It has been a rough stretch for the Jacksonville Jaguars lately. They have suffered through six consecutive losing seasons in a division that features the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, teams that have made deep playoff pushes.
Given the high level of their competition and their recent bad run of drafting, it was going to take an excellent effort in free agency and a great draft for the Jaguars to start climbing out of the AFC basement, which is exactly what happened.
Building a team that has what is considered one of the weakest rosters in the league into a competitor is no easy matter. The Jaguars were able to bring in a couple of solid free agents who do improve the team. They managed to sign one of the best offensive lineman on the market in Zane Beadles while also grabbing running back Toby Gerhart from Minnesota.
Beadles will instantly step in as their best offensive lineman while also being a good mentor to last year's first-round pick, tackle Luke Joeckel. Gerhart has the unenviable task of filling in for fan favorite Maurice Jones-Drew, who left in free agency to Oakland. Gerhart has been waiting for his chance to start after being Adrian Peterson's backup his entire career, and now he finally has his shot.
The defensive line was also improved with the additions of Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Evander Hood. Both Bryant and Clemons played under head coach Gus Bradley when he was Seattle's defensive coordinator. They will be able to come in, start immediately and provide good veteran leadership for the team.
While some of these moves, like Beadles and Gerhart, will help improve the team for the foreseeable future, none of their free-agent moves immediately boost the Jaguars in their division. Instead, they attempted to address it in the draft in order to break their string of losing seasons.
The draft has not been kind to the Jaguars as of late. Since their last winning season in 2007, the Jaguars have had more busts than hits, including the likes of Derrick Harvey and, most notably, Blaine Gabbert.
Their drafting has been under scrutiny for decisions such as picking Tyson Alualu, generally regarded as a late first-, early second-round pick, with their 10th overall pick. This year's draft was completely different and should set the Jags up nicely for years to come.
Their first-round pick came as a bit of a surprise when they drafted quarterback Blake Bortles. Many draft pundits expected them to pass on a quarterback in the first round for a superior talent, such as linebacker Khalil Mack, and pick up a QB in the second round. Regardless, Jacksonville saw Bortles as its QB of the future and went for it before it was too late.
Bortles looks the part at 6'5" and 232 pounds. He possesses great accuracy and has enough arm strength to make every throw necessary. Bortles expects to be the quarterback Gabbert never could be. Jacksonville seems to have learned from its mistake of throwing Gabbert in earlier than he should have been, already announcing it doesn't want him to be the starter this year:
Jaguars GM David Caldwell says the plan in Jacksonville is to sit Blake Bortles in 2014 and let Chad Henne start: http://t.co/9fu9eGRfjD— Eye on Football (@EyeOnNFL) May 9, 2014
The Jaguars nailed both of their second-round picks by drafting receivers Marqise Lee, who inexplicably dropped out of the first round, and trading up to grab Allen Robinson. The Jaguars were in desperate need of help for their receiving corps. and that was before the indefinite suspension of former first-round pick Justin Blackmon.
Lee and Robinson instantly come in and make one of Jacksonville's most glaring weaknesses one of its top strengths. Each player brings something a little different to the table. Robinson is a big-bodied receiver who can battle in the air for catches. Lee is a bit smaller and quicker, and he brings the added element of return ability. Both players have excellent run-after-the-catch ability, something Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com thinks the team will get to use a lot of:
Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson are both great after the catch…Blake Bortles threw a million bubble screens at UCF, we'll see more of that— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) May 10, 2014
After picking guard Brandon Linder in the third round, the Jaguars spent the next three picks on defense. With their fourth-round pick, they selected corner Aaron Colvin. This was an excellent pick, as described by NFL Network's Mike Mayock.
"This is as good of a value pick as there will be coming out of this draft. Before Senior Bowl (where he suffered a knee injury), I thought he might have been a Day 2 pick."
Colvin was joined by Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith—who showed freakish athleticism, especially when running the second-fastest 40-yard dash at his position at 4.52 seconds—and defensive end Chris Smith. All three players look to be rotational players in their rookie years, but Colvin and Smith specifically look like they could be contributors for years if Colvin can overcome the knee injury and Smith can bulk up a bit.
The Jaguars' last pick in the draft came from the same school their first pick did, as they selected UCF running back Storm Johnson. Johnson was another good value pick for the Jags this late in the draft, as he was expected to go in the fourth or fifth round. His presence will give Bortles a familiar face to work with and allow for a bit easier of a transition. He will compete with Denard Robinson and Jordan Todman for snaps behind Gerhart.
Outlook and Expectations
With the key free-agent signings of Gerhart and Beadles and the absolutely outstanding draft, the Jaguars are really set up well for the future. For the first time in a number of years, there should be some real buzz surrounding Jacksonville going into the new season.
The team has the makings of a potent offense with Bortles, Lee, Robinson, Gerhart and Cecil Shorts III. Bortles will have an entire year, hopefully, to learn the playbook and work on the aspects of the game he needs to refine. If this offense can live up to its potential, we could be looking at the beginning of one of the more explosive offenses in the game.
The defense does still need some work. It did receive a boost from both free agency and the draft but is still lacking that true difference-maker on defense. This is something that is desperately needed, whether it is an all-star pass-rusher or a lockdown corner. The need for this type of player is multiplied due to the fact it has to face the likes of Andrew Luck twice a year.
For this upcoming season, I do expect the Jaguars to make some serious strides. However, they are still relying on a lot of young players to mature very quickly. I don't see them finishing above third place in the division since I expect the Texans to return to their playoff form. Still, this could be a blessing in disguise.
If they finish last again, it would put them in prime position to take one of the high-end defensive talents coming out next year, which could be the final piece to their puzzle. Personally, I think this team will be ready to make a statement in a year or two and give the rest of the AFC headaches for years to come.