Mapping out the Blueprint for a Jaguars Playoff Run in 2013-2014
The Jacksonville Jaguars seem to have a long way to go before they can even begin thinking about making the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. They are entering the first offseason of a complete rebuild after finishing with a franchise-worst 2-14 record in 2012, which got both general manager Gene Smith and head coach Mike Mularkey fired.
A new regime is in place, as new general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley look to steer the team in the right direction. Caldwell and Bradley have a lot of work to do to turn the Jaguars into a playoff contender, and it will realistically take several seasons to do so.
But the Jaguars don't have to look any further than the AFC South divisional rival Indianapolis Colts for inspiration. The Colts had a nine-game turnaround in 2012 to finish 11-5 and earn a playoff berth just one season after finishing with the worst record in the NFL.
Indianapolis made all the right moves last offseason, and Jacksonville will have to do the same if it wants to replicate the Colts success.
Here is the blueprint for how the Jaguars can make the playoffs in 2013.
Sign Alex Smith
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Jacksonville's offense needs a reliable quarterback after both Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne failed to impress in 2012.
Smith would provide just that: A dependable and consistent quarterback. He was putting together another solid season for the 49ers before losing his starting job due to a concussion he suffered against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10. Smith completed 70.2 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and five interceptions before the injury.
He isn't much more than a game-managing quarterback, but that would be more than enough to improve the Jaguars offense. He would provide a steady hand at the position while rarely making mistakes, which is something Jacksonville's offense has been lacking.
Smith would be a stopgap player until the Jaguars are able to find their franchise quarterback, but he would keep the team competitive during the rebuild.
The Jaguars should only go after him if he's released, though. The 49ers will most likely try to trade Smith before releasing him, and Jacksonville should not use valuable draft picks trying to acquire another team's quarterback.
If Smith is released, however, the Jaguars offense would become instantly better if they sign him.
Sign an Offensive Lineman in Free Agency
Jacksonville's offensive line was horrible in 2012. The quarterbacks were under a constant barrage of pressure as the offensive line allowed the third-most sacks (50) and quarterback hits (103) during the year.
The offensive line was never able to gel due to a revolving door at right tackle. The Jaguars will need to find a player who can step in and be immediately effective, and there are plenty of free agents who could do just that.
Ryan Clady, Jake Long and Andre Smith are among the leaders of the free-agent class of offensive tackles, but the player the Jaguars should sign is New England Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Vollmer, a 2010 All-Pro second team member and a 2011 Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award recipient, would upgrade the line as a whole. Jacksonville's quarterback—whoever that may be—would have more time to throw with improved pass-protection, as Vollmer has allowed just 11.5 sacks in his four-year career.
Signing Vollmer would be expensive, as would signing almost any free agent who will make an impact, but it would be a price worth paying for the Jaguars, especially if it helps them make the playoffs.
Acquire a Pass-Rusher
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The Jaguars defensive line was just as bad, if not worse, than the offensive line in 2012, and most of its struggles could be attributed to a lack of pass rush. Jacksonville had a league-low 20 sacks last season and failed to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Jacksonville has been unable to find a dominant pass-rusher for years, but it will need to fill that role if it's going to make the postseason next year.
There are options in both free agency and the draft, and the Jaguars are in good position to find a pass-rusher this offseason.
Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril leads the free-agent class. The Lions won't be able to re-sign Avril, as they are $1.1 million over the salary cap, according to John Clayton. Detroit's loss would be Jacksonville's gain, as Avril would instantly become the best pass-rusher on the roster.
Avril finished 2012 with 9.5 sacks, which was almost half of the Jaguars' team total on the season. He is still young, turning 27 in April, and will provide many quality seasons for the Jaguars. Avril would significantly improve the pass rush, but he would come with a high price tag.
If the Jaguars want to avoid signing an expensive free agent there are also good options at defensive end in the draft.
