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Jaguars talk free agent signees, see value in adding RB competition with D'Ernest Johnson

The Jacksonville Jaguars haven't been incredibly active in free agency, which isn't a surprise as that was the message the franchise sent out through the media over the past few months since the season ended.

Thus far, Jacksonville has signed just three outside free agents and was not active at all — aside from re-signing their own guys — through the first week of the new league year.

That short list includes running back D'Ernest Johnson and defensive tackles Michael Dogbe and Henry Mondeaux

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Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke discussed the team's plan again with the Times-Union on Monday at the league meetings in Phoenix, explaining that they have never wavered from the original plan.

"We said this was the direction that we were headed. Obviously, you can't live in free agency forever," Baalke explained.

"There's a cost to doing business and free agency and we've got a very young group of players that are all going to be coming up shortly for contract extensions that we have to prepare for. So this is where we're at at this point in time with the organization."

D'Ernest Johnson brings plenty of value

This time next year, the Jaguars will have multiple players eligible to have their contracts extended, including WR Calvin Ridley, who is slated to be a free agent following the 2023 campaign.

Still, the team made some moves, particularly with signing Johnson, who looks to make the team's roster as one of the top rotational backs behind starting RB Travis Etienne.

"When you're looking, especially at running backs, [a] couple of things [come into play]: free agent value [and] how they play on special teams," Pederson said Monday at the league meetings in Arizona.

"He's a bigger guy, he had some really good games in Cleveland and he's a guy that's a veteran-type player who, again, gives us depth, gives us competition."

Cleveland Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30) is forced out of bounds by Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Austin Calitro (48) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)
Cleveland Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30) is forced out of bounds by Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Austin Calitro (48) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

Johnson, who played the last four years with the Browns, has come up big in the opportunities he was given while playing behind Nick Chubb. In 64 games (two starts) Johnson accounted for 738 yards on 141 attempts (5.2 yards per carry) with three scores. His best season came in 2021 when he was forced into action due to injuries the Browns suffered at the RB position.

Johnson rushed for 534 yards on 100 carries (5.3 YPC) with three scores. He caught 19 passes for 137 yards in 2021 as well.

Pederson mentioned Johnson as someone that can compete for playing times with second-year RB Snoop Conner, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft after the Jaguars traded up for his services. He appeared in eight games, totaling 12 carries for 42 yards and a TD.

"Good competition there as we go and just see where things fall out. But the special teams, for him, obviously, is something of importance as we look to these guys," Pederson said.

Johnson accounted for 733 total special teams snaps with the Browns and has experience with all three phases, including as a kick and punt returner. Primarily tasked with kickoffs when called to return, Johnson totaled 26 kick returns for 646 yards (24.8 yards per return). He totaled just five punt returns for 22 yards.

Dogbe, Mondeaux signing points Jaguars need for depth

The Jaguars made a couple of other under-the-radar signings during the second week of free agency by bringing in Dogbe and Mondeaux. Neither player has yet to establish themselves as forces within the league, but fit what Jacksonville is attempting to do with the defensive line — reload on depth.

Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Michael Dogbe (91) during training camp at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Aug. 17, 2022.
Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Michael Dogbe (91) during training camp at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Aug. 17, 2022.

As of now and since the season ended a few months ago, teams now have 90-man rosters. The team entered free agency with just six defensive linemen. Now they have eight on the roster and typically carry around 11 or 12 into training camp.

The Jaguars have lost one defensive lineman in Arden Key (Tennessee Titans) and are not likely to retain free agent DL Corey Peters. Another DL, Dawuane Smoot, remains on the open market, but the team is hopeful to re-sign him.

"Right now we're trying to build the most competitive 90-man roster that we can. That's the goal. How those guys fit into that remains to be seen," said Baalke. "We're just bringing in guys that we feel will be competitive, and give us an opportunity to, at the end of the day, build the strongest 53-man unit we can build."

Dogbe has a history with Jaguars defensive line coach Brentston Buckner while Buckner was with the Arizona Cardinals in the same role. Dogbe was drafted by the Cardinals in 2019, spending the past four years there and two years (2020-21) with Buckner.

The Jaguars will continue adding depth, too. With the NFL Draft approaching and free agency still underway, there will be opportunities to reload or retool the team's depth chart.

Demetrius Harvey is the Jacksonville Jaguars reporter for the Florida Times-Union. You can follow him on Twitter at @Demetrius82.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jaguars see special teams, depth value with Johnson, DL signings