The Jaguars entered the draft with two needs that stood out more than new owner Shahid Khan’s handlebar mustache: a playmaking receiver and dynamic edge rusher.
GM Gene Smith wasted little time addressing those areas, sneaking ahead of the Rams in Round One to nab Justin Blackmon fifth overall, before identifying DE-OLB Andre Branch as a difference-making pass rusher in Round Two with the 38th overall pick.
Take a bow, Gene.
Branch is a lengthy, sudden and explosive pass rusher who, paired with Jeremy Mincey, gives the Jaguars a tandem of dangerous edge rushers for the first time in a long, long time. The 6-4, 260-pound Clemson product is a raw talent, lacking great instincts and bend, but he is an immediate upgrade for a Jaguars’ defense that had far more questions than answers in the pass-rush department a season ago. The Jaguars could no longer depend on Aaron Kampman, whose balky knee has made him a nonfactor for the better part of the past two seasons, and John Chick and Austen Lane are both unproven commodities coming off season-ending injuries.
Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s unit was terrific a season ago, making the second-largest jump from ’10 to ’11 in the league behind the Texans. But outside of Mincey, an effort rusher coming off a career-best eight sacks, Jacksonville had no semblance of a consistent rush coming from anywhere else on the field. What’s more, Mincey is the type of player who’s easy to root for: he is a blue-collar producer who makes up for his lack of size and athleticism with an unrelenting motor and passion for the game. But he is not a dynamic player, which is what the defense was sorely lacking.
Branch has a chance to be that guy.
Do he and Blackmon alone take care of Jacksonville’s need for a pressure player and playmaker? It remains to be seen. After all, few teams are more familiar than the Jaguars with striking out on high-round receivers (Matt Jones, Reggie Williams) and pass rushers (Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves) in recent years. But in a pressue league, the Jaguars had no chance to take the necessary step under new head coach Mike Mularkey this season without guys who can help a young QB and elevate a defense by disrupting the pocket. Smith thinks he has found those guys with his first two picks.