JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- With first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. out for the season with a torn ACL and Chris Clemons on the non-football injury list for at least the next week or so, the Jacksonville Jaguars are pretty thin at their pass-rushing defensive end spot.
They’re giving linebacker Dan Skuta some reps there and Ryan Davis and Chris Smith are getting more reps than they normally would, but Andre Branch has to be the player who fills the void as the team’s top pass-rusher.
He seems to have done so through the early part of training camp.
"I think he’s progressed with every phase of the season," coach Gus Bradley said. "Whether it’s in-season, Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, OTAs, it seems like he’s had really good progress. I’m really excited to see what happens this year for him, because some of the issues we talked about last year -- when he bends, a little bit of stiffness and we hope he works it out -- you’re not seeing that now.
"Our hope is he puts that together, because he really has got a comfort level at that Leo spot right now."
Branch was the Jaguars’ second-round draft pick in 2012, but he has yet to prove he can be a reliable pass-rusher. He had just one sack in 13 games as a rookie, but had a respectable 6.0 in 16 games in 2013. He started out the 2014 with three sacks and two forced fumbles in the first three games, but didn’t record a sack in the next four.
He suffered a groin injury against Cleveland in Week 7 and missed seven of the final nine games.
He enters the 2015 season -- the final year of his rookie contract -- with just 10 sacks in 38 games.
"I just want to be better than yesterday," Branch said. "That’s my mindset. Keep working; just keep pushing. Never become complacent and just keep going forward."
That was the knock on Branch when Bradley, defensive line coach Todd Wash, and defensive coordinator Bob Babich arrived in 2013. They spent their first spring and season challenging Branch to be more consistent in everything that he did.
That’s no longer an issue.
"That’s what I pride myself on is never questioning my effort, because that doesn’t take any talent," Branch said. "There’s people that look up to me, so I can’t let them down."
Branch would have had a lot to prove this season anyway, because he’s entering a contract season, but the stakes were increased after the Jaguars lost Fowler on the first day of minicamp and Clemons reported to training camp a day late and was placed on the non-football injury list. On Thursday Bradley said it’s unlikely Clemons would play in the first preseason game on Aug. 14, and even if he were to return shortly after he would have missed at least three weeks and the Jaguars would slowly ease him back into the rotation.
That would mean Branch would still be the top option -- possibly even into the regular season. It could be his last in Jacksonville depending on how he performs.
"If I don’t get better, then I’m not going to get paid. Period," he said. "That’s why we’re all here practicing and working. If I’m here and thinking about that, then I don’t get better, then Jared Odrick doesn’t get better, then Ryan Davis doesn’t get better."