Gus Bradley wasn’t looking for a honeymoon period during his first season as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Good thing, because what he got was far from one.
It’s a safe bet the Jaguars will not score a total of 11 points in their first three home games or finish October with an 0-8 record like they did in 2013. That may well have represented the low point in a franchise that marks its 20th anniversary this season. And while Bradley may have won over his players and a good chunk of the fan base with his outgoing and personable demeanor, he’s probably a long way from looking back on that horrific start with something resembling laughter.
There’s still a large element of the unknown going into the Jaguars’ second year under Bradley. There still might be a free agent or two plucked off the waiver wire at the end of the preseason who turns out to be a valuable contributor. Face it: No one was talking about defensive back Will Blackmon, linebacker J.T. Thomas or tight end Clay Harbor at this time a year ago.
Those three haven’t exactly become household names. Then again, who on the roster qualifies as such? The Jaguars aren’t about getting big names or getting on Hard Knocks but instead building a solid foundation for years to come.
Here’s a look at how the Jaguars shape up beginning Friday:
QB Blake Bortles (first round, UCF) will be the center of attention for many spectators watching practices in person. But how much quality time he’ll spend under or behind center could be a disappointment to fans wanting to see the star of the Knights’ Fiesta Bowl-winning team run the offense as soon as possible. He has a lot to learn about the NFL and a lot to correct in his fundamentals, which means Chad Henne will take the bulk of the snaps with the first unit.
WR Marqise Lee (second, Southern California) possesses the ability to break free of defenders once he catches the ball, a trait that has been largely missing among the Jaguars’ receivers. Knee problems during his junior year led to him falling out of the first round, and an ankle injury sidelined him for almost all of the organized team activities. If he stays healthy, he could be an instant difference-maker.
WR Allen Robinson (second, Penn State) doesn’t have Lee’s speed. But at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds with a vertical jump measured at 42 inches, his size and leaping ability set him apart. With Justin Blackmon still under suspension by the league and Ace Sanders now joining him for the first four regular-season games, both Lee and Robinson could get a lot of work in a hurry.
G Brandon Linder (third, Miami) could push both Mike Brewster at center or Jacques McClendon at right guard for a starting job. His ability to play several positions on the offensive line made him worth trading up for in the draft to the Jaguars — especially to offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, a former assistant coach with the Hurricanes.
CB Aaron Colvin (fourth, Oklahoma) will start camp on the non-football injury list, a carryover from the torn ACL he suffered in January leading up to the Senior Bowl. Once he is fully recovered, the hope is he’ll blossom into their version of Richard Sherman. He was a strong safety as a sophomore but played corner the past two years and had five interceptions.
LB Telvin Smith (fifth, Florida State) played some at all three linebacker spots a year ago on the Seminoles’ national championship team. His range and versatility should make him a threat to another former FSU player starting at one of the outside positions, seventh-year veteran Geno Hayes.
DE Chris Smith (fifth, Arkansas) recorded 8.5 sacks as a senior. He would seem to be an ideal fit for a team which got to opposing quarterbacks only 31 times last season, except that the Jaguars signed a veteran pass-rusher in free agency and appear happy with the progress of Andre Branch.
C Luke Bowanko (sixth, Virginia) was a college teammate of Jaguars starting right tackle Austin Pasztor. He didn’t play much football until high school. Like Linder, Bowanko played both center and guard in college.
RB Storm Johnson (seventh, UCF) averaged almost 17 carries a game last season as Bortles’ teammate. The coaching staff will be looking to see how adept he is at picking up blitzers and catching passes out of the backfield.
KEY FREE-AGENT SIGNEES
RB Toby Gerhart (Minnesota Vikings) was a featured back only a handful of times while stuck behind Adrian Peterson. In the Jaguars’ eyes, that means the 231-pound former Stanford star has barely scratched the surface of what he can accomplish. ”I know it’s going to be different after that first game, after hopefully 15, 20 carries and waking up and being super sore again, which hasn’t happened in four years,” he said during their voluntary conditioning program in April. ”But I’m excited about that.”
