By Phillip Heilman, GateHouse Media Services
JACKSONVILLE — As the first round of Thursday’s NFL Draft ticked down, Brandy Bryan began to wonder if his son, Taven, would have to wait another day to hear his name called.
Several teams that previously expressed interest in the younger Bryan opted for other players. Of those holding picks late in the round, few seemed to be a great fit.
“I didn’t even think about the Jaguars,” Bryan said Friday afternoon following his son’s introductory news conference at TIAA Bank Field. “I thought, ‘They are so stacked. They aren’t going to take another defensive player.’”
In a move that surprised the Bryan family but again showed the team’s preference to build through the trenches, the Jaguars did choose Bryan with the 29th pick, adding a versatile defensive lineman who is expected to begin his career as the back-up three technique to Malik Jackson.
The 6-foot-5, 291-pound Florida product known as the “Wyoming Wildman” for his prowess in the weight room and preference for country life will wear No. 90 for the Jaguars.
“It’s just a great opportunity,” said the 22-year-old Bryan, who grew up in Casper, Wyo. “Those guys (on the Jaguars’ defensive line) are Pro Bowlers and there’s a mix of old and young guys. They’re definitely good at what they do, seeing the past year. I’ll just definitely come in and try to learn everything I can from them and try to pick their brains as much as I can and do as much as I can to help the team out.”
Few projected the Jaguars to use their first pick to upgrade a unit that finished second to Minnesota in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and second to Pittsburgh in team sacks (55) last season. Tight end and offensive line seemed like more pressing needs. But with one eye focused on the future, the Jaguars had no problem betting that Bryan’s production will eventually match his potential.
Bryan, who the Jaguars did have in for a pre-draft visit, posted 10 1/2 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks across three seasons (he received a redshirt in 2014) with the Gators, totals that don’t necessarily indicate a first-round talent. Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell wasn’t concerned. He called Bryan a “disruptive force” and said he was the top remaining player on the Jaguars’ board when it was their time to pick.
“With any first-round pick, you would like that pick to be around for a long period of time,” Caldwell said. “It’s not just this year, but we hope that he can help us [in 2018]. He’s very versatile, so he can play multiple positions for us. You’ve seen how Philadelphia played defense in the Super Bowl and throughout the year and how we did last year. We want to keep the rotation going and keep our guys fresh.”
And what a room it has become.
The Jaguars can unleash Jackson, nose tackles Marcell Dareus and Abry Jones and defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue at opposing quarterbacks. Behind them, Dante Fowler, Dawuane Smoot and now Bryan will provide defensive coordinator Todd Wash with the ability to limit his guys’ snap counts while continuing to supply relentless pressure.
Bryan should have the ability to learn as part of that rotation. Caldwell said 20-30 plays per game initially was a reasonable expectation for Bryan.
But giving Bryan a playful arm around the shoulder Friday, coach Doug Marrone reminded him there needs to be a sense of urgency no matter what his role is as a rookie.
“Make no mistake about it: We brought him in here to be productive and help us win,” Marrone said. “We didn’t say, ‘Listen, just relax and we’ll bring you along.’ No, we brought him in here to keep working the way he’s been working and get out there and play football and have a positive impact.”
Of Bryan’s impact on the field, Marrone said: “Taven has an outstanding get-off, and the other thing is that he doesn’t remain blocked long. That is the one thing you look for in a defensive lineman. You can see him escape. You can see him make a play.”
As a plane brought the family from the NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to Jacksonville, the Jaguars had Bryan’s name displayed on the massive video boards above the field as an early welcome.
Only hours before, Brandy Bryan hardly considered the Jaguars as a possible destination. Suddenly, it seemed like the perfect fit.
“That was just amazing,” he said. “The pilot said, ‘Hey, we’ve got the stadium over here.’ They didn’t even tell us. As the pilot kind of rolls around the stadium and you see his name, it was amazing, amazing. I couldn’t be happier where my son landed. He didn’t care. He just wanted to play football. But for me I wanted a fit, and the fit is incredible.”
Phillip Heilman is a sports writer for the Florida Times-Union. He can be reached at (904) 359-4063