Ranking Jacksonville Jaguars' Top 5 Sleepers to Watch in Camp
Jacksonville Jaguars fans should keep a close watch on the progress of two new linebackers during training camp. One is a free agent, added to adopt a role specifically crafted by head coach Gus Bradley. Meanwhile, the other is a low-round draft pick who could vault into a starting position as a rookie.
But they aren't the only potential sleepers who bear watching during Jags camp. A third-year pass-rusher can ensure he's not forgotten at a position that has undergone an overhaul this offseason.
Offensively, two undrafted tight ends have a great chance to influence coaches' thinking at a position in a relative state of flux.
Here are the five sleepers to watch during Jacksonville's training camp.
Andre Branch, DE
There may be new faces clamoring to take his position, but Andre Branch is still a strong candidate to be this team's regular "Leo" this season. The 2012 second-round pick has the mix of speed, strength and agility Bradley covets for his hybrid, roving pass-rusher.
Branch spent last season learning the nuances of the position. Once he mastered the basics, the signs were positive. Branch finished the 2013 campaign with six sacks, with three coming in his final four games, per statistics from NFL.com.
That level of production is evidence of a player on the rise. But Branch must continue that good work in earnest during training camp amid increased competition.
Bradley added former Seattle Seahawks Leo Chris Clemons via free agency. He also used a fifth-round pick to draft Chris Smith, another flexible rush end.
Yet despite those moves, Bradley clearly hasn't forgotten about Branch's ability to get after the passer, per ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco:
Coach Gus Bradley has consistently praised third-year player Andre Branch, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2012, throughout OTAs. His burst off the ball and quickness around the edge is noticeable, and he has consistently been in the backfield during 11-on-11 drills. Though the players are only wearing helmets and prohibited from full contact, Branch appears to be ready to become the kind of consistent player he was during the second half of the 2013 season, when he recorded five of his six sacks in the final seven games.
Branch's improvement is good news because Smith and Clemons won't be enough to sufficiently boost a pass rush that tallied a meager 31 sacks last season.
In an AFC South where Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is king, Bradley needs all the pass-rushing weapons he can get. So keep an eye on Branch during training camp. He is a player of considerable potential, one who could be the key to revitalizing an anaemic pass rush.
Marcel Jensen, TE
Bradley and general manager David Caldwell know they need to freshen things up at tight end and have cast a wide net for new options. One such option is undrafted free agent Marcel Jensen.
The former Fresno State ace is a sleeper to watch during camp thanks to the intriguing size mismatch he can pose to a defense. At 6'6" and 259 pounds, Jensen has the build of a classic in-line tight end.
That is something of a rarity in the modern NFL where the position is dominated by big-bodied "move" receivers. But a player with in-line frame and skills could be very useful in Jacksonville.
For one thing, the Jags need to be a more physical team in 2014, especially on the ground. That process was started during free agency when the team added bruising, power-based running back Toby Gerhart.
Any power-running team needs a bulky tight end to supplement the offensive line. Jensen can certainly be that player.
In addition to his blocking skills, he could also develop into a useful receiver, particularly in the red zone where a big target often makes a difference.
Like any rookie free agent, Jensen is an obvious long shot to make the final roster. But his combination of size, strength and good hands makes him a notable under-the-radar candidate.
Dekoda Watson, OLB
Dekoda Watson bears watching during training camp because of the critical transition he is making to a position Bradley hopes will give the Jacksonville defense its pass-rushing edge.
Watson is being tasked with playing the "Otto" role. That's Bradley's name for the strong-side linebacker berth, a player who will stack on the defensive line and have more opportunities to rush the passer.
This player will essentially act as a second Leo on Bradley's multiple base fronts. Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union has detailed the new position, along with what is expected of Watson:
This year, coach Gus Bradley has deleted the Sam linebacker from the playbook and replaced it with the Otto, a physical/athletic/versatile player who will be positioned along the line of scrimmage.
The goals in creating the Otto: Be more multiple in their looks without radically changing the personnel, help a run defense that was 29th in the NFL last year, provide another option for a pass rush that was tied for last in the league and have a player who is comfortable in coverage.
Dekoda Watson was signed on the second day of free agency from Tampa Bay to be the Otto.
This could be a key schematic wrinkle this season. It can add increased flexibility to the standard defensive front, essentially turning into a 5-2.
That will beef up the run defense as well as give quarterbacks and blocking schemes another potential rusher to consider. The latter implication is an edge Jacksonville's sack-shy defense will need this season.
The Otto role is certainly a lot of responsibility for Watson, an ex-special teams ace and sub-package player with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. How he handles learning the dual-threat responsibilities of the position will make for fascinating viewing during training camp.
Reggie Jordan, TE
Reggie Jordan is another undrafted tight end who has a great chance to open a few eyes during training camp. But unlike Jensen, it won't be size and strength that distinguishes Jordan. Instead, it will be flexibility, quickness and playmaking potential.
Those are the qualities the former Missouri Western State star embodies. Jordan fits the mold of the modern prototype for tight ends.
He is a versatile pass-catcher, quicker than the traditional tight end but with a body bigger than the average wide receiver. Jordan is a malleable target who can be shaped into any position depending on where he lines up.
He can work outside, in the slot, flexed off the line or even from out of the backfield. Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union noted Jordan's catching skills and production at the collegiate level:
A three-year letterman at Missouri Western State, Jordan showed good hands as he caught 52 passes for 679 yards and 17 touchdowns in 37 games.
Once Jordan checked out the Jaguars roster, he figured it was his best opportunity.
He'll need a very impressive training camp to endear himself to the coaches, but Jordan boasts attributes the other options at his position don't possess. Players such as Marcedes Lewis and Clay Harbor have some move skills, but neither is the kind of roving threat most teams now feature at tight end.
Jordan's ability to exploit coverage mismatches from anywhere on a formation can be invaluable to a passing game. He has the chance to become a useful "Joker" in this offense.
Telvin Smith, LB
In a Bradley coached scheme, a speedy and undersized linebacker like Telvin Smith has to bear watching. The 2014 fifth-round pick will work with a coaching staff that has placed a premium on quickness and athleticism at the linebacker level.
That's why Bradley added veteran Geno Hayes last offseason, because he wants linebackers fast in pursuit and nimble in coverage. Smith certainly possesses those attributes.
The 6'3", 218-pound ex-Florida State ace has wasted no time catching the eye of his new coach this offseason, per Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union:
On Friday, the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Smith reacted quickly to a check-down pass, showing off his burst. Later in the practice, he was responsible for second-round pick Marqise Lee in the slot. Quarterback Blake Bortles, the third-overall pick, looked to Lee the whole play while rolling out, but Smith had Lee covered. Bortles kept the ball, running out of bounds. Babich ran 20 yards to go celebrate with Smith.
Quickly filling passing lanes and showing the athleticism to track receivers out of the slot is exactly the level of range and versatility Bradley wants at linebacker. They are qualities that can allow this defense to adopt seven- and eight-man coverage shells from base and nickel fronts.
That's how Bradley often operated the defense in Seattle when he ran the Seahawks' tough unit for four seasons before taking over in Jacksonville. If fresh talent can generate greater pressure up front, allowing Bradley to drop seven more often, the Jags will be tough to score on in 2014.
But that plan will rely as much on athletic linebackers like Smith as it will on pass-rushers like Clemons and Branch. That makes Smith's performances during camp mandatory viewing.
If he makes positive progress, this late-round tweener will become a regular in either the base or nickel fronts during his rookie season.
These five sleepers can arise from their slumbers to make significant contributions this season. Each has the potential to become a key figure in schemes that will be more expansive on both sides of the ball.