- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.