Special teams a priority for Jaguars in free agency

Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell called Cody Davis "the top special-teams player in the league." Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Being among the best in the NFL in special teams has been a priority under head coach Doug Marrone. It’s one of the key parts of what he wants the Jacksonville Jaguars’ identity to be: a tough team up front that’s built around the run game, plays good defense and has consistency on special teams.

That’s why he hired Joe DeCamillis, who is one of the league’s top special-teams coordinators, and it’s why general manager Dave Caldwell has made adding players who specialize in special teams a priority during free agency the past two offseasons.

Last week the Jaguars signed or re-signed nine players in free agency and four of them were done specifically for special teams: Cody Davis, Don Carey, Niles Paul and Lerentee McCray.

“We felt like we had a good core of guys last year,” Caldwell said. “James O’Shaughnessy, Blair Brown, Donald Payne -- those guys did a nice job for us but to add to those three guys and bring in a guy like Niles Paul, Cody Davis and Don Carey -- and then we’ve got the draft to bring in some more in that aspect, too.

“Not only for special-teams players, but those guys could be good solid backups for us, too.”

The Jaguars successfully converted three fake punts last season. Two were on runs by Corey Grant, who also ranked fifth in the NFL among players with at least 15 kickoff returns at 24.9 yards per return. Kicker Josh Lambo, who was signed on Oct. 17 to replace Jason Myers, made 19-of-20 field goal attempts, including a 34-yarder late in regulation and a 30-yarder in overtime to beat the Los Angeles Chargers in his third game with the team.

The Jaguars ranked 13th in kickoff coverage and 17th in punt coverage -- not great, but not terrible -- but also ranked 31st in net yards per punt. The Jaguars were tied for 24th in Rick Gosselin’s annual special-teams rankings, which he has compiled for the past 39 years.

The top team in his 2017 rankings was the Los Angeles Rams. Davis was a key member of the Rams’ units and that’s why Caldwell pursued Davis, whom he called the “top special-teams player in the league.” Paul was a special-teams captain in Washington and Carey has made an eight-year career primarily out of playing special teams.

“That’s pretty huge for him to say that,” said Davis, who also will compete to be the Jaguars’ third safety behind Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church. “That’s awesome. Now I’ve got to live up to that and build our special teams room around that. I think special teams is invaluable to a team. You see it comes down to points, less than seven points, almost every single game in the NFL, so that field position determined by special teams is a huge role in that.”

That’s why the Jaguars brought back McCray, who was one of three players signed last season for special teams. Audie Cole and Josh McNary didn’t make the team, but McCray did and finished second on the squad with nine special-teams tackles. Payne, an undrafted rookie whom the team claimed off waivers from Baltimore in early September, led the team with 11.

Adding Davis, Paul and Carey to complement McCray, Payne and Brown gives the Jaguars what they hope will be a core group of six players around which to build the special-teams units.

“That’s the foundation of the special-teams unit is to have those guys, those core players, who come in and younger guys can see how they’re true professionals and how they go about their schedules and their days and how they handle special teams,” said Paul, who also will compete for playing time at tight end. “You need older guys to show the young guys the way because being a young guy, if I had come in and didn’t have guys like Lorenzo Alexander there [in Washington], I would have never known that special teams is so important in the NFL.”