In the past six seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars are 31-65. The team is hoping first-round quarterback Blake Bortles changes its fortunes for good.
As time ticked off the clock for the third pick of the 2014 NFL draft, opinions varied about what exactly the Jaguars should do.
With defensive end Jadeveon Clowney headed to the Houston Texans and offensive tackle Greg Robinson a St. Louis Ram, linebacker Khalil Mack would've been perfect for the "Leo" position in Jacksonville's defense. Offensive lineman Jake Matthews would've been a nice addition to help block the aforementioned Clowney as well.
Yet it wasn't exactly a secret that the Jaguars could take a quarterback. They certainly needed one after finally giving up the ghost on the grand experiment that was Blaine Gabbert (now with San Francisco). The Jaguars haven't really had a reliable long-term solution at the position since Mark Brunell, though there were some band-aids in Byron Leftwich and David Garrard—both of whom made the playoffs once.
The Jaguars' brain trust of general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley, though, didn't have many doubts, as Dan Pompei reported for Sports on Earth:
It's the week of the draft, and Caldwell has yet to tell anyone Bortles is his man. Finally, two days before the draft, he breaks down and tells his wife. No one else outside the building knows, and his scouting staff still does not know. Even Bortles has no clue how much he is coveted.
Through the draft process, many of Caldwell's trusted friends on other teams have told him, unsolicited, how much they think of Bortles. He is comforted to know they see the same value in Bortles that he sees. He says some of his friends from other teams tell him Bortles is rated the fourth- or fifth-best player on their boards at any position.
Bortles will not be thrust into the same franchise-savior crucible that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was subjected to. Already, the Florida Times-Union is reporting that the Jaguars hope their current starter, journeyman Chad Henne, starts every game this season.
Contemplate that for a minute.
Everyone's got an opinion on whether quarterbacks should begin their careers starting or sitting. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre and has done just fine since. Plenty of quarterbacks sit and never become Aaron Rodgers, though.
Other quarterbacks hit that refining fire of their first NFL game and flourish, like Luck. Not every young quarterback is Luck, though, and even guys like future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning had subpar first seasons as they acclimated to the big leagues.
So put aside your own personal opinions or whatever anecdotal evidence you want to latch on to as to whether or not quarterbacks should start right away. Instead, just think about the crazy dichotomy between being drafted third overall and then sitting behind Chad Henne.
It's a situation that doesn't happen much in our league, but the Jaguars have a much longer rebuilding plan laid out than 2014. No, the Jaguars are convinced they are laying the foundation for much more than just cleaning up the Wayne Weaver/Gene Smith era. They are putting something special together, and they believe Bortles will be a big part of that.
Once they put him together as an NFL-caliber passer.
What Blake Bortles Is Right Now
True confessions time: I had Bortles as my third-ranked passer in the draft. Frankly, if we're talking about prospects we "like," I'm not sure Bortles would've been in the top 10. Though the talent was undeniable (again, No. 3), there are far too many question marks to his game that I would ever really be comfortable with.
First, here's what we know: Bortles is an incredible athlete. As a runner, he may not be Johnny Manziel, but he consistently picks up big plays with his legs, and that should continue at the next level to some extent.
He's also physically gifted overall, as much as any quarterback in this class.
In terms of sheer arm strength, he lags behind Oakland draft pick Derek Carr, but Bortles arguably has more overall arm talent. He's also bigger than Carr, which doesn't seem to mean a lot in a world where Russell Wilson just helped the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl, but it's still something NFL teams consider.
Blake Bortles is basically the second coming of Alex Smith when all is said and done.— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) April 30, 2014
The physical talent is where most of the complimentary things to be said about Bortles' game usually begin or end.
The next time you watch a quarterback—I mean really watch a quarterback—take a moment to focus not just on him and how he moves in order to deliver the ball, but also the ball as it is coming out of his hands.
In a decade of professionally watching and assessing football players—much of that time focusing on and coaching quarterbacks—Bortles delivers one of the least-clean footballs I have ever seen. Consistently, his passes may reach the intended target, but they might as well be eight-bit representations that I could shoot out of the sky with my orange gun.
