Position review: Jags O-line must take steps to protect Blake Bortles
In hindsight, giving up 50 sacks in consecutive years doesn't look so bad.
The Jacksonville Jaguars set dubious franchise records for most sacks allowed in a game and in a season in 2014. Chad Henne was taken down 10 times during their 41-10 Week 2 humiliation at Washington, and the hits just kept on coming even after rookie Blake Bortles replaced him at quarterback at halftime the following week.
The 71 sacks surrendered were nowhere close to the NFL record of 104 established by the 1986 Philadelphia Eagles. But the old Jaguars' mark of 63 in 2001 fell during the second quarter of the final home game of the season against the Tennessee Titans.
Going into training camp, there were numerous areas of concern relating to the offensive line. The retirement of 14-year veteran Brad Meester left a hole at center, which was supposed to be filled by Mike Brewster. Instead, he became one of the final roster cuts at the end of the preseason. After having his rookie season cut short with a fractured right ankle, Luke Joeckel moved to left tackle after beginning 2013 on the right side.
On top of that, position coach George Yarno was diagnosed with cancer in May. Assistant line coach Luke Butkus ended up taking over on an interim basis for the entire season while Yarno underwent treatment.
Except at right tackle, the Jaguars used the same starters for at least 14 games, with Joeckel and left guard Zane Beadles starting all 16 contests. Beadles was the most noteworthy free-agent addition by general manager Dave Caldwell as the Jaguars gave him a five-year, $30 million contract to leave the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos for a team that has made the playoffs just twice since 1999.
Last month's hiring of former Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone to replace Yarno is a step that the Jaguars hope will make their line less porous in protecting Bortles, while continuing to improve when it comes to their running game.
Luke Joeckel (T): The second overall pick in 2013 allowed eight sacks and had the worst pass blocking grade on the team. Joeckel was called for two holding penalties in the win over the New York Giants, one of which wiped out a touchdown pass from Bortles to Cecil Shorts III. Jason Pierre-Paul constantly gave him fits. His year ended on a rough note at Houston as J.J. Watt spun past Joeckel and sacked Bortles in the end zone for a safety to help give the Texans a 23-17 victory.
Austin Pasztor (T): A starter at right tackle in 13 games in 2013, Pasztor fractured his right hand in the second preseason game and was inactive until Week 5. By then, the Jaguars had released Cameron Bradfield, who was repeatedly beaten during the loss to the Redskins. Pasztor made eight consecutive starts before going down late in the second quarter against the Giants with a ruptured left hamstring that landed him on injured reserve for the rest of the season.
Sam Young (T): Originally a sixth-round pick by Dallas in 2010, Young made his first two starts since he was with the Bills in 2012 after Bradfield was waived. He also started the final four games following Pasztor's injury, and â to the surprise of many â did not appear overmatched against Watt when the Texans came to Jacksonville.
Zane Beadles (G): The website Pro Football Focus rated Beadles as the 10th-best guard in the league, although it was more impressed with his pass blocking than run blocking (https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/category/teams/afc-south/jaguars/). The revolving door at center in the early going and the inexperience of Joeckel made Beadles' adjustment to being with the Jaguars all the more of a struggle at first. "Just because you're a veteran doesn't mean you know all the intricacies of a different offense," Caldwell said after the season.
Brandon Linder (G): Of the 10 rookies to start at least one game for the Jaguars, the third-round pick out of Miami made the most (15) and arguably had the most impact. "He's what you want in an offensive lineman in terms of toughness," offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch told the Florida Times-Union late in the season. "There was never a doubt in college that he was going to be a workhorse. There was never a doubt he was going to take every rep." Linder hurt his shoulder in the second quarter at Cincinnati and did not play the following week against the Cowboys in London.
Luke Bowanko (C): Bowanko, a sixth-round pick out of Virginia where he was a teammate of Pasztor, took over the starting spot in Week 3 and never relinquished it. His four offensive holding penalties were the most on a team that had the fewest infractions in the league with 73.
Jacques McClendon (C/G): He started at left guard for the final two games of 2013 and at center for the first two games of 2014 before being demoted when Henne was sacked a combined 13 times at Philadelphia and Washington. The only start McClendon made after that was when Linder was out for a game. He is a restricted free agent.
Josh Wells (T): A quarterback while in high school, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Wells took over at left tackle in the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins when Joeckel sustained a concussion. When Pasztor got hurt against the Giants, the Jaguars went with Wells instead of Young at right tackle the rest of the game. Other than those two games, most of his action was on special teams.
Tyler Shatley (G): Like Wells and wide receiver Allen Hurns, Shatley made Jacksonville's Week 1 roster after not being drafted out of college. But he was inactive for every game except the loss to the Cowboys, where he took over for McClendon to start the second half.
POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS
In addition to their signing of Beadles, the Jaguars tried unsuccessfully to land Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack last offseason. While Stefen Wisniewski of the Oakland Raiders is available this year, chances are they're likely to stick with Bowanko. If they want to put an end to the instability at right tackle with someone getting toward the end of his career, the Jaguars could do worse than the Tennessee Titans' Michael Roos, who is 32 and went on injured reserve in October after his right knee began giving him problems.
BEST DRAFT OPTIONS
After selecting Joeckel, Linder and Bowanko the past two years, drafting additional offensive linemen should not be a high priority. Tackle D.J. Humphries of Florida could be available in the later rounds. Humphries was the top offensive lineman in the 2012 recruiting class but didn't live up to expectations in Gainesville and is coming off an ankle injury this past season.
Despite all the sacks the Jaguars gave up, Pro Football Focus had their offensive line ranked 18th â ahead of both the Seattle Seahawks (19th) and the New England Patriots (23rd). Linder is a definite keeper, and Beadles' veteran presence cannot be overlooked. But the last thing the line needs is for Joeckel to join the ranks of first-round busts who predated the arrivals of Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley.