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Jaguars defensive line finally has depth, tough cuts coming

The Jacksonville Jaguars made moves in free agency to add depth to their defensive line, which in turn should make it better as a whole.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Jacksonville Jaguars defensive line last offseason was a mixed bag adjusting to Gus Bradley's new defensive scheme. Veteran pass rusher Jason Babin seemed to fit in naturally, as did free agent signing Sen'Derrick Marks, but players like Tyson Alualu and Andre Branch struggled to adjust until later in the season.

The Jaguars added the likes of Chris Clemons and Red Bryant in the offseason however, which should be injected as instant starters on their defensive line. The team also picked up depth at the three-technique position with Ziggy Hood, who should be able to give Marks some valuable rest during the season, as he played way too many snaps last year.

There are going to be some tough cuts on the defensive line this season, however.

It would appear Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Sen'Derrick Marks and Ziggy Hood are locks to make the roster. After that, it's wide open. I've noted before I personally don't think that Tyson Alualu won't get released, because he should fair far better in a back up/rotational role with Bryant. There's not cap savings in releasing him and at the present moment, there's no one for sure better in that backup five-technique role on the defensive line.

I think Roy Miller makes the roster, but I struggle to call him a "lock" on the roster simply because his play wasn't very good last season, albeit playing with an injury. Then again, outside of possibly Abry Jones or undrafted rookie DeAndre Coleman, there is no other true one-technique on the roster.

The real question, as far as cuts however, is at the LEO-end position. As mentioned Clemons appears to be a lock, so that means there's going to be a battle between Andre Branch, Jason Babin, fifth-round pick Chris Smith, Ryan Davis and Gerald Rivers. I think the Jaguars will keep at least three LEO-ends, possibly four. The question is just who.

Some tend to think Jason Babin is on the bubble because of his age, but with him signing a cut-rate salary in the offseason I don't think he's a lock to make the team, but I think I'd have a hard time cutting at least a proven backup unless he's just flat out bad. I know the team has spoken highly of Andre Branch and his "improvement" late last season, at least on the stat sheet, but for me he's still a big question mark. I want to see that Branch can consistently rush the passer off the edge, rather than getting manufactured pressure with line stunts and looping inside or picking up cleanup sacks. Branch trailed Babin in sacks by just two on the stat sheet, but by comparison in actual pressure, he lagged significantly behind Babin. Babin ended the season with 34 hurries and 17 QB hits on 451 pass rush attempts while Branch had just 18 hurries and 6 QB hits on 354 rush attempts.

Player Pass Rush Att. Sacks Hurries QB hits Pass Rush Eff.
Chris Clemons 336 5 28 8 9.5
Jason Babin 451 8 34 17 10.3
Andre Branch 354 6 18 6 6.8
Ryan Davis 71 2 9 4 16.5

There's a lot more to rushing the passer than just sacks, which as a stand alone statistic are highly overrated. You definitely want sacks, but even more so you want pressure on the quarterback consistently. That's been the struggle with Branch is his consistency and the amount of times he actually pressures the quarterback rather than getting a cleanup sack or running free at the quarterback on a line stunt. If he can improve his ability to win one-on-one battles he might turn into the player the Jaguars thought they were getting when he was picked in the second-round of the NFL Draft.

Just for frame of reference for Branch, through the first eight games of the season he played a total of 259 snaps with one sack, two hits on the quarterback and seven hurries. In the final half of the season he played 345 snaps with five sacks, four quarterback hits and 11 hurries. The only real noticeable change in his production was the amount of snaps and sacks, which is when the team began using some of their looping line stunts. Largely the ratio of his hits and pressures stayed the same (naturally increasing at a marginal rate with increased snaps).

All this sounds like I'm trying to cut Andre Branch, but I'm simply explaining why I still largely view him as a bubble player, especially with what someone like Ryan Davis showed in limited snaps both on the PFF stat sheet and in game study. Not to mention that if both Clemons and Babin make the final roster, that likely leaves Branch as the third LEO end, then you factor in the fact that Caldwell and Bradley picked their own LEO in the fifth-round.

After those three in Babin, Branch and Davis you have fifth-round pick Chris Smith and late season pick up Gerald Rivers. Some have tabbed Smith as a bubble player, but with the growth he showed under Gus Bradley and defensive line coach Todd Wash during the week of the Senior Bowl, I don't think it's that simple. His play and production in that week alone was worlds different than what he showed his final season at Arkansas. He's a little short for an NFL pass rusher, but he has good length and has drawn praise of Bradley already, albeit without pads on.

The preseason going forward is going to tell us a lot about the LEO position they have on the roster and if they choose to go with a more veteran depth chart, or a youngster one. I tend to think they'll go more veteran and keep Jason Babin in the fold, at least for this year.