Wait, does anyone still get a Duck Hunt reference in 2014? Never mind...
Point being: A lot of what Bortles accomplished at the collegiate level has to be tempered with the fact that the player he was at the collegiate level has no business in the NFL. Remember, the draft is essentially about projection, not production. Though he came on late in his career, Bortles was a fine college player, but he will need to continue his growth to be successful on Sundays.
Well, I've been saying all along Blake Bortles is not that good. This is as close to confirmation as I was going to get. #jags— Jerome Solomon (@JeromeSolomon) May 9, 2014
"Flutter" is the best word that can be associated with Bortles' passes.
When a ball leaves a quarterback's hand cleanly, there should be a crisp spin on the ball. Guys who don't have the strongest arm in the world can still deliver a ball with good velocity if the spin is correct. Also, it makes the ball inherently more catchable for the wide receiver, as the movement of the ball is more predictable—even if it's going faster.
One look at a football and an even cursory knowledge of physics—which, I'm pretty sure, is the exact phrase my high school physics teacher used for me—lets you know that a spiral is exactly how the football is supposed to travel.
Still, plenty of quarterbacks are able to get the ball to the intended target without good velocity and with less-than-perfect spin—even at the NFL level. Yet even the good quarterbacks who have that trait on their rap sheets aren't exactly third overall picks in the draft in terms of potential.
Simply put, it's a pretty big pockmark on Bortles' resume, and one that will need to be corrected by a complete and systematic change of how he retrieves the ball from center, drops back, steps up and throws the ball.
It's not just his arm, but his feet, hips and torso as well.
It's all a mess.
Thankfully for the Jaguars, it's a mess that has already begun to be cleaned up, thanks to NFL quarterback and quarterback guru Jordan Palmer. See, Palmer had already taken care of many of Bortles' passing quirks leading up to Central Florida's pro day, and teams (like the Jaguars) must've seen that and checked off the last box on his scouting reports.
We've always known the physical tools were there, but the pro day proved the dude could throw.
Of course, the next thing that needs to be said in any talk of a quarterback improving for a pro day is that the NFL is not played in shirts and shorts with zero pass rush and in the most ideal conditions.
No, compared to his pro day, the first start of Bortles' NFL career is going to be one of Dante's circles of Hell—let's just guesstimate that it's the third or the fourth. (I mean, it's not like he's on the Browns!)
So the Jaguars coaching staff will attempt to take what Palmer was able to put into Bortles' short-term muscle memory and ingrain it into his very being. It will be an uphill climb, but the Jaguars believe in him, and they believe in their coaching staff. Meanwhile, expectations for the Jaguars aren't exactly high in 2014, and the long-suffering fanbase will cling to a hope delayed in order to fulfill its desire for a team truly worth supporting.
What the Jacksonville Jaguars Expect Blake Bortles to Be...Eventually
As the dust cleared following the draft, I was left searching for answers on Bortles.
Two, maybe three years into his NFL career, I will be more than willing to admit I was wrong about him if he plays well enough to prove that to me. The draft is an inexact science, and I have no problem being wrong on guys both positively, when a guy excels my expectations (like Philadelphia's Nick Foles, who is working toward that), or negatively, when I completely swing and miss on a guy (Colt McCoy was a big learning experience).
In my search for answers, I turned to Tony Khan—son of Jaguars owner Shad Khan and Senior Vice President of Football Technology and Analytics for the team.
Most of what we talked about was off the record, and he refused to opine on the pick based on his role in the organization, but he pointed me, time and again, to work done by guys like Greg Peshek of Rotoworld as evidence of something the Jaguars loved about Bortles from the beginning: his coolness under pressure.
About Bortles, Peshek wrote the following:
Bortles has been noted for his success when under pressure and it shows here, hitting 63% of his passes when the defense is bearing down. He has the second highest completion percentage against the blitz at 71.05%.
