Jaguars Looking for Positional Versatility and Run Stopping From Defensive Free Agents

John Shipley

Outside of inking inside linebacker Joe Schobert to a five-year contract, the Jaguars didn't make much of a splash in free agency. Instead, they opted to find bargains and underrated players to fill out their depth and specific needs, especially on the defensive side of the ball. 

Three of those additions, Rodney Gunter, Al Woods, and Cassius Marsh, are veteran defenders who will all play different roles for the Jaguars but were signed for two reasons: versatility and run defense. 

“I think it always helps when you go in [to free agency] and you can get players that can play multiple positions for you," head coach Doug Marrone told local media on Tuesday. "I think it adds value to the player."

Gunter, a former Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman, signed a three-year, $18 million contract and will likely play multiple roles along the defensive line, including the 'big end' position. In 2019, he recorded three sacks, nine tackles for loss, and 10 quarterback hits. 

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound 28-year-old wasn't initially on Marrone's radar entering the offseason, but Marrone pointed out this week that others in the organization watched the tape and pointed Gunter out as a logical target. Once Marrone caught up to what Gunter brings to the table, he joined in the opinion that Gunter could be a valuable addition to the Jaguars in 2020.

"I think when you look at [Rodney] Gunter, he’s someone that I didn’t really know a lot about because they’re in the NFC West," Marrone said on Tuesday. "Our scouting department did a good job, got him to the coaches, we watched a ton of film, and we were like, 'Listen, there are a lot of good things about this player.'"

What is it about Gunter that drew the Jaguars to him? First and foremost, it is his ability to play the run and perform several roles for a defense. With the Jaguars losing Calais Campbell due to a March trade that sent him to Baltimore for a 2020 fifth-round draft pick, Jacksonville was in need of a big, strong, versatile defensive lineman who could fill several different roles, just as Campbell did for three seasons.  

"Obviously, he plays the run well, he can rush at times, He has some versatility whether he’s inside or outside, at big end or defensive tackle, so we felt pretty good about that," Marrone said. "I’m happy that we were able to find him, and we expect really good things out of him."

Marrone, general manager Dave Caldwell, and the rest of the Jaguars' evaluating team used a similar run-oriented mindset when they brought Woods into the fold on a one-year contract. 

Woods, 33, is purely a run-stuffing defensive tackle (5.5 career sacks) who has bounced around from team to team, but he found a lot of success as nose tackle in the Seattle Seahawks' scheme in 2019. Seattle runs a similar defensive scheme to Jacksonville, which could lead to an easier transition to Jacksonville for Woods. 

With the Jaguars declining the option on former nose tackle Marcell Dareus earlier this offseason, a veteran presence at the position was needed. The Jaguars got that in Woods, who could have a chance to start when Week 1 rolls around. He has the size (6-foot-4, 330-pounds) to fill the void of a two-down nose tackle, and it is clear Marrone is high on him. 

"When you look at [Al] Woods, you see someone that I’ve known and played against and he’s always a tough guy to move, and I think he can give you, at times, good push like Taven [Bryan] has done for us, giving us good push up the middle," Marrone said. 

"Al is a tough man to move, he’s a big human being and we expect him to come in there and really clog it up and play the run well. 

Finally, the Jaguars brought in Marsh, a veteran edge defender, on a one-year deal. Marsh, 27, can backup Leon Jacobs at strongside linebacker, but his lack of production (14 career sacks, four forced fumbles in six seasons) indicate he is more of a depth signing than anything else. 

But even if he is just providing depth, Marsh can do so at multiple positions, which could give the Jaguars more flexibility with their active roster on game days. Marsh has never been an every-down player, but he could fill out a role in a rotation and give several players breathers for a few snaps at a time. 

"With Cassius [Marsh], I think you see someone that can push for the SAM linebacker position, he can play up [at the line of scrimmage], which he’s done throughout his career, and we just recently re-signed Lerentee McCray, who can help us with pass-rush, but Cassius can help us also," Marrone said. 

"These waves of pass rushers, you want to have a good wave of them as you go, this way, when the critical moments come, it’s key to have your best players on the field."

Ultimately, the Jaguars' priorities were clear when they signed Gunter, Woods, and Marsh, and Marrone only reaffirmed these priorities when he spoke to local media. 

"I think when you’re looking at those three players that we brought in, they’re solid guys, they’re solid football players, they bring some versatility, but the main thing is, like I said before, our priority was making sure we brought people in to stop the run.”