Jacksonville could take Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore with the No. 2 pick. He only played one season at defensive end in college, but he was one of the best players in the country at the position.
Moore finished the 2012 season with 12.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. His play earned him a spot on the All-SEC First Team and AP All-American Second-Team.
Whether it's in free agency or through the draft, the answer to the Jaguars defensive line problems is out there.
Re-Sign Derek Cox and Acquire Another Cornerback
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Cornerback Derek Cox is set to be a free agent this offseason, and the Jaguars can't afford to lose him. He is a very good player when healthy, but he struggles to stay on the field due to injuries. Cox led the Jaguars with four interceptions and 11 pass defenses last season, and he possesses the talent to be one of the league's best cornerbacks.
Even if the Jaguars are able to re-sign Cox, they will still need to find another cornerback this offseason. Veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis is also set to become a free agent this offseason, and has been on a downward slide due to age and injuries. It would be in Jacksonville's best interest to let him walk and find his replacement in either free agency or the draft.
There are a number of good cornerbacks available in both. The strong free-agent class is led by Sam Shields, Aqib Talib and Brent Grimes. With all the talent at the top of the free-agent class, a player the caliber of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie might slip through the cracks, and is someone who would improve the Jaguars secondary.
Rodgers-Cromartie is a playmaker at cornerback. He led the Eagles defense with three interceptions and 17 pass defenses in 2012. At 6'2", he also has the size coach Bradley looks for in cornerbacks. The combination of Cox and Rodgers-Cromartie would be a fantastic duo.
If the Jaguars decide to forgo free agency in favor of drafting a cornerback, there will be many talented players to choose from. University of Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant might be the player to best fit Bradley's defense. He has good size at 6', and was a shutdown corner during his four seasons as a starter in college. Trufant's stats won't wow anybody—he only had one interception in his senior season—but that is because opposing quarterbacks rarely threw against him.
The Jaguars will have to find a cornerback to play opposite of Cox to make it to the postseason, and they have options to find that player in both free agency and the draft.
Have a Good Draft
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While it's obvious all teams need to have a good draft, it's especially important for the Jaguars to do so. The players drafted this year will make up the team's core throughout the entire rebuild. Jacksonville's future success depends on hitting on almost all of its picks this April.
By having one of the top two picks in each round, including the No. 2 overall selection, the Jaguars are in prime position to have a great draft. They will need to address several key areas, such as offensive and defensive lines and cornerback. Jacksonville could also target a quarterback who could compete for the starting role.
The Jaguars should try to trade back from the second selection and gain more picks in the process, but with no standout player in this year's draft, it will be difficult to do so. They will have an easier time dealing the first pick of the second round, and would be able to draft several key contributors by acquiring additional picks in the middle rounds of the draft.
A good draft would not only set up the Jaguars for success next season, but in the future too. If general manager Dave Caldwell makes the right moves in this draft, the Jaguars will have a bright future.
A Healthy and Motivated Maurice Jones-Drew
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2012 is a year Maurice Jones-Drew would like to forget. He failed to get a new contract after holding out through the entire preseason, and ended the year on injured reserve after injuring his left foot early in Jacksonville's Week 7 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
The Jaguars will need him to return fully-motivated and healthy to have a playoff-caliber offense.
Jones-Drew has already shown a new focus by saying he will not hold out in 2013.
While he has regained his focus, Jones-Drew's injury will still cause concern. He had surgery on his injured foot late in December, and he is expected to be out until May.
The injury could be a sign of things to come as Jones-Drew's body may be beginning to break down due to his heavy workload. The Jaguars have run him into the ground over the course of his career; he is seventh among active running backs with 1,570 career rushes. More than 1,000 of those rushes have come since 2009, including a league-high 343 attempts in 2011.
Jones-Drew has to make a full recovery and return at 100 percent for the Jaguars to make it to the postseason.
When healthy, Jones-Drew is one of the best running backs in the NFL and would help improve Jacksonville's offense. He would take pressure off the quarterback while being able to make big plays on the ground.