Bortles not only completed a high percentage of his passes under pressure, but he was able to push the ball down the field at those moments as well. On top of that, the plays he was able to make with his legs against pressure further the discussion even more.
In a fantastic column about the Jaguars' marriage of scouting and analytics, Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated wrote this about Bortles, quoting Tony Khan:
Blake didn’t have a giant sack total that was a major red flag — he took some sacks and you certainly want to minimize that, but it wasn’t a major problem for him. He scored 1.8 standard deviation above the national population of NCAA quarterbacks in overall yards per attempt, and he scored 1.6 standard deviation over the population mean in yards per attempt while under pressure. He was among the top 10 of all college quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns per rush attempt...so, he did a lot of things really well.
Rewind the Jaguars tape a few years, and the team was defined by a quarterback who was the polar opposite of that.
Now, I'm not sure exactly what it was—size, ascent up the draft board or just the fact that he had potential to go to the Jaguars—but there were far too many comparing Bortles to Gabbert throughout the process. Overall, that comparison always fell short because of the performance of both under pressure.
Not to make light of the very real condition, but I will always remember writing the letters "PTSD" on my scouting report for Gabbert, where I gave him a grade translating to a fringe starter in the league. It was almost as if Gabbert remembered every single hit he had ever taken any time the rush got anywhere close to him.
Will Blake Bortles be a hit or a miss in the NFL?
Under pressure, Gabbert was erratic and downright embarrassing.
It is the antithesis of that which the Jaguars are betting on in Bortles. Physically, the two have similarities. Developmentally, both entered the league with plenty to work on. In terms of narrative, both benefitted from stellar pro days.
Yet the Jaguars clearly value Bortles because of how terribly they were burned by Gabbert and his aversion to pressure.
Though the Jaguars use many proprietary stats in their analytics department, Khan shared some interesting numbers-based tidbits. For example: Bortles led their sample of top draft-eligible quarterbacks with a 7.8 yards per attempt average while under pressure.
Bridgewater and Manziel were tied for second with 6.9 yards per attempt—a pretty solid drop.
Blake Bortles > Johnny Manziel? Did college football happen last year?— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) May 9, 2014
Analytics, though, is a story often without context. More impressive metrics (like those Khan didn't want to share) can add context. Sites like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders do a great job moving statistical analysis off the box score and into realms of actual value.
In a similar way, analytics only tells part of the story when it comes to Bortles and the Jaguars. As Pompei wrote:
He [Caldwell] is quietly pleased, however, when Jaguars scouts mention Bortles' name and attach high grades to it. After the meeting, the Jaguars assign a crosscheck scout to study Bortles. He never has seen Bortles previously and rates him the best quarterback in the draft. Later, when coaches become involved in the process, each of them will identify Bortles as their favorite.
The Jaguars also start running analytics on prospects. Senior vice president of football technology Tony Khan has some interesting discoveries about Bortles, including that the quarterback excelled in adjusted completion percentage, which STATS lists at 68.99. Khan presents Caldwell with numbers that demonstrate Bortles' productivity under pressure. Analytics also show Bortles was very efficient in keeping drives alive on third down.
Caldwell, as a trained scout, had been a fan of Bortles for a long time. He checked, double-checked and triple-checked his opinions, but the Jaguars staff—coaches, scouts and Khan's analytics department—all came to pick Bortles on their own, with no prodding from the boss.
Who do the Jaguars need Bortles to be?
The Jaguars need Bortles to be the same Blake Bortles that he was at his best in the most controlled of circumstances thanks to Palmer. They need him to not only learn new habits, but purge the old habits from his memory entirely.
More than that, they need Bortles to be what Gabbert was not.
Bortles needs to be able to handle the pressure of situations as well as the pressure of eventually carrying the franchise on his shoulders. They need his physical tools to translate to real-life quarterbacking skills as much (if not more) as it did for Central Florida.
All of that happening is a big bet for the Jaguars, and it might turn out to be too much to ask, but it's a bet they needed to make and one they seem extremely confident in.