Quarterback controversies might fill up message boards and light up the switchboards at sports-talk radio stations, but they don’t define a preseason. At least they don’t in the case of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For one thing, the announcement a week ago this past Monday by coach Gus Bradley that Blaine Gabbert will open the regular season as the starter rather than Chad Henne is going to be rendered meaningless if Gabbert still can’t grip a football by this time next week. For another, one position alone won’t determine how many more victories the Jaguars can muster than the meager two they finished with in 2012.
So here are the top non-quarterback observations from a preseason that concluded Thursday night with a 20-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. And since even the most optimistic projections have the Jaguars winning no more than six games in Bradley’s first season, let’s go with six things to take away:
1. Lo and behold, there’s something close to a consistent pass rush. No, the Jaguars aren’t going to double the NFL-low 20 sacks they recorded a year ago. And 32-year-old Jason Babin isn’t going to have a turn-back-the-clock season. But the additions of tackles Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks are already paying off, while Jerome Mincey appears rejuvenated.
There may not be any one individual who is a threat to rank among the AFC leaders in sacks, but a strength-in-numbers approach is looking more like a smart way to go.
An increase in pressure up front should ease some of the burden placed on a secondary that will start two rookies in cornerback Dwayne Gratz and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien. The Jaguars will often use five defensive backs, with second-year pro Mike Harris as the nickel.
2. Cornerback Allen Ball and outside linebacker Geno Hayes have been solid additions to the defense through free agency. Maurice Jones-Drew went so far as to call Ball, who was mostly a special teams player and backup last season with Houston, the MVP of training camp.
Hayes wasn’t a good fit last season with Chicago but has benefitted from a reunion with Bradley, who worked with him in 2008 as linebackers coach with Tampa Bay.
Ball, Hayes, Miller and Marks are the Jaguars’ free agent success stories. On the flip side, running back Justin Forsett has yet to play a down because of a toe injury while wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was released after two games.
3. Justin Blackmon seems destined to flip-flop between infuriating fans, coaches and teammates one moment and exciting them the next.
Already facing a four-game suspension at the start of the regular season for a substance abuse violation, Blackmon opened the preseason by getting in an argument on the sideline with Babin after the second-year wide receiver talked trash to a member of the Miami Dolphins. And while he looked terrific on the Jaguars’ opening drive last week against Philadelphia, he dropped a pass when he was wide open later on.
If Bradley’s boundless energy and enthusiasm are going to be tested, it’s by last year’s first-round pick.
4. Good health in the past doesn’t not always guarantee such good fortune in the future. The durability in college of Luke Joeckel and Cyprien were cited by Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell as a large reason why they were drafted in the first two rounds.
But Joeckel missed almost two weeks of training camp with a hip flexor injury, while Cyprien opened camp on the physically unable to perform list. And outside linebacker Russell Allen, who had never missed a game at any level, was sidelined for a while because of an injured ankle.
That being said, at least the Jaguars have avoided any losses of key personnel for extended periods of time.
5. Joeckel and Eugene Monroe should form a potent tackle combination. Beyond them, however, the offensive line remains a concern, especially its lack of depth. Left guard Will Rackley could return to practice next week after an ankle injury against the Eagles forced Mike Brewster to take his place.
Bradley and Caldwell have done plenty of scouring of the waiver wire in recent weeks, and that should continue to be the case in the days ahead. By the opening game Sept. 8, there are bound to be more players on the roster who weren’t here a year ago than those who returned from Mike Mularkey’s only year in charge.
6. Although they won’t be starters, here are several Jaguars who came out of virtually nowhere to make an impact: running back Jordan Todman, wide receiver Mike Brown, tight ends Allen Reisner and Brett Brackett, defensive ends Ryan Davis and Pannel Egboh, linebacker LeRoy Reynolds, defensive back/special team member Antwon Blake and long snapper Carson Tinker.
With the decision to keep Tinker and waive Jeremy Cain, the Jaguars now have only four players older than 30.