Husky Hard Knocks: Dwayne Gratz

Here is the final part of our series that highlights the seven former Huskies entering their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ve evaluated a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we finish with Dwayne Gratz, who was the first UConn player selected in this year’s draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars at 64th overall.

Ten years ago, the script read exactly the same.

Act I: The Jaguars conclude a disappointing season.

Act II: The Jaguars let go of their head coach and general manager before searching for replacements.

Act III: The Jaguars fill those vacancies and use the word “rebuild” more than you’ll hear in a Great Depression documentary.

In one of the final scenes of Act III from this 2002-2003 off-season production, Jacksonville also selected a young cornerback in the early rounds of the NFL draft. The athletic cover man caught the eye of the new coaching staff with his physical skills and potential scheme-fit. He went on to start from day one and have a highly successful ten-year career.

Fast-forward, and that corner, former all-pro Rashean Mathis, is gone; much like many of the players from that one-time show in Jacksonville.

At present day, the Jags have washed their hands of last year’s headmen that led them to a 2-14 campaign and hired first-time coach Gus Bradley and rookie general manager Dave Caldwell. Caldwell stripped the roster down to the bone and since replenished it partially with a youthful corner from the third round of this year’s draft. The defensive back possesses excellent physical attributes and seems to be molded for the team’s new style of defense.

His name is Dwayne Gratz.

Now, Gratz and Rashean Mathis have likely never met. But, should the UConn product prove to be anything like Mathis was, a veteran with 30 career interceptions and a Pro Bowl designation, Jacksonville is in for a treat. Or perhaps, as fans hope for most, an entirely new kind of show in town.

A 38-game starter at UConn, Gratz is above all else a consistent, physical corner. Thus, he fits very well with the new pass defense that Bradley is installing— frequent, press man coverage to disrupt and follow receivers all over the field. At 5’ 11” and 201 lbs., Gratz has the size necessary to compete against larger pass catchers and stick with smaller, shifty receivers in this type of coverage.

The New Jersey native also boasts great strength for a corner, which he uses well to jam opponents off the line. Immediately following a receiver’s release, Gratz is very quick to jump short throws or shed receiver blocks in the run game— which he is extremely good at helping to defend. At times, this aggressiveness can be used against him, whether on double moves or pump fakes.

Gratz is not a burner, but he has very capable speed as shown by his 4.47 40-yard dash time. The All-Big east second teamer is almost always very sound in his assignments, which included blitzing off the edge quite often in his senior season. Finally, Gratz garnered 30 passes defensed and eight picks over his career in a Husky uniform. These kinds of ball skills are what led to a self-made declaration of being a “shutdown corner”.

While second-year Jacksonville owner Shad Khan may not exactly agree, he does admit it was Gratz’s performance when targeted by opposing quarterbacks that attracted him to his future third-round pick. Khan spoke to Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus nearly two months ago, discussing how Gratz rated highly in the Jaguars’ statistical-based approach.

“A lot of the metrics we used were applied based on the projections of who would be drafted. For example, for defensive backs, I had used a metric I called Passes Touched per Target, which was just (Passes Intercepted + Passes Defensed)/Passes Thrown at That DB. Dwayne Gratz fared well here among the pool of “draft worthy” players, particularly among the group of press cover corners with long arms we were targeting we were all very pleased when Gratz was available at that point.”

Last year, the Jaguars reeled in just a dozen interceptions as opponents completed 63.7 percent of their passes.

This lack of production and interference was part of the reason Caldwell jettisoned the team’s top three corners from 2012, Mathis, Derek Cox and Aaron Ross. Since Jacksonville mostly opted to keep its hands in its pockets during free agency, Gratz has every chance to start on the outside. His skills are best suited to play along the perimeter, where he lined up with the first-team defense in both mini and training camp.

Alongside Gratz for that time was journeyman Alan Ball, who signed a new deal this off-season after suiting up for the Houston Texans a year ago. Ball played just 57 defensive snaps for the reigning champions of the AFC South, where he stood out on special teams. Ball is tall, long and fast, but has struggled since starting all 16 games for the Cowboys in 2010.

The only other true veteran mixed in with this year’s group of cornerbacks is former Seahawk Marcus Trufant. Trufant lined up as the nickelback for Seattle last season, after giving way to stellar press-corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. The eleven-year cover man has considerable experience playing in Bradley’s system and is likely to be relegated to nickelback again if Gratz and Ball hold steady.

Otherwise, the third corner spot should be handed to Mike Harris, the Jaguars’ sixth round pick from 2012. Over his rookie season, Harris had the opportunity to play inside and out, which he did with mixed results.

Meanwhile, seventh-round picks Jeremy Harris and Demetrius McCray are the favorites to round out the depth chart. Harris only played one full season of college football at New Mexico State, which came under his current position coach Dewayne Walker, who used to lead the program at NMS. Harris stands at 6’ 2”, 181 lbs. and the coaches are very excited about his development.

McCray hails from Appalachian State and faces the most heat from the group’s undrafted competitors looking to make the team. Marcus Burley signed this April out of Delaware and Kevin Rutland continues to surprise after making the team as an UDFA in 2011.

The Jaguars kicked off their training camp two days ago at the Florida Blue Health & Wellness Practice Fields in Jacksonville. They open the pre-season at home against Miami on August 9th at 7:30 p.m.

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