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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The Jacksonville Jaguars have a new featured back — and a guy to help pave the way for him.
The Jaguars selected Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon with the 36th overall pick in the NFL draft Friday, getting an every-down player they believe will bolster one of the league's least-productive offenses.
They added South Carolina guard A.J. Cann in the third round. The 6-foot-4, 311-pound Cann started 51 games in four seasons with the Gamecocks and could supplant veteran Zane Beadles at left guard.
Both selections were somewhat expected considering general manager Dave Caldwell made it clear he wanted to upgrade the offense around franchise quarterback Blake Bortles. The Jaguars were near the bottom of the league in rushing last season and gave up a franchise-record 71 sacks.
"It's a sign that we need to always keep in mind that we've got to protect the quarterback and be able to run the ball," Caldwell said.
Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley lauded Cann's size and experience, and raved about Yeldon's versatility, durability and scoring ability.
The 6-foot-1, 226-pound Yeldon ran for 3,322 yards and 37 touchdowns in three seasons at Alabama.
"His size, his foot quickness, his instincts, his run vision, his three-down ability, ability to catch the ball, he's got excellent hands, he's got the size to be a very good pass protector," Caldwell said when asked what he liked about Yeldon. "Other than that, I think the way he runs. He's got the ability to break long ones. He's a patient runner and he gets the most out of what's there."
The biggest knock on Yeldon was ball security — he had 10 fumbles in college — but the Alabama native had just two last year.
"I feel like I've got excellent vision," Yeldon said. "I feel like I can see things before they're about to happen, like seeing a guy down the field or read my blocks and set my blocks up when I'm running the ball. And I can catch the ball out of the backfield excellent and I can pick up blocks pretty well, the same things that I did at Alabama."
Caldwell failed to sign receiver Randall Cobb and running back DeMarco Murray in free agency — he drafted defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. with the third pick Thursday — so it was no secret that he was looking for offensive playmakers in the second and third rounds.
Yeldon certainly fits the bill.
"He can put his foot in the ground and burst and accelerate," running backs coach Kelly Skipper said. "He comes from a pro-style offense so he utilized a lot of the run-schemes that we use. You can see the patience. He knows blocking schemes, he can read them. But the biggest thing is, if there's nothing there, he can create on his own. He can make guys miss and he can make plays."
Yeldon is Jacksonville's highest-drafted running back since taking Fred Taylor with the ninth pick in 1998. The last time the Jaguars drafted a running back in the second round was in 2006, and Maurice Jones-Drew turned out to be one of the best players in franchise history.
Yeldon is the latest Alabama running back to step into a starting role in the NFL, following Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. He became the third running back drafted this year, behind Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.
"We had three guys up there that we felt like could be really good backs for us," Caldwell said. "The first two went in the first round. He was the third, and after that we felt like there was a little bit of a drop-off. We felt to get one of those top three guys that we had would be a win for us."
Although Yeldon is expected to be the primary ball carrier, he will have to compete with Toby Gerhart, Denard Robinson, Storm Johnson and Bernard Pierce for carries. Caldwell said all five could make the roster since the team has phased out a fullback for the first time in franchise history.
With no fullback, even more pressure will be on the O-line, which Caldwell had to upgrade after last season's debacle.
He signed right tackle Jermey Parnell to a five-year, $32 million contract and added veteran center Stefen Wisniewski in free agency last month. Cann should help, too.
"You can never have enough offensive linemen," Caldwell said.
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