JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — For as much personnel turnover that they Jacksonville Jaguars have had in less than three years under general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley, it wasn’t until this week that they addressed their needs for a pass rusher and a running back through the NFL draft.
The additions of Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon in the first two rounds finally changed that.
"We felt like if we did that, everything after that would kind of be icing on the cake," Caldwell said Saturday after the Jaguars wrapped up a draft in which they selected five players on offense and three on defense.
Until Fowler went with the third overall pick, the only defensive lineman among the 17 players previously chosen by Caldwell was Chris Smith, an end who spent most of last season on the practice squad or the inactive list. Yeldon was their first true running back taken since 2010. Denard Robinson, their fifth-round pick in 2013, had been a quarterback in college and was listed as a wide receiver when he was drafted.
But to say things were anticlimactic after Fowler and Yeldon went off the board would be inaccurate. Not after the Jaguars, much to their surprise and delight, found Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene still available in the fifth round and Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett in the sixth.
"In our conversations, both their names came up earlier," Bradley said. "So the ability to draft them, it was great. And I give credit to our scouts and to Dave because they were patient, able to fill some other needs for us and still get the guys that we coveted in the later rounds."
Greene holds the FSU career records for receptions (270), receiving yards (3,830) and consecutive games with at least one catch (43). Seminole fans will remember that it was his 49-yard catch-and-run off a short pass from Jameis Winston which put the team in position for the winning score in the 2013 national championship game against Auburn.
Bennett also has a championship to his credit after closing out his college career as part of the Ohio State defense that held Marcus Mariota and Oregon largely in check in the second half.
Yeldon, Greene and third-round pick A.J. Cann, a guard from South Carolina, ought to vie for starting roles on an offense that accounted for only 24 touchdowns in 16 games last season.
"If you look across the board, every position group was strengthened, either through free agency or the draft," Bradley said. "It’s bound to happen. Most teams can say they did that. But I think there’s just a feeling of overall competition."
Except for seventh-round pick Neal Sterling, a wide receiver from Monmouth, everyone chosen came from a program with widespread national recognition. While Florida had to settle for playing in the Birmingham Bowl after a second consecutive disappointing season under Will Muschamp, the Jaguars clearly did not hold that against Fowler.
"Any player you get who played for coach Muschamp for a few years you know is going to be pro-ready," Caldwell said. "So we’re excited about that. And we know we can coach Dante hard, that’s for sure."
In addition to Fowler and Bennett, the Jaguars used their fourth-round pick on Louisville safety James Sample.
"There’s no doubt that we want guys who love the game and play with that sense of spirit, that energy level we have on the defensive side of the ball," Bradley said. "And I think he has those traits."
PLAYER WHO SHOULD BE A STAR
Defensive end/outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. There are no guarantees that a player at this position taken third overall will pan out as hoped. Ask the Miami Dolphins, who selected Dion Jordan two years ago and are now planning on a 2015 season without him. But Fowler has no such character concerns, which is more than an added bonus on top of the skills and work ethic he possesses. After trying to squeeze out another decent year from thirty-somethings Jason Babin and then Chris Clemons, the Jaguars have found an edge rusher they hope will give them a decade’s worth of service.
Wide receiver Rashad Greene. Universally regarded as a steal in the fifth round, Greene lasted until the same round that Florida State teammate Telvin Smith did a year ago before also being snatched up by the Jaguars. Smith became a starter at linebacker halfway through last season. Greene might be lacking in size compared to Allen Robinson and even Marqise Lee, but his speed should make up for that. "He’s just kind of an old soul who loves football," Jaguars director of college scouting Kyle O’Brien said. "He approaches the game like a professional."
Safety James Sample. Much like 2013 second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien, Sample is more of a raw talent than a polished product. The Jaguars plan to have him start off backing up Sergio Brown at free safety, with Josh Evans — who made 25 starts over the previous two years — becoming a strong safety to challenge Cyprien.
STORY OF THE DRAFT
This is only the second time since 2008 that the Jaguars, who haven’t had a winning season since 2007, didn’t use a first-round pick to take an offensive player. After tackle Luke Joeckel’s rookie season was cut short by a fractured right ankle and Blake Bortles was the 33rd-ranked quarterback in a 32-team league, they must be hoping for better luck with Fowler this fall.