Jaguars 5-year draft review: Progress made in last two classes

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was picked No. 3 overall from UCF during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

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No NFL team had more rookies who started more games last season than the Jacksonville Jaguars.

With the exception of defensive end Chris Smith, who was the second of their two fifth-round picks, everyone who general manager Dave Caldwell gave his approval to take last May cracked the starting lineup at some point. While most of the attention was understandably on quarterback Blake Bortles, who took every snap over the final 13 games, two other selections made more starts than him — center Luke Bowanko (14) and guard Brandon Linder (15).

Wide receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson combined for 85 catches. Both linebacker Telvin Smith and running back Storm Johnson played significant roles in the victory over the Cleveland Browns, while defensive back Aaron Colvin helped trigger a rally against the New York Giants by returning a fumble for a touchdown.

Despite all those positives, the Jaguars will pick third in the first round for the second year in a row later this week. Relying so much on first-year and second-year pros comes with a high price, but after a run of drafts under previous coaches and general managers which were largely disastrous, Caldwell was willing to set his sights on the potential long-term benefit of going young.

The only offensive player from the 2012 draft hasn’t played since halfway through his second season because of a series of off-the-field problems. The departure of wide receiver Cecil Shorts III to the Houston Texans in free agency last month means the Jaguars have no one remaining from their 2011 draft.

And the time could be drawing near when some of the selections of the past two years, particularly in the defensive backfield, will have to be judged with a far less forgiving eye.

Here’s a glance back at the Jaguars’ drafts throughout the past five years:

FIRST-ROUND GRADES

Gallery: QBs drafted top 10 (1995-2014)

2014: QB Blake Bortles, third overall (C-) — All the intentions the Jaguars had of having their quarterback of the future watch and learn from Chad Henne lasted fewer than three regular-season games last September. Bortles admitted a week ago that not only were his throwing mechanics in need of repair by the end of the year, but his conditioning was a wreck as well. Despite his strength and mobility, Bortles was sacked 55 times, the most of any Jaguars quarterback since Mark Brunell’s 57 in 2001.

2013: T Luke Joeckel, second overall (D) — His rookie season ended in Week 5 with a fractured right ankle, making last year feel like his first season in many respects. While blaming Joeckel for all the pass-protection problems of a line which gave up the most sacks in the league would be unfair, there’s no doubt he ended the season in less than impressive fashion against the Giants, the Baltimore Ravens and the Texans.

2012: WR Justin Blackmon, fifth overall (D) — Unlike first-round busts they’ve had at the position (R. Jay Soward, Reggie Williams, Matt Jones), Blackmon has been productive, catching 64 passes as a rookie and 29 more in four games the following year. But his repeated violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy have left the Jaguars little choice other than to proceed without him in mind. "If he emerges, he emerges," Caldwell said last week.

2011: QB Blake Gabbert, 10th overall (F) –– It’s bad enough to look back and realize the Jaguars could have taken J.J. Watt instead of a quarterback who wound up having a 5-22 record in three years as a starter with 22 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. After five years of largely going with David Garrard, the time had come to find someone else who could run the offense. Without a pick that year in the second round, the Jaguars couldn’t afford to wait until later to select Colin Kaepernick, who Gabbert now backs up for the San Francisco 49ers.

2010: DE Tyson Alualu, 10th overall (D+) — Solid but unspectacular, he has turned into a role player on the defensive line after starting every game in his first four years. Should the Jaguars take USC’s Leonard Williams with their pick Thursday night, playing time could become even more of a scarce commodity for Alualu, who turns 28 next month. He was selected 18 spots ahead of Jared Odrick, who was signed by the Jaguars last month to a five-year contract worth $42.5 million.

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BUSTS

2013: WR Ace Sanders, fourth round, 101st overall — Somebody from Caldwell’s first draft class has to eventually become the first to go. That somebody could be Sanders, who went from hauling in 51 receptions as a rookie to only six a year ago. With the additions of Lee, Robinson and Allen Hurns in the past year, the Jaguars need Sanders to produce more as a punt returner than a receiver. But he has averaged a mere 6.4 yards per runback the past two seasons and risks losing that role to Bryan Walters or Tandon Doss.

2011: QB Blake Gabbert, first round, 10th overall — Erring on a first-round quarterback selection can set back a franchise for the better part of a decade. Garrard was the first player they took at that position since Byron Leftwich in 2003, and Gabbert threw for fewer than half as many yards during his time in Jacksonville as Leftwich.

2010: DT D’Anthony Smith, third round, 74th overall — The Jaguars went big on defensive linemen after finishing 23rd in total defense and 19th against the run in 2009. Smith was something less than a difference-maker and is now trying to catch on a second time with the Seattle Seahawks.

LATE-ROUND SUCCESS STORIES

2014: LB Telvin Smith, fifth round, 144th overall — A member of Florida State’s national championship team during his senior year, Smith wasn’t utilized much during the Jaguars’ 0-6 start but came on like gangbusters over the final 10 games. He finished second only to strong safety Johnathan Cyprien in tackles with 99, nine of which were for losses. Smith should be a fixture at an outside spot for years to come.

2013: CB Demetrius McCray, seventh round, 210th overall — A concussion suffered in Week 4 at San Diego by Dwayne Gratz, a third-round pick that same year, moved McCray into the starting lineup. He maintained a hold on that job the rest of the season, although the emergence of Colvin and the recent signing of Davon House means McCray will have to fight to remain a starter in a secondary which intercepted only three passes.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The difference is staggering in what the Jaguars have gotten in the draft under Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley compared to the three years before their arrivals. Here’s the breakdown for a group that contributed to a 7-25 record the past two years and a 22-58 mark since 2010 with no playoff appearances:

While the Jaguars have all seven of their own picks in the draft, it would be a surprise if Caldwell did not pull off a trade at some point to get the rights to a prospect like he did a year ago with Robinson in the second round and Linder in the third. The onus is now on Bradley and a staff of coaches with a background of developing players to turn more than a handful of these selections into Pro Bowl-caliber talent.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.