JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Call them Jacksonville’s unsettled seven.
The Jaguars (2-9) have seven pending free agents — key guys who opened the season as starters — who have five games remaining to do enough to land new contracts.
It’s a tough spot for all of them, especially considering they have seemingly cost themselves millions on the open market.
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, guard Eben Britton and running back Rashad Jennings were benched during the season. Linebacker Daryl Smith, fullback Greg Jones and cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox have missed a combined 22 games because of injuries.
And given Jacksonville’s record and the possibility that general manager Gene Smith and maybe even coach Mike Mularkey could be fired, the future is uncertain for any Jaguars, especially these seven.
“Things start getting crazy when you aren’t winning,” Britton said Wednesday. “All kinds of (stuff) happens. Winning and losing changes life. It changes the way things go.”
Mularkey, in his first season in Jacksonville, has shown little favoritism toward longtime starters. He benched Britton after a miserable performance against Cincinnati in September, turning the position over to undrafted rookie Mike Brewster.
He did the same to Knighton, giving C.J. Mosley the starting spot. It was the latest setback for Knighton, who fought to stay in shape in 2011 and had a scary eye injury in April.
Jennings, meanwhile, opened the season as the starter following Maurice Jones-Drew’s holdout and found himself back in the spotlight when Jones-Drew went down with a foot injury. But Jennings has looked little like a capable replacement, averaging 2.8 yards a carry this season.
Mularkey benched Jennings two weeks ago, giving journeyman Jalen Parmele the job. But Parmele sustained a season-ending groin injury in Sunday’s win against Tennessee, essentially giving Jennings a third chance Sunday at Buffalo (4-7).
“I’ve been criticizing myself in the film room and critiquing my own game,” Jennings said. “I’m going to finish strong down the stretch.”
Smith, Jones and Mathis have been mainstays in Jacksonville for years.
Smith, a second-round pick in 2004, owns the franchise record for tackles. Before this season, he had missed just six starts in eight years. But at age 30 and coming off a groin injury that landed him on injured reserve, it’s doubtful the Jaguars would offer him much more than a short-term deal.
Same goes for Jones and Mathis.
Like Smith, Jones has been one of the franchise’s most consistent players. He has been a staple of the team’s running game since 2004, clearing the way for Fred Taylor and Jones-Drew. But the 31-year-old lead blocker has missed the last four games with a thigh injury.
“It’s football. Everybody gets injured,” Jones said. “If you don’t get injured playing football, then you might not be playing good football. You’re going to have nicks and bruises. It comes with the territory. But you never know what’s going to happen.
“They might want to go a whole new route. We’ll see what happens. Each situation and each organization is different. Only time will tell.”
Mathis signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract in March that could have been worth up to $5 million. But he’s missed four games and started only four, making this likely his final year in Jacksonville.
Cox, meanwhile, is the most likely to still get a lucrative deal in free agency. When he has played, he has played fairly well. But Cox has missed 16 games over the last three seasons, the kind of history that would seemingly make it difficult to give the third-round draft pick in 2009 a huge deal.
“Worrying doesn’t do anything, so I don’t give too much thought to it at all,” Cox said. “It is what it is. I can only control what I can control. After that, let it fall where it may.”
The unsettled seven won’t know about their futures anytime soon, adding to their worries over the next five weeks and into the offseason.
“You can’t really think about it too much and you can’t bring that type of thought process into the building because it’s just not conducive to what we’re doing,” Britton said. “You hope for the best, you plan accordingly and you keep working your (butt) off.
“It’s the beauty and ugliness of the NFL, where sport meets business.”