Ken Hornack lists his top 10 Jaguars players heading into the 2014 season as the franchise is starting to turn things around.
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By Ken Hornack
Having split their six divisional games last season, it's not inconceivable that the Jacksonville Jaguars could make as good of a run at trying to unseat the Indianapolis Colts atop the AFC South as anyone else.
By building through the draft and judicious signings of free agents, coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell are starting to turn around a franchise which had been mired in mediocrity. That's not to say that the 10 most important Jaguars heading into the season don't include players who predated the arrivals of Bradley and Caldwell.
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Josh Scobee, K
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Considering that only the Buffalo Bills averaged more punts a game last season than the Jaguars, a decent case could be made for including Bryan Anger on this list. But Scobee, who now leads them in years of service following the retirement of center Brad Meester, doesn't show any signs of slowing down at age 32. His 10th season saw him connect on 23 of 25 field goals, with one of his misses coming from 60 yards out. Only Baltimore's Justin Tucker has a higher rate of accuracy over the past three years. Scobee's touchback percentage also went up significantly in 2013 as the Jaguars ranked eighth in the league in that category.
Cecil Shorts III
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Red Bryant, DE
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If the Jaguars are going to finish better than 29th in run defense this season, Bryant will be a main reason why. He started 47 of 48 games for the Seattle Seahawks since the start of the 2011 season but was released by them not long after their Super Bowl victory as a cost-saving measure. Bradley had been the Seahawks' defensive coordinator prior to coming to Jacksonville and was more than happy to snatch up not only Bryant but Chris Clemons, another 30-or-older end who's more of a pass rusher. At 323 pounds, Bryant will be a presence on the field as well as in the locker room.
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Cecil Shorts III, WR
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After a breakout season in 2012, injuries and some uncharacteristic problems with dropped passes left Shorts disappointed in how his third year with the Jaguars went. He ranked only 72nd among wide receivers and tight end in yards per catch (11.8), which can be attributed in part to the suspension-related absence of Justin Blackmon in all but four games. On the positive side, one of his three touchdown catches was a game-winner in the last minute at Cleveland, his hometown. Of the Jaguars' other wideouts, only Tandon Doss -- who was signed after spending three seasons with the Ravens -- has as much experience as Shorts.
He might no longer be a rookie, but the second overall draft pick a year ago is almost starting from square one again. Joeckel's season ended in the fifth game when he fractured his right ankle, and he was playing out of position at right tackle in the previous four games. After spending the entire offseason in Jacksonville rehabilitating the ankle and training, Joeckel is firmly entrenched on the left side. Since left tackles tend to be regarded as a quarterback's last line of protection, he will be watched closely as the Jaguars try to cut down on the 50 sacks they allowed last season. Only the Miami Dolphins gave up more than them.
Joeckel will have someone new lined up alongside him on the left side. Beadles spent the past four years with the Denver Broncos, who gave up a league-low 20 sacks last season. He made the Pro Bowl in 2012, a feat no Jaguars offensive lineman has accomplished since Tony Boselli in 2000. At $30 million over five years, Beadles didn't come cheaply and is therefore bound to catch some heat should he give up a sack or be whistled for a false start. But the Jaguars were more than happy to shell out that amount of money to someone who has not missed a game since being a second-round pick out of Utah in 2010.
The Jaguars never cracked the 100-yard mark in rushing last season until a win at Houston in late November. One reason why was because Lewis played only one series of downs in their first six games because of a nagging calf injury suffered during the preseason. Although he's still an inviting target as a receiver, especially when he can use his 6-foot-6 frame to full advantage near the goal line, Lewis has drawn raves from Bradley for his blocking ability more than anything. After nine seasons with the Jaguars, he remains a threat with the ball in the open field. His 31 catches for 25 or more yards are the third-most in team history.
When he signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Jaguars in March, Gerhart became the successor to Maurice Jones-Drew, who eventually left for the Oakland Raiders. At 27, the 231-pounder out of Stanford has yet to demonstrate the sort of durability Jones-Drew did in racking up almost 1,000 carries during a three-year stretch in Jacksonville (2009-11). In the handful of times Gerhart stepped out of the shadow of Adrian Peterson with the Minnesota Vikings, he showed occasional breakaway speed and was more than adequate as a receiver out of the backfield. But can he do that over 16 games for a team which finished ahead of only the Atlanta Falcons in rushing offense?
Sen'Derrick Marks, DT
In his first season with the Jaguars, Marks was one of three defensive players to start all 16 games and finished fourth among all defensive tackles in the league in snaps played with 931. No wonder that in the week before their final game, the Jaguars rewarded him with a contract worth $22 million over the next four years. Marks recorded four sacks, one more than he had in all four of his seasons with the Tennessee Titans, and also registered career highs in fumbles recovered (3) and tackles for loss (6). With the addition of Ziggy Hood, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the sixth-year pro should be less worn down by the time November and December come around.
As well-liked and well-respected as anyone on the Jaguars, Posluszny is coming off the first Pro Bowl appearance of his eight-year career. Despite missing a game in November because of a concussion, he still led the team in tackles and also scored the first touchdown of his career on a 59-yard interception return at Denver. Since joining the Jaguars in 2011, Posluszny has recorded double-digit tackles in 36 of 47 games. While only 29 years old and by no means nearing the end of the road, he probably wouldn't mind making fewer tackles if it meant the Jaguars' defense wasn't on the field for an average of 68 plays a game.
When the Jaguars took UCF quarterback Blake Bortles with the third pick in the draft, the clock began ticking on Henne's time as their starter. All indications are Bradley and his staff remain committed to sticking with Henne, who started their final 12 games last season and 13 in all. But he doesn't have the most accomplished group of wide receivers with which to work, and all it might take is one interception at a home game for fans to begin clamoring for Bortles. While Henne did not have a game last season where he threw more than two interceptions, these numbers don't lie -- 62 career interceptions, 55 career TD passes.