With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it’s the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes … even February. Goodbye, offseason!
The series continues with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
2013: 4-12, third in AFC South
Head coach: Gus Bradley
Key departures: RB Maurice Jones-Drew, QB Blaine Gabbert, C Brad Meester, DE Jason Babin, LB Russell Allen
Key arrivals: Rookie QB Blake Bortles, RB Toby Gerhart, G Zane Beadles, DE Red Bryant, DE Chris Clemons, DT Ziggy Hood, LB Dekoda Watson
1. Are the Jaguars content to let Blake Bortles spend his rookie season watching and learning from Chad Henne?
Compared to what is going on in Cleveland with a quarterback drafted far later than Bortles was in the first round, the Jaguars’ approach toward the 22-year-old from nearby UCF is downright jarring. The team has never taken a quarterback with a pick this early. Even so, the coaching staff and front office believe someone who was only a starter for two years and didn’t regularly face the same level of competition Johnny Manziel did in the Southeastern Conference needs to be brought along patiently.
During organized team activities and minicamp, quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo worked on getting Bortles to change his footwork. This figures on being almost a year-long project. While Bortles is gifted with enormous physical skills and a stronger arm than Henne, his mechanics leave a lot to be desired.
Having finally jettisoned Blaine Gabbert to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick, the Jaguars are taking every precaution to make sure their latest quarterback chosen in the first round turns out better. The experiment looks smart on paper. But if they get off to another 0-4 start, much less another 0-8 start, will fans and management become restless to see Henne pulled in favor of Bortles? Henne didn’t even finish among the top 30 rated quarterbacks in 2013 and threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13).
2. The Jaguars have ranked no higher than 29th in a 32-team league the past three years in total offense. Is this the year they finally break out of that mold?
With such a vast overhaul on the offensive line and no established game-breaker at running back or wide receiver, it’s hard to picture the Jaguars busting out. Their top game a year ago came when they amassed 363 yards of total offense in Week 5 at St. Louis. There were 10 other teams which averaged more yards than that. And not once in their first 10 games did they rush for more than 96 yards.
Tackle Luke Joeckel is the only starter on the offensive line remaining from the group which opened last season. He was a rookie playing on the right side because left tackle Eugene Monroe had yet to be traded to the Baltimore Ravens. No sooner did Joeckel take over Monroe’s old spot than the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 fractured his right ankle and missed the remainder of the season.
The retirement of center Brad Meester after 14 seasons created a hole the Jaguars were hoping to fill with Alex Mack. But after the Cleveland Browns matched the five-year, $42 million offer sheet given him, the Jaguars might have to go with Mike Brewster, Jacques McClendon or rookie Luke Bowanko, the pick they acquired from the 49ers in the trade for Gabbert.
If the line can’t open holes or pass protect on a consistent basis, it doesn’t matter who the backs or receivers are.
3. With so many teams going from worst to first in their respective divisions, how have the Jaguars gone six years in a row without finishing above .500?
As bad as the Jaguars were for most of last year, they weren’t the worst team in the AFC South. That dishonor belonged to the Houston Texans, who some experts pegged as a Super Bowl contender.
But while the Texans can serve as a cautionary tale for how far a team can fall, the Jaguars have gone from a losing season to making the playoffs just once in the franchise’s 20-year history. That came in 1996, when a five-game winning streak to end the season enabled them to qualify as a wild card.
Since last making the playoffs in 2007, the Jaguars haven’t established much of an identity on either offense or defense. Although they ranked sixth in total defense in 2011, they stumbled to a 5-11 finish with Gabbert trying to run the offense as a rookie and with Jack Del Rio failing to last the year as their coach.
Considering Gus Bradley’s background on defense with the Seattle Seahawks and elsewhere, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Jaguars appear to be emphasizing that facet. In Sen’Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Ziggy Hood, they’ve added a wealth of veteran talent and depth along the front four in two years. If the transformation from doormat to contender is to begin, this looks like the best place to start.
Running back Toby Gerhart
By the end of last season, it became clear that Maurice Jones-Drew’s days of being the Jaguars’ featured back had come to an end. He still got the majority of touches at that position (234 carries, 43 receptions), but his average of 3.4 yards per rushing attempt was by far the lowest of his nine years in Jacksonville.
Gerhart had a total of 276 carries and only six starts in his four years with the Minnesota Vikings. At 231 pounds, he looks built to take the pounding that comes with the workload of a 16-game regular season. But aside from when he carried the ball 21 times and caught eight passes in a December 2011 game against Denver, he has never been called upon to the extent Jones-Drew was.
At 27, he should be entering the peak years of his career. And for all the problems the Jaguars had establishing a running game during the first half of the season, they made significant improvement in that area during November and December. Part of the reason for that was a return to health of 272-pound tight end Marcedes Lewis, whose lingering calf injury contributed to the lack of a flow on offense in September and October.
Gerhart and Jordan Todman figure to get most of the carries. Seventh-round pick Storm Johnson, Bortles’ teammate at UCF, could also get a long look in training camp and preseason.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
While more than a few eyebrows were raised when the Jaguars took Bortles instead of linebacker Khalil Mack or wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the overwhelming opinion around the country was that they drafted as wisely as any team. Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson ought to address their lack of size and speed at wide receiver, and cornerback Aaron Colvin should strengthen their secondary once he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered in January while playing for the Jaguars’ coaching staff at the Senior Bowl.
Joeckel, strong safety Johnathan Cyprien, cornerback Dwayne Gratz and wide receiver/punt returner Ace Sanders all contributed as rookies a year ago. Except for their flirtation with Mack and the five-year, $30 million contract they gave former Broncos guard Zane Beadles, the Jaguars are building through the draft instead of counting on high-priced free agents.
A defensive line that wore down last season because of a lack of quality depth appears to be better equipped at stopping the run. If the Jaguars can win the battle for time of possession more often behind their defense and the running of Gerhart, they’ll be less liable to be outplayed in the second half of games. This was a team that was outscored 203-111 over the last two quarters in 2013.
REASON FOR PANIC
The NFL schedule-makers didn’t cut the Jaguars any slack in the early going. In addition to games at Philadelphia, Washington and San Diego, they are home to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. A 2-3 start might be a best-case scenario; a 1-4 start is more realistic.
With the uncertainty that continues to loom over the future of Justin Blackmon, their first-round pick of two years ago, the Jaguars don’t have a wide receiver who can command extra attention by opposing secondaries. Cecil Shorts III is a solid pro, but he alone won’t make defenses less apt to load up on blitzes. Both Lee and Robinson were limited in their workout activities because of injuries, raising concerns about how long it might take before they and Henne get on the same page.
On defense, the Jaguars were near the bottom of the NFL last year in sacks (31) and interceptions (11). Gratz, Alan Ball and Will Blackmon gave no indications of becoming the sort of shutdown corner so essential in today’s game. But with the release of Jason Babin, who had a team-high 7.5 sacks, where will the pass rush come from to take some of the pressure off the defensive backs? Can Andre Branch be counted on for a full season, or will he again alternate between tantalizing and frustrating the coaching staff?
ALEX MARVEZ’S 2014 PREDICTION
The Jaguars aren’t a legitimate playoff contender just yet, but the groundwork is being laid for a strong push in 2015. A slew of veteran free-agent acquisitions, particularly along the defensive line, have upgraded the overall talent level of one of the league’s poorest rosters. The team also believes it now has a franchise quarterback in No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles. Current starter Chad Henne has an 18-32 career record. However, the Jaguars will be wary of making a mistake by playing Bortles prematurely as they did with now-departed 2011 first-round pick Blaine Gabbert. Prediction: 6-10.