In this July 31, 2015, photo, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Andre Branch takes a break during practice at NFL football training camp, in Jacksonville, Fla. With first-round draft pick Dante Fowler Jr. out for the season and veteran Chris Clemons side
John Raoux
August 12, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Rookie Dante Fowler Jr. is out for the season. Veteran Chris Clemons is sidelined because of personal issues.

Fellow Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Andre Branch could be the beneficiary of their absences.

A second-round draft pick in 2012, Branch is getting a chance to prove his worth in training camp and the preseason. It's perfect timing, too, since Branch is entering the final year of his contract.

''If I don't get better, then I'm not going to get paid. Period,'' Branch said.

True. Branch probably would have entered camp vying with Clemons and other pass-rushers to make the 53-man roster. The Jaguars drafted Fowler with the third overall pick in May, with the expectation that the former Florida standout would be a plug-and-play starter from Day 1.

But Fowler tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the first day of a rookie minicamp in May and had season-ending surgery a few days later. It was a significant setback for a rebuilding team trying to gain ground on the AFC contenders.

Making matters worse at the position, Clemons skipped voluntary offseason workouts and then failed to report to training camp on time. When the 12-year pro did arrive, the Jaguars deemed him unfit to practice because of his personal issues. Clemons has spent two weeks working with trainers on the side and won't play in the team's preseason opener Friday night against Pittsburgh.

Coach Gus Bradley, however, said this week that Clemons' return is ''looking very promising.''

In the meantime, Branch will continue to get plenty of repetitions with the first-team defense. The former Clemson standout has 75 tackles and just 10 sacks in three seasons. His lack of production has been dissected and debated since he managed just one sack in 13 games as a rookie.

He was considerably better in his second season - he finished with 37 tackles and six sacks in a backup role - but then he missed seven games last season with a nagging groin injury.

So even before Jacksonville drafted Fowler, this appeared to be a make-or-break season for Branch.

''He has come a long ways,'' Bradley said. ''I think we've seen him grow maturity-wise. He knows what he's after, what he needs to do and he's just taking a really mature approach about it and he's got his spirit, too.''

Branch has been decent through two weeks of camp, standing out in one-on-one drills and making plays in 11-on-11 competition. He has impressive body bend for a 6-foot-5, 265-pound end, the kind of lean that helps him get around offensive tackles. And he has the speed and athleticism to drop into coverage.

But he'll have to show more for the Jaguars to consider re-signing him.

The Jaguars are likely to part ways with Clemons after this season, but with Fowler returning and Ryan Davis and second-year pro Chris Smith continuing to develop, there might not be room for Branch.

For now, though, Branch doesn't want to contemplate or talk about his future - whether it's in Jacksonville or elsewhere.

''If I'm here and thinking about that, then I don't get better,'' said Branch, who is scheduled to make a little more than $1 million this season. ''You can't be selfish in our group, `cause if you're selfish in our group, you won't play.''

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