what happened during the first days of free agency last week is an indication, it’s Bradley in Jacksonville.
"As soon as you meet him, he is already a likable person," said cornerback Will Blackmon, who joined the Jaguars in August on a one-year deal and re-signed last week. "That’s what’s really cool about all the competitive players that are coming here. They don’t have to come here. Usually teams are like, ‘Oh, Jacksonville didn't do well.’ But once they come here and they see the environment and they see what they’re about, they’re real attracted to it."
Owner Shad Khan and general manager David Caldwell created the environment, but Bradley is the public face. He’s the one who is showing visiting free agents a PowerPoint presentation. He’s the one spewing energy like mud off a tractor tire. He’s the one who had at least one visitor ready to put on his pads and hit the field after only a few minutes.
That was running back Toby Gerhart, who chose the Jaguars over Cleveland and San Francisco, which is led by Gerhart’s college coach Jim Harbaugh.
"I’ve never seen in anything like that," Gerhart said. "Meeting Gus, it was unlike anything I’ve … I walked away, and I was like, ‘Yes, I belong here.’ I actually was going away coming out thinking, ‘What type of person am I?' He talks about different characteristics of people and how can I make people better and the positive, prosperity and adversity. All this stuff he talked about in a quick 10 minutes. I was like, ‘I wish I had a notebook to write some of this stuff down.’
"I was enlightened and fired up and extremely excited. I’ve never met anybody like him. I can see why everybody spoke so highly, and you can tell things are going to get going and you’re going to want to jump on this train."
Gerhart was blown away even though he knew what to expect before his visit. He’s a former roommate of tight end Allen Reisner, who spent the 2013 season with the Jaguars, so he called him. Gerhart also talked to Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne, who also is represented by Athletes First.
"[Henne] said, ‘Trust me, there’s something about this program,’" Gerhart said. "Coach Bradley, there’s something special that’s going to happen."
Gerhart could have been the No. 1 back in Cleveland or gone to a San Francisco team that has played in three NFC Championship Games in a row, but he chose Jacksonville in large part because of his experience with Bradley. Defensive lineman Ziggy Hood and his representatives had contact with Washington, Oakland, St. Louis and Kansas City, but he chose the Jaguars. Being able to move back to his natural position at defensive tackle from defensive end, which he played in Pittsburgh, was the main reason, but Bradley also was a major factor.
"The first time I met Coach Bradley, his energy was high," Hood said. "It was different. This guy has energy. He was bouncing from wall to wall. He was from room to room, side to side."
If most NFL coaches are like poetry readings, Bradley is a monster truck rally.
But perhaps most importantly from a player’s perspective is that he’s a monster truck rally every day.
Players function best when things are consistent. They liked Bradley’s message, the way he treated them on the field and in the locker room, and his positive attitude during organized team activities, minicamp and training camp, but they wondered how it would be during the season. They especially wondered how it would be when they were 0-4.
Nothing changed. Not even when the Jaguars were 0-8.
That’s what Reisner, Henne and other Jaguars players told colleagues around the league. Not only will Bradley let you be who you are and allow you to have fun, but he’s also going to be the same person every single day.
That certainly doesn’t mean the Jaguars will land every free agent they target. Walter Thurmond and Emmanuel Sanders visited last week and signed elsewhere. Not everybody fits the system, and not everybody is willing to come to a small-market team that has won just 11 games in the past three seasons.
But playing for Bradley was a pull for several players this year, and that number may grow as his reputation quickly spreads throughout the league.