This wasn’t a simple task, the Jaguars certainly missed on some of its key targets during this year’s free agency period, the first go-round for head coach Urban Meyer, but the needs they did hit, they hit hard and Meyer feels good about the direction the franchise is heading.
Speaking with reporters on Friday morning, Meyer was tasked with responding to several of the concerns and thoughts surrounding the team’s free agency ventures. One aspect of the team’s plans was made clear, however, it needed to address the defensive line, and it did.
“I expect our defensive line to always be the top fourth — in college, I expected to be in the top 5 in America,” Meyer said. “In the NFL, I told our staff I expected to be top fourth—we should keep elevating that—the top fourth in the league and we felt it wasn’t. There were some good pieces in place, and we attacked it and we’re very excited about that.”
Putting the Jaguars in the top fourth of the league translates to one of the eight best defensive lines in the NFL. While it remains to be seen where the team ranks following free agency, it made an effort to get there with four defensive linemen added in the span of three days to open the new league year.
The Jaguars signed four players, defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Malcom Brown (via trade/sign), defensive end Roy Roberts-Harris and defensive end/outside linebacker Jihad Ward. Brown was perhaps the most-established signing of the bunch, and Meyer has already named him one of his favorites of the bunch, indicating that he liked “everything” about him.
“I like the fact that we know him, [Jaguars Assistant Head Coach] Charlie Strong recruited him in Texas, he played for Coach Strong. We’ve had some great dialogue with people who knew him. I like the fact that he’s a family man, just a high, high character guy. And when you see his size, 320 [pounds], his bend, his athleticism, he’s been well-coached already at New Orleans.
“And we’re not supposed to have favorites yet, but he’s one of my favorites, I look forward to meeting him.”
The Jaguars defensive front is going to be “big” if anything else, Meyer says. In free agency, the team signed a total of 1, 209 pounds worth of defensive linemen. Ultimately, he expects the defensive line to be one of the strengths of the team moving forward.
“I used to say that about the SEC, in college football, the defensive lines look different,” Meyer said.
“So, if you look at the size of the guys we found—and [Jaguars Defensive Coordinator] Joe Cullen is a d-line guy and so is [Jaguars Defensive Line Coach] Tosh Lupoi, obviously, there’s a reason why I hired those two coaches, too. I’ve always had excellent defensive line coaches and I listen to their expertise, but I’ve also got a vision of what it’s supposed to look like. “
Of course, the defensive line wasn’t the only position group the Jaguars targetted in free agency. The team made an attempt to rebuild its tight end room. While it was not able to acquire a move, to ‘F’ tight end, it was able to get its ‘Y’ tight end in Chris Manhertz, perhaps one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL.
“We identified the guy, had him at the top of the list and that’s [Chris] Manhertz and we got him. I’ve not met him, he’s coming in today, but I’m—we all are extremely excited about him. He was exactly what we wanted and we got him.”
The Jaguars will continue to search for a move tight end in free agency and the draft, one name to watch is of course former Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth, one of the top tight ends in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The “splash” move of the week certainty was cornerback Shaquill Griffin, a former Pro Bowl player for the Seattle Seahawks. It was the position group that Meyer wanted to target following the defensive line room. Griffin was able to help fix the corner position, creating a stronger room with CJ Henderson, Sidney Jones and Tre Herndon in the fold.
“One was a second-rounder [CB Sidney Jones IV], but obviously Shaq[uill Griffin], we feel very strong about,” said Meyer.
“CJ has gone through his labrum surgery and he’s doing very well. The good thing about those three, if they play like we expect, Tre Herndon is another guy that has done some very good things here. I really like his competitiveness.
“He’s working really hard. Those four players to me, if you can have two guys that can play man coverage and you can go inside like we did at Ohio State when we had [Ohio State CB] Shaun Wade there, if your third player can play man coverage, that’s exactly where you need to be.”
The Jaguars could continue to upgrade the position group in the draft, but the acquisition of Griffin, a proven commodity, helps the group a whole lot.
There was at least one player that Meyer got a lot of kudos for grabbing. He mentioned wide receiver Marvin Jones as that player, a former Detroit Lion who was with Jaguars offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell in Detroit just last year. A player that Meyer says will need to add leadership to the young Jaguars’ WR corp.
“I think Marvin [Jones] is at an extremely high value for how we came across that. Of all the guys we signed, there were two—he’s one that my phone has blown up over the last few days from colleagues and friends that I’ve known that tell me about what kind of—not only player—but leader [that he is].
“[He’s a] heck of a player, too. I mean, on video tape, I really love watching that guy play.”
Learning the art of NFL free agency
In his first NFL free agency, Meyer learned plenty. In his past experience as a recruiter in college football, he’s used to landing the players on his board, regardless of anything else. The money was not a factor - or at least isn’t thought to be, depending on the source -, and the politics are much different.
This was different for Meyer, something he will have to get used to as the years go on, but ultimately a good experience for the rookie head coach. One aspect of the process that Meyer disagrees with, however, is the idea of not visiting with a player prior to signing them. Without a visit, there really isn’t a way of knowing how the player will fit, personality-wise.
“That was awful. I don’t agree with it, but no one asked my opinion,” Meyer said when asked about signing players he has not met.
“I guess [in] the old days, you could bring them in and meet them, have dinner with them and find out the football intellect, find out the character. The thing you don’t [do] I find out is call someone who has skin in the game because they’re going to not quite be, I don’t see honest as the appropriate word.”
No, teams across the league won’t be completely honest with you about a certain player, especially if they covet the same one. The Jaguars utilized director of player assessment Ryan Stamper and director of player engagement and youth football Marcus Pollard to conduct assessments on players, a deep-dive into their backstory.
The team also has some coaches that already know the player such as Strong and Brown, but that was one aspect Meyer couldn’t quite come to terms with.
The word of the day with general manager Trent Baalke was “value,” when he spoke prior to free agency. That much resonated with Meyer, who brought up the team plenty during his press conference. When it came to his former player, Meyer stated he would have liked to get more, only acquiring running back Carlos Hyde in the process, but ultimately it came down to value when assessing everything.
While he was ready to give a recruiting pitch, ultimately, Meyer says, it came down to value.
“Are you willing to pay this kind of money for that player at a position of need? So, I didn’t feel the recruiting element. I was ready to. I had my recruiting stuff ready to go, but it didn’t really come down to that,” he said.
“It came down to are you going to pay the player and get in the game?”
The Jaguars were certainly outbid in at least one potential player signing, and that happens to all teams throughout the free agency process, you won’t win them all. In recruiting, Meyer could get any and all five-star players he wanted.
At Ohio State and Florida, Meyer signed a total of 35 five-star prospects, which would equate to 35 “marquee” names in free agency, essentially.
With cap space and the assessment of the team as a whole, Meyer never had the ability to do that, sacrifices had to be made.
“All of a sudden, I start finding out this guy costs $28 million and this guy costs—and it was really—I knew it, to say I didn’t know it, of course I knew it—but just the way you put that puzzle together about, ‘Here’s your cap space, here’s your choices, can we take him, but we get three of these guys to help?’
“And so, I imagine once you build your roster exactly the way you want it, then you can take one guy and go get the $25 million athlete. We’re not in a position to do that right now, we’re just not. So, it was a learning experience and I feel great about it.”
Meyer will continue to learn the art of NFL free agency as he progresses throughout his career. It will be a wait-and-see period until we can ultimately judge how his first one went, but the needs the team addressed were strong, and the holes filled made sense.
Now, the Jaguars will get started with another round of free agency throughout the offseason, and the 2021 NFL Draft.