Young Jaguars secondary learned some hard lessons in 2013

Cornerback Dwayne Gratz made eight starts as a rookie for the Jacksonville Jaguars and tied for the team lead in interceptions.

Kim Klement

When Gus Bradley was defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, they used fifth-round draft picks on Richard Sherman in 2011 and Kam Chancellor in 2010 to build a secondary which smothered Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos less than two weeks ago in the Super Bowl.

It remains too early to tell whether Bradley might have another Sherman or Chancellor on his hands in Dwayne Gratz, Johnathan Cyprien or Josh Evans. The Jacksonville Jaguars started all three rookie defensive backs for a considerable portion of the 2013 season, and their collective inexperience contributed to some games which could be kindly categorized as teachable moments.

During a four-week stretch beginning in mid-November, the Jaguars’ secondary gave up huge games to three of the NFL’s top wide receivers. Michael Floyd of the Arizona Cardinals had six catches for 191 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown. Two weeks later, Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns topped that with 10 receptions for 261 yards, a total which included the second-longest scoring pass ever against the Jaguars (95 yards). And Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans accounted for 11 catches worth 140 yards in the second half alone of a nationally-televised Thursday night game.

The Jaguars finished tied for 25th in pass defense, giving up an average of 248 yards a game, and their 11 interceptions ranked among the fewest in the league. Opposing teams completed 64.2 percent of their passes. Even with the long plays surrendered to Floyd and Gordon, there were eight teams with a yards per completion average worse than the Jaguars’ mark of 7.6.

STARTERS

Alan Ball, CB — Signed during the offseason after spending 2012 with the Texans, Ball started 15 of 16 games at right cornerback. He intercepted two passes, the last of which came in the final home game against the Tennessee Titans, and his 14 pass breakups were almost as many as in his previous six seasons combined. He’ll turn 29 next month.

Dwayne Gratz, CB — A third-round selection out of Connecticut, Gratz was injured in the season-opening loss to Kansas City and missed the next five games. He recorded the first interception of his career at Tennessee in Week 10 and got his second three weeks later at Cleveland but was also beaten by Gordon on a long completion early in that game. He made eight starts at the left corner.

Johnathan Cyprien, S — Until a thigh injury caused him to miss a game in Week 14, Cyprien was on the field for every defensive down of his rookie season. The native of North Miami Beach and product of Florida International was second on the Jaguars in tackles only to linebacker Paul Posluszny and forced two fumbles but struggled at times in pass coverage.

Jags positional analysis

Josh Evans, S — The sixth-round pick out of Florida earned a roster spot largely on the strength of his play on special teams and became the starter at free safety after an injury in Week 3 to Dwight Lowery, who was later waived. Evans made eight consecutive starts until injuring his shoulder at Cleveland.

BACKUPS

Will Blackmon, CB — After being out of the NFL in 2012, Blackmon was signed before the Jaguars’ final preseason game and moved into the starting lineup while Gratz was out with a high ankle sprain. Their defensive play of the year was courtesy of him as Blackmon sealed their first victory by stripping the ball from Tennessee quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on a blitz and returning it for a touchdown.

Mike Harris, CB — One of the few holdovers in the secondary from the year before, Harris started against Manning and the Broncos in Week 6 when the Jaguars opened with five defensive backs.

Demetrius McCray, CB –– When Ball was inactive at Seattle in Week 3 because of a groin injury, McCray made his first start and was beaten along with Evans on a touchdown pass which put the Seahawks up 31-0. Another rookie, the seventh-round pick also saw action on special teams.

Winston Guy, S — The Jaguars claimed Guy off waivers Sept. 1 from the Seahawks, and he made two starts when Evans was hurt. He had a sack and a forced fumble but no interceptions.

Chris Prosinski, S — A fourth-round pick in 2011 by the Jaguars, Prosinski started at strong safety against Buffalo in place of Cyprien.

POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS

With all the off-the-field problems wide receiver Justin Blackmon has given them, Aqib Talib of the New England Patriots is unlikely to be on the Jaguars’ shopping list. If they want to target cornerbacks within their division, Vontae Davis of the Indianapolis Colts and Alterraun Verner of the Titans are available.

At safety, the Jaguars aren’t about to break the bank to try pursuing Jairus Byrd of the Bills or T.J. Ward of the Browns.

BEST DRAFT OPTIONS

Having used five of eight selections last spring on defensive backs, this is the one area where it’s safe to predict general manager Dave Caldwell and his staff might steer clear in May. Bringing in an undrafted prospect or two is not out of the realm of possibility, although they might want to take a closer look at 2013 seventh-round pick Jeremy Harris, who spent all season on injured reserve.

FINAL THOUGHT

If the Jaguars are able to upgrade their pass rush — namely, if Jadaveon Clowney of South Carolina falls to them with the third pick in the draft — that would in turn decrease the burden on their secondary. But with five of their 11 interceptions having been made by linebackers or defensive linemen, simply standing pat is not an attractive option.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.