WR Tandon Doss (Baltimore Ravens) could benefit the most of anyone by the absence of Sanders because he also doubles as a receiver and punt returner. He averaged 15.6 yards on 23 returns last year, including an 82-yard touchdown against the Houston Texans, but has never caught more than 19 passes in any season.
G Zane Beadles (Denver Broncos) figures to solidify an offensive line that is almost entirely new from when Bradley took over. He’ll be on the left side, which will be anchored by Luke Joeckel, the Jaguars’ top pick from a year ago whose rookie season was cut short by a fractured right ankle.
DEs Red Bryant and Chris Clemons (Seattle Seahawks) were added for reasons beyond their championship experience and their familiarity with Bradley. Bryant should improve a defense that ranked 29th against the run, while Clemons appears to have recovered from the knee injury he suffered during the 2012 playoffs and should be a force in third-and-long situations.
DT Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh Steelers) is a former first-round draft pick who has played in a Super Bowl and has managed to steer clear of major injuries. A rotation of Hood, Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks in the middle of the defensive line looks formidable on paper.
LB Dekoda Watson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) was placed Tuesday on the active/physically unable to perform (PUP) list because of a groin injury he suffered in one of his first workouts after coming to the Jaguars. They still envision him contributing on defense as well as special teams.
RB Maurice Jones-Drew (Oakland Raiders), QB Blaine Gabbert (San Francisco 49ers), C Brad Meester (retired), DE Jason Babin (New York Jets), LB Russell Allen (retired), G Uche Nwaneri (Dallas Cowboys), G Will Rackley (Baltimore Ravens), RB Justin Forsett (unsigned), WR Jeremy Ebert (unsigned), WR Stephen Burton (unsigned), TE Danny Noble (unsigned).
Is an injury the only way Henne can lose his starting job?
That certainly appears to be the case. And for all of his shortcomings, both real and perceived, Henne has proven to be remarkably durable in his three years since coming over from the Miami Dolphins. He turned 29 earlier this month, so it’s not as if he’s someone way past his prime who the Jaguars are trying to coax one last good year out of while they slowly bring along Bortles. Yes, there have been success stories of late elsewhere with Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan and Robert Griffin III getting to start right away. But those have been exceptions, not the rule.
What will the post-Jones-Drew running game look like?
Between 2009 and 2011, Jones-Drew had more than 300 carries in two seasons and 299 carries in another. Those days are virtually gone. Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch were the only backs in the league with 300 or more rushing attempts in 2013. So the Jaguars, like the overwhelming majority of teams, will rely on more than one guy. Jordan Todman is more than a serviceable backup to Gerhart, and both Johnson and Denard Robinson should figure into the equation. The key is getting the rushing game to average more than a paltry 3.3 yards per attempt.
Does strength in numbers mean a stronger defensive line?
Opposing teams ran the ball a league-high 507 times against the Jaguars last season. Even quality players like Marks and middle linebacker Paul Posluszny will wear down after such a repeated pounding. The signings of Bryant, Clemons and Hood, along with the drafting of Smith, caused Babin to be deemed expendable and have made 2010 first-round pick Tyson Alualu almost an afterthought. If their offense can increase its frequency of time-consuming drives, the Jaguars should be rested and ready up front on defense.
How young of a secondary will they have … again?
As the year went on, the Jaguars seemed to get worse rather than better at preventing yards after the catch. Having rookies Johnathan Cyprien, Dwayne Gratz and Josh Evans in the starting lineup were part of the reason for that, although Gratz missed six games because of ankle injuries. Inexperience could become less of a factor if one of the defensive backs asserts himself as a leader. Several observers tend to believe Cyprien could become that man.
If Houston, Washington and Atlanta all finished 4-12 or worse last season but are being mentioned as possible playoff contenders, why aren’t the Jaguars?
Those three teams have a recent postseason pedigree. The Jaguars haven’t reached the playoffs since 2007, when Jones-Drew was still considered a backup to Fred Taylor and David Garrard was a model of passing efficiency. While there’s no denying they appear headed in the right direction, they have miles to go before they can realistically dream of meaningful games in December and beyond.