The 2013 NFL regular season is right around the corner. With that being said, it’s time to launch our team previews. FOXSports.com contributor Taylor Jones will answer important questions for every franchise.
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2012 Record: 2-14. Missed the playoffs.
What is the position battle to watch?
When Blaine Gabbert was the 10th overall selection in the 2011 Draft, it was widely accepted that he would be the quarterback of the future. Not so fast. In 14 starts as a rookie, he completed just 50 percent of his passes and only had one more touchdown than interceptions while being sacked 40 times. Those are pretty horrendous numbers, even for a rookie on a really bad team. His numbers improved slighty last season, but completing just 58 percent of your passes is still nothing to brag about unless you compare it to the incumbent, Chad Henne. The latter started the final six games of the season while Gabbert nursed an ankle injury and while Henne led them to their second and final win of the season, his stats were just as bad. Henne completed 53 percent of his throws and threw 11 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. But in Henne’s defense, the offense, particularly the receivers, came alive with him under center. Justin Blackmon averaged 5.5 catches with Henne at quarterback while accounting for less than three per game with Gabbert. Cecil Shorts finished the year with 100-yard receiving games in two of the final four. He had achieved that feat just twice in the first 12 games.
While neither of these quarterbacks are the long-term solution in Jacksonville, they are the only options right now and new offensive coordinator Jed Fisch has the mountainous task of surviving the season with either one.
What must the team accomplish to consider the season a success?
The Jaguars only won two games in 2012, so anything better than that has to be considered an improvement, but I think they are capable of at least tripling that win total. The Jaguars have finished in last place in the AFC South in three of the past five seasons, and while the Jaguars are still the doormat of the division, they are starting to put together some solid building blocks for the future, especially on offense. But the problem will be encouraging that young talent to stick around while the rest of the team is being built around them. Let’s face it, Jacksonville is hardly an attractive landing spot for big-name free agents and as these young players play out their contracts, it will be hard to encourage them to stay. Plus, it’s not like the fans in the city are helping the cause. Jacksonville has never finished higher than 21st in average attendance, slipped to 30th in the league in 2009 and is often the subject of relocation rumors. But that’s not even the biggest problem when trying to attract and retain talent. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league and the Jaguars lack a franchise quarterback, or any evidence of one who can mature into one. Without that, they are going to be at risk of losing these great young receivers as they play out their rookie contracts.
What is the team’s biggest obstacle?
The Jaguars finished the season as the third-worst defense in three major categories: total yards, scoring defense and rushing defense. It would be a stretch to say that they upgraded their roster enough to significantly improve in any of those categories. Their best addition was actually head coach Gus Bradley, who had one of the best defenses in all of football last year in Seattle, but he hardly has the personnel in Jacksonville to replicate that style in 2013. At 6-4 and 6-3, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are two of the most physically imposing corners in the entire NFL, and while Bradley brought Marcus Trufant with him from Seattle this offseason, there is a reason he has only started six games in the past two seasons combined. Corners over 6-0 are rare, let alone 6-4 and 6-3, so it will be interesting to see how Bradley changes his defensive scheme to fit his new personnel of two starting corners who both stand 5-11.
Even still, it’s not like Jacksonville doesn’t have some good players on the defensive side of the ball. Jason Babin, while maybe a bit of a diva, is still a capable pass rusher and Paul Posluszny has been an extremely productive middle linebacker, averaging more than 136 tackles over the last three seasons.
What is the team’s biggest asset?
The Jaguars have a very talented group of young receivers, and they have the skill-set to become one of the most explosive units in the NFL. But there are a couple of hiccups in that formula. One, Justin Blackmon, who steadily improved last season, is now suspended the first four games for violating substance abuse policy. His second violation in less than a year. Two, the Jaguars need to have much-improved quarterback play for their explosive receivers to actually be explosive.
If they can’t keep Blackmon on the field, he could have a similar impact as Terell Owens had as a player. Blackmon, like Owens, can turn a short pass into a long touchdown with his tough run-after-catch skills, but then will drop an easy reception that leaves you scratching your head. Opposite Blackmon, Cecil Shorts may be the biggest playmaker you’ve never heard of. Shorts finished 2012 with 979 receiving yards and scored five touchdowns on plays of 40 yards or longer. And while he is far from being an every-down contributor in the NFL, the Jaguars drafted the dynamic Denard Robinson in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Robinson could be used as a third down back or a quick screen receiver, if for nothing else, to give opposing defensive coordinators one more thing to plan against.
What is the team’s biggest addition/loss from the previous season?
Maurice Jones-Drew played in just six games in 2012 before a foot injury ended his season early. In those six games, MJD rushed for 414 yards. In the 10 games in his absence, no other Jaguars running back rushed for more than 300. Outside of Adrian Peterson, there may not be a more valuable running back to his team than Jones Drew. In 2011, MJD accounted for 47 percent of the entire net offense, the most since OJ Simpson was good for 50 percent in 1973. Will he return to 2011 form or will the foot be a lingering issue again in 2013?
The Jaguars brought in Justin Forsett as an insurance policy, and while Forsett has an impressive 4.9 yards per carry average during his career, he has only started seven games in those six seasons. Those 4.9 yards per carry are only spread across a total of 341 carries while MJD carries a career average of 4.6 yards per carry spread over 1,570 of them. This offense just isn’t the same without Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield.