Breaking Down Where Blaine Gabbert Has Improved Most Since 2011

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Breaking Down Where Blaine Gabbert Has Improved Most Since 2011
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Although Blaine Gabbert and the Jacksonville Jaguars have played just two mostly meaningless preseason games, Peter King of Sports Illustrated did well in summing up the young quarterback's play so far in 2012. 

"Blaine Gabbert's playing like the 10th pick in the draft should play," King wrote Monday, just days after the Jaguars beat the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 of the preseason, 27-24.

King later went on to name Gabbert his offensive player of the week. It was well-deserved, as Gabbert led the Jaguars to 17 first-half points after completing 13-of-16 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns.

Gabbert's opening two performances of the preseason—both finishing with a passer rating over 100—raises the question: How has Gabbert, who some were writing off as a bust following his rookie season, looked like such a different player so far in 2012? 

Along with the addition of two NFL-quality receivers in Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, there's simply been improvement in three very important aspects of quarterback play. Below, we break down Gabbert's improvement in each. 

 

Pocket Presence 

It's hard to believe that the Gabbert on display this preseason is the same guy who struggled so mightily in the pocket a year ago. In fact, there were whispers starting last December that Gabbert was playing "scared"—a word as damning as there is when talking about the quarterback position.

From NFL.com's Mike Lombardi, a former personnel evaluator in the NFL:

In my 20-plus years in the NFL, I don't think I have seen a high first-round pick look as scared or as out of place as Blaine Gabbert. The game looks entirely too big for him. When the ball is in his hand, he treats it like a hot potato. His play was embarrassing, considering he was a top 10 pick. 

It was as scathing a review as you'll find in the media of any one player. But neither the film nor the stats were pretty for Gabbert in 2011, so criticism was somewhat to be expected. 

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Yet, through two preseason games, Gabbert couldn't be proving those comments any more untrue. 

Against the Saints on Friday night, Gabbert looked confident in the pocket. He went through his progressions calmly, never appearing to take his eyes away from the action down the field. Even when the Saints brought a number of different pressure schemes, Gabbert stood tall and delivered the football.

A couple of the Saints' blitzes even got home on Gabbert, but he delivered completions as defenders were closing in on more than one occasion. 

A year ago, Gabbert simply didn't make those kind of throws. He would duck out of the pocket or make a hurried throw to his first read. 

This development in the pocket may be Gabbert's most impressive aspect so far in 2012. If he can carry over his progression into the regular season, the doubters will disappear faster than they came on. 

 

Accuracy

A year ago, Gabbert completed just 50.8 percent of his passes. Among eligible quarterbacks, only Tim Tebow had a worse percentage of completions in 2011. 

Chuck Cook-US PRESSWIRE

Part of that problem was the previous aspect discussed. But Friday night also showed a quarterback more confident in his ball placement. 

Gabbert completed 13-of-16 passes against the Saints. But beyond his 81.6 completion percentage, the throws were almost always on the numbers. 

Gabbert twice found Justin Blackmon on comeback routes, hitting him on time and in stride—which gave the rookie receiver the opportunity to make a play after the catch. Blackmon spun out of one tackle that resulted in a first down and then broke a tackle on his touchdown catch later on. Both plays were made possible because Gabbert hit Blackmon on the numbers as he broke off the route. 

It's the little things about playing the quarterback position that make the biggest difference. 

 

Third Down

Such an undervalued and underappreciated part of quarterback play is how an offense does on third downs. In 2011, the Jaguars converted just over one-third of their third-down opportunities, which was good for 25th in the NFL. 

For a team that runs the football as well as the Jaguars have and still do, that simply isn't good enough. 

But the third-down success rate has turned around thus far in preseason. 

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Gabbert's first third down of Friday night came in the red zone, and he threaded the needle to Blackmon on the touchdown connection. Two drives later, Gabbert completed two third-down passes as the Jaguars scored their second touchdown of the night.

On both third downs, New Orleans brought some kind of extra pressure on Gabbert. Neither the situation nor the blitzes seemed to rattle Gabbert. 

Even on the two third downs that Gabbert didn't capitalize on—both of which were 3rd-and-10 or longer to convert—the second-year quarterback made the right decision. 

Gabbert stepped up in the pocket to avoid an outside blitz on the first, scrambling for just three yards. On the second, he more or less threw the ball away with nothing available. A punt and field goal were the final results, respectively, but Gabbert didn't take a sack or make a turnover on either play. 

Overall, two preseason games isn't a large sample size, and exhibition contests are nothing like the pressure of the regular season. But Gabbert has displayed big improvements in areas that should translate over. 

Going off of just two appearances so far, one could be confident in Gabbert having a much, much better sophomore season than what transpired in his first year in the NFL. 

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