The engine that powers the Jaguars offense may be starting to break down, but Jones-Drew has to have some gas left in the tank for the team to make the playoffs.
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Mistakes killed the Jaguars in 2012 and was one of the key reasons for the abysmal season.
Jacksonville finished 2012 with a -3 turnover ratio, and while it's not terrible, it's hard to put together a winning season with a negative turnover ratio. In fact, only three teams with a winning record in 2012 had a negative turnover ratio.
The Jaguars will have to minimize the amount of giveaways they have to better their chances at a playoff berth.
Mistakes aren't just limited to turnovers, but also include penalties.
Penalties contributed as much as anything to the Jaguars' poor season. They finished in the middle of the league averaging 6.31 penalties a game, according to NFLPenalties.com. Although they were average for the amount of penalties committed, they had the fourth-most penalty yards per game (59.69).
Jacksonville would regularly commit costly penalties throughout the season. The Jaguars had the most defensive pass interference penalties by averaging .875 a game, and the most roughing the passer penalties (.436). These infractions would extend opponents' drives and give their offenses another chance.
The Jaguars can't afford to give teams extra opportunities, and they must become more disciplined and cut down on the number of penalties they commit in order for the team to improve.
Touchdowns in the Red Zone
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Jacksonville's offense didn't score many touchdowns in 2012, averaging just 1.6 per game. This also held true in the red zone, as the Jaguars scored a touchdown on just 44.44 percent of red-zone drives, which was the sixth-worst percentage in the league.
The Jaguars left many points on the board by settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, and it's an area the team has to get better at to make a playoff run. Six of the top-10 teams in red zone touchdown percentage made the playoffs, while only one team ranked below 20 in the category (Indianapolis) made it to the postseason.
The Jaguars already have a player on the roster who should be a major red-zone threat in tight end Marcedes Lewis. At 6'6", he has the size to out jump defenders and haul in touchdown passes in the red zone, but he has rarely been used in such a way. Lewis had just four touchdown receptions last season.
Utilizing Lewis as a prime red-zone target would be a major help to Jacksonville's playoff chances next season.
Get off to a Hot Start
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Although the Jaguars won't know who they're playing early in the season until the schedules are released, it's important to have a fast start to the season.
The first-quarter of the season is critical for a team looking to make the playoffs. Teams who have started the season 2-2 or worse have only made the playoffs 34.6 percent of the time (99 of 286) since the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff format in 1990. While it's not impossible to make the postseason after a slow start, it's a definite obstacle the Jaguars would have to overcome to get there.
A quick start would also provide a much needed confidence boost for a team coming off such a terrible season. If Jacksonville can get a few wins early in the season, it makes the rest of the year much more manageable and removes a lot of pressure.
The Jaguars have to finish the first-quarter of the season with a winning record to make the playoffs.
Take Care of Business at Home
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The Jaguars were atrocious at EverBank Field in 2012, winning only one home game and being outscored by opponents 212-94. Jacksonville will need to rebound and have a good record at home to make the playoffs in 2013.
A turnaround could happen as the Jaguars face a manageable home schedule.
In addition to the three AFC South Division rivals, the Jaguars will host Kansas City and San Diego from the AFC West, Buffalo from the AFC East, and Arizona and San Francisco from the NFC West, with the 49ers game being held Oct. 27 in London.
Those home opponents combined for a 60-67-1 record (.469 winning percentage) in 2012. The Jaguars need to take advantage of the softer home schedule by beating the mediocre teams they'll play to pad their record.
Making the most of home field advantage will be important because Jacksonville has tough games on the road. In addition to playing against the AFC South teams, the Jaguars will have to travel across the country three times to play the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks.
Winning road games isn't going to be easy for Jacksonville, but if the team can post a winning record at home, it could offset some of the road losses and help the Jaguars earn a playoff berth.