While Tony Brackens' medical status remains uncertain and the team just signed pricey free agent Hugh Douglas to play his position, the Jaguars say they're willing to wait until training camp in July to evaluate their career sack leader instead of releasing him after June 1 to secure a $5.5 million cap savings.
"Nothing has changed with Tony," said head coach Jack Del Rio. "I think he's a fine football player and I know he's eager to get started. We're eager for him to be healthy and be with us."
The future of Brackens, who had microfracture surgery on his ailing left knee in December, is in question because few players have fully returned to their previous form after the microfracture procedure. He also has the Jaguars' second-highest cap figure this season of $8.26 million.
Brackens, 28, won't take part in any drills until training camp and the Jaguars signing Douglas to a five-year, $27 million contract last month would appear to signal that Brackens' days in Jacksonville are numbered. But Del Rio says he remains open to the possibility of having two premiere pass-rushers on the field at the same time, which likely means Brackens would have to move from the right side to the left.
"That's a consideration," said Del Rio. "There a lot of different ways that we can get two talented players on the field. That's certainly one way."
But given the Jaguars' tight financial situation, being about $500,000 under the salary cap, it's hard to imagine Brackens remaining a Jaguar without a contract restructure to lower his base salary of $5.5 million. The Jaguars can ill afford to have a player with that high dollar amount who is still a medical question mark.
When asked if Brackens could stay without redoing his contract, Del Rio replied: "That's really secondary to Tony being healthy. We can't do anything until we have a healthy football player. All of that will work itself out between now and training camp."
Del Rio's non-committal stance is understandable because the Jaguars have nearly the rest of the summer to make a decision on Brackens. They can still save $5.5 million on their cap whether they release him in early June or late August. By allowing Brackens to go through training camp, they'll have a better idea about his ability to play at an acceptable level.
But there's little doubt that the Jaguars' commitment to Douglas, which included a $6 million signing bonus, was a clear signal that Brackens may be gone. The Jaguars foolishly gave Brackens, who has made just one Pro Bowl, a team-record $13 million signing bonus before the 2000 season. That was one of many questionable decisions that led to their salary cap problems.
One of the reasons the Jaguars may consider keeping Brackens, even if his production diminishes, is that releasing him also has a costly down side. The team would have to absorb a $2.7 million amortization hit this year and $7 million more in "dead money" in 2004 before he comes off their books completely.
Douglas, who has played eight NFL seasons exclusively at right defensive end, seems open to the idea of having him and Brackens on the field together.
"It'd be a big adjustment for me [to move to left end]," said Douglas. "Maybe we can move around a bit. I know when I first got here, they talked about it being an aggressive defense that moved around a lot. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. It's still early."
Marco Coleman, last year's starter at left defensive end, says he has no problem with keeping Brackens, even if it means sharing time or being a backup.
"(Brackens) is a talent that can help the team in an enormous way," said Coleman. "I'm all for doing whatever it's going to take for us to win and have the best players on the field. However it goes down, that's up to the coaches."
In the last two years, Brackens has been as injury-prone as anyone on the roster. He missed the first four games in 2001 with a sprained MCL in his right knee. After having offseason surgery on his left knee before the 2002 season, he had recurring problems and went on injured reserve on Oct. 14, missing the last 11 games.
When Brackens was healthy, he was the most disruptive force the Jaguars' defense ever had. He possessed the athleticism and quickness to make life miserable for quarterbacks and anyone trying to block him. But it may be a stretch now to think he can return to his 1999 Pro Bowl form when he had a career-high 12 sacks.
The Jaguars still haven't recouped the investment they made in Brackens three years ago. The time is drawing near for them to consider cutting their losses.
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