At the end of the 2013 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars lost a lot of experience and leadership in the locker room and on the offensive line in the retirement of center Brad Meester. Now, as the 2014 season approaches, general manager David Caldwell is tasked with finding the next starting center for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As of now, the only in-house option for offensive line coach George Yarno to work with over the course of the offseason is third-year offensive lineman Mike Brewster. In his two years with Jaguars, the top high school center in the nation back in '08, has played in 26 games and started 10.
Brewster, a four-year starter at Ohio State, was one of four undrafted rookies who made the 53-man roster in 2012. In his rookie season, he played 12 games at left guard while starting in seven, missing the last three with a hand injury that landed him on the injured reserve list.
In 2013, between left and right guard, Brewster accumulated a career-high 14 games played and three starts before being placed on injured-reserve yet again, this time with a fractured ankle.
In comes Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack.
Shortly before the start of free agency, the Browns decided to place the transition tag on Mack. By using the transition tag instead of the franchise tag, the team was able to lower Mack's salary by roughly $1.6M. It also however, allows other teams to make an offer for Mack in free agency.
Since being tagged, both the Browns and Mack's party have been in talks about a long-term deal, but haven't reached an agreement yet. On April 4, 2014, Mack spent time visiting with the Jaguars and though no offer has come yet, the two sides remain in communication with each other. Though the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts also had interest in Mack, at this point it appears to be a two-man fight between Jacksonville and Cleveland.
Should the Jaguars, or any other team for that matter, decide to make an offer for Mack, someone who hasn't missed a single game over the course of his first five seasons in the league, the Browns would have five days to match that offer.
Once news broke about Mack's visit to Jacksonville, it started talk about what kind of a contract it would take for the Browns to not match the offer, allowing the Jaguars to sign Mack. Most implied that in the first three years of the deal, Mack would command around $22M in guaranteed money. Shortly thereafter, according to a report, the Browns would instantly match an offer where $22M in guaranteed would be paid to Mack over the first three years of a contract, or any offer for that matter.
It will be interesting to see how the next few days play out, but one thing is for sure; both Cleveland and Jacksonville have an important decision to make.
If you're Cleveland, do you give all your loot to one guy when guys like Josh Gordan, Joe Haden, Phil Taylor and Jordan Cameron are about to be due big contracts? How do you sell the decision of paying your center more money than most small businesses across the country will ever make, to your fan base who has been through so much already?
If you're Jacksonville, do you trust Brewster to be the guy for an entire season when he hasn't even been able to stay healthy in each of his first two seasons in the league? Do you want to roll the dice with a rookie center in the draft when it's not even guaranteed that you'll get the center of your choice?
There is however, one question that can easily be answered for the Jaguars; Is Alex Mack worth the hefty investment? Yes.
Mack is a proven, pro-bowl caliber center with excellent leadership skills and the best center in the entire league, in my opinion. The fact that he hasn't missed a single game shows his dedication to the game and doing the right things to stay healthy. Having only been in the league for five years, he's a young guy who fits the mold of what Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley are looking for.
I'll never forget the last words that came out of Caldwell's mouth during his interview at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis a few months ago, words that may not mean much on the surface, but upon deeper thinking, define his plan for the entire 2014 offseason:
Chad did an admirable job - we went .500 our last eight games and we feel like another year in our offense with some more play-makers maybe and better offensive line play, he could keep us afloat.
That has been Caldwell's plan all along.
Just look at free agency and how it's played out.
He let an aging running back who has lost a step in Maurice Jones-Drew go, despite all 'Mojo' had contributed during his time in Jacksonville. Toby Gerhart is the new sheriff in town, a younger guy who can be their 'bell cow' and pick up tough yardage. Staying on offense, he added a young, reliable, pro-bowl guard in Zane Beadles who will sure up the left side of the offense line playing next to Luke Joeckel. Let's not forget that Caldwell got a sixth-round draft pick for quarterback Blaine Gabbert!
On defense, Caldwell really did an impressive job and may have put together a potential top-10 defense with the signing of Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Dekoda Watson, and Ziggy Hood while re-signing Will Blackmon and Jason Babin. If anything, the Jaguars will surely have an improved pass rush.
Caldwell is quietly working his craft, putting together a young team that is getting better every day and slowly turning heads, surprising people by the hour.
The next task for Caldwell? Crafting an offer for Alex Mack that makes Jimmy Haslam and the Cleveland Browns wish they'd have used the franchise tag instead.