JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Jaguars are letting some of their most tenured starters test free agency.
The Jaguars still might re-sign veterans Derek Cox, Greg Jones, Terrance Knighton, Brad Meester and Daryl Smith. But general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley are allowing them to look elsewhere before possibly staying in Jacksonville.
"We're really trying to build the whole thing through the draft," Bradley said this week. "You need that veteran leadership, there's no doubt, and they're critical. You try to get a blend, but you want to err on the side of being young."
Caldwell and Bradley are reluctant to call this a rebuilding project. But after missing the playoffs five consecutive years and firing general manager Gene Smith and coach Mike Mularkey, it's clear the Jaguars are headed in a new direction.
And some familiar faces might not be around for the journey.
Jacksonville already told veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis he would not be re-signed when free agency begins Tuesday. Mathis, who grew up in Jacksonville, started 129 games over nine seasons and has a franchise-record 30 interceptions. But the 32-year-old cornerback struggled last season and doesn't fit Bradley's press-coverage scheme.
The Jaguars also released veteran right tackle Guy Whimper, who started 21 games the last two seasons.
Cox, Jones, Knighton, Meester and Smith also could end up looking for jobs elsewhere. Teams can start negotiating with pending free agents Saturday at midnight.
To be clear, the Jaguars would love to have Jones, Meester and Smith back for another year — maybe even longer.
Although the 31-year-old Jones missed four games last season because of a thigh injury, the fullback has emerged as one of the league's best blockers in recent years.
The 35-year-old Meester holds the club record for career starts (193), including 74 in a row. The team's longtime center has been one of the few bright spots on an average offensive line.
The 30-year-old Smith missed the first 14 games last season because of a groin injury, but played well enough in the final two games that he should garner significant interest in free agency. He has started 124 games over nine seasons and hold the team record for tackles with 1,096.
"Those guys have been so critical and an unbelievable part of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the last how many years," Bradley said. "Those are tough decisions. They've given so much, so it's important how we handle those decisions."
The Jaguars can be less delicate with Cox and Knighton.
Cox, a third-round draft pick in 2009, has been a starting cornerback since he walked through the door. But the former William & Mary standout has missed 17 games the last three seasons, showing little ability to play through pain.
Sitting out with groin, hamstring, back and rib injuries, Cox has the kind of history that could make teams — including Jacksonville — leery of giving him much guaranteed money on the open market.
Even though the Jaguars are looking to solidify the cornerback position, they declined to use the franchise tag on Cox, not wanting to pay him $10.8 million in 2013.
Knighton is in a similar situation. Also a third-round pick in 2009, Knighton lost his starting job last season after battling back from a career-threatening eye injury. Combined with an ongoing battle to keep his weight down, Knighton could be seen as a risky free-agent signing.
The Jaguars have made plenty of those in recent years, enough that they contributed to Smith's firing at the end of last season.
Between receiver Jerry Porter (2008), cornerback Drayton Florence (2008), safety Sean Considine (2009), offensive tackle Tra Thomas (2009), defensive end Aaron Kampman (2010), linebacker Clint Session (2011), cornerback Drew Coleman (2011), punter Matt Turk (2011), receiver Laurent Robinson (2012) and cornerback Aaron Ross (2012), the Jaguars have enough free-agent flops to make even diehard fans forget about the Hugh Douglas debacle in 2003.
With owner Shad Khan giving Caldwell and Bradley plenty of time to "jockey" the roster, there's no pressure to try to turn things around overnight and overpay in free agency — even if it means letting some key veterans walk.
"I wouldn't expect to be major players in free agency, no big signings, just because a lot of our emphasis is on the draft," Bradley said. "But we still want to provide some competition for our team."