ORLANDO, Fla. -- Finding a new center to replace the retired Brad Meester is one of the Jacksonville Jaguars' top priorities this offseason, but the fact that they didn’t sign one during the first few weeks of free agency isn’t a concern for general manager David Caldwell or coach Gus Bradley.
They’re confident they can find a starter among the players already on the roster, beginning with third-year player Mike Brewster.
"We felt like going through our end-of-season evaluations that Brew could hold the fort down," Caldwell said during the NFL owners’ meetings this week. "This is a big year for him. He’s going into his contract year and it felt like that it could be a year for him to really excel and be the guy. I know the players feel comfortable with him. I know our coaching staff feels comfortable with him.
"If we found one that we really liked that we felt like could come in and be an appreciable upgrade then we’d go that route, but if not we felt like between the draft and between Brew and even a guy like Pat Lewis, who we have some feeling for that we claimed off Cleveland’s practice squad, that one of those guys could come in and be the starter for us."
Jacques McClendon, whom the Jaguars claimed last September and ended up playing in five games (two starts) at guard, also can play center. But Brewster, who was a four-year starter and Rimington Award finalist at Ohio State, gets the first chance. He missed the final two games of the season after suffering a fractured left ankle, but is expected to be healthy in time for OTAs in April.
Bradley said Brewster has worked hard in rehab alongside left tackle Luke Joeckel, who missed 11 games after suffering a fractured right ankle, and appears to have gotten bigger and stronger.
"I think that he’s in the mindset that he has the opportunity right in front of him and he’s really going to take advantage of this opportunity," Bradley said. "We’ll see. He looks the part, coming off of his injury very well, but it’s going to be competitive. We have confidence in him to play that position. We’ve talked in our offensive staff meetings and our overall staff meetings specifically about that one position, and his name keeps coming up."
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Brewster, however, has yet to play a snap at center in his first two seasons. He has played in 26 games with 10 starts since making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012, but all have been at left or right guard.
In fact, only one of the Jaguars’ other current options at center has taken a snap. McClendon snapped once against Tennessee when Meester moved to tight end so he could catch a pass in his Jaguars finale. McClendon, a fourth-round pick by Indianapolis in 2010, has played in just nine games, five of which came with the Jaguars last season.
The Jaguars signed Lewis from Cleveland’s practice squad on Dec. 17. He has yet to play in an NFL game.
There are still 13 free-agent centers available -- led by Kyle Cook, Brian de la Puente, Mike Gibson and Rich Ohrnberger -- so the Jaguars might still add one on a bargain contract before the draft. Even if they do, however, they’ll still likely draft one in May. Starting a rookie center is not ideal because of the responsibilities of making line calls and adjustments, but signing veteran guard Zane Beadles and re-signing quarterback Chad Henne makes it more palatable, Bradley said.
"The center spot is always dangerous," Bradley said. "If you start with a rookie center and a rookie quarterback, I think that makes it difficult. But if you have a veteran quarterback and it happens to be a rookie center, you’ll still go through some growing pains, but it’s not to the extreme of both being rookies."
It’s Brewster’s job for now, but the Jaguars are obviously keeping their options open.