Projecting Jacksonville Jaguars' Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
For the first time in a while, the Jaguars are a team inundated with talent and youth.
General manager David Caldwell found a way to augment this franchise with integral, long-lasting pieces through free agency and, of course, by way of the draft.
Looking at the current roster, we're able to break down five of the biggest positional battles using a concoction of advanced metrics and recent news.
The biggest showdowns in camp will be at running back, outside linebacker and center. Checking out all of the candidates who are vying for a starting gig, here's an extensive guide detailing everything you need to know about each battle.
Make no mistake about it: Toby Gerhart is the Jaguars starting running back entering the 2014 season.
But after Gerhart's place on the depth chart, the water becomes muddied.
It's never a bad thing to have too much depth. For the Jaguars, running back is a position they have plenty of options to lean on.
Denard Robinson, Jordan Todman and rookie Storm Johnson will be three names jockeying for the backup role.
Robinson, the former University of Michigan quarterback, is entering his second year in a Jags uniform. After a disappointing rookie campaign, he'll be looking to use his versatility to take that No. 2 spot.
Despite a rough start to his NFL career, head coach Gus Bradley expressed to Vito Stellino of Jacksonville.com that Robinson is focused on turning his misfortunes around.
Todman enters camp as the team's "forgotten" halfback. Without the allure of Robinson's versatility or the excitement of Johnson, by default the 24-year-old is going to be under the least amount of pressure.
Last season in a reserve role, his production was all over the place.
His crowning moment came in Week 15 against the Buffalo Bills. With 25 carries to his credit, Todman ran for 109 yards and caught four passes for an additional 44 yards.
In a complete effort, he looked good running behind a porous Jaguars offensive line—according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Jaguars offensive line finished as the worst run-blocking line in the NFL last season.
Finally, there's Johnson. He's the man who played a bulk of his college ball at UCF with new Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.
Johnson is an appealing runner. He's a powerful tailback who can cut upfield and use his frame to drive defenders back.
At rookie camp, the former UCF Knight impressed the coaching staff, according to Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel:
Johnson looked like his normal explosive self over the first two days of public practice at rookie minicamp in Jacksonville. With 6,214 fans in attendance on Saturday, Johnson broke off one or two nice runs, showing off his speed and ability to shake defenders, albeit against a defense that was not wearing any pads.
All three running backs have their own way of doing things. With an offseason that should once again by fueled by the sweet nectar of competition, who emerges from that gauntlet as the team's clear-cut No. 2 option is going to be one of the most intriguing storylines to watch unravel at camp.
Thanks to the addition of rookie Telvin Smith, the Jaguars now have some serious competition at outside linebacker.
If you projected the team's starting linebacker corps right now, it would look something like this: Dekoda Watson at the strong side, Paul Posluszny anchoring the middle and Geno Hayes at weak side.
Of all the guys who could be replaced, Hayes sticks out like a sore thumb—Watson was brought in during free agency, and Posluszny is coming off a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Last season, playing strong-side linebacker, Hayes struggled.
Though he was productive dropping back into coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, he finished 2013 with an overall negative-7.0 grade.
Hayes' biggest issue comes in run support. A negative-13.3 grade in that department made him the fourth-worst 4-3 linebacker in the league when it came to run defense.
Though Hayes has experience in Coach Bradley's scheme already, there's a chance Smith will be able to uproot him as the team's weak-side linebacker due to his versatility and outrageous athleticism.
His speed-infused skill set translates beautifully to a weak-side linebacker who will thrive playing off of the line of scrimmage.
Without Justin Blackmon on the squad, Caldwell went out this offseason and refurnished the Jags' fleet of wide receivers.
Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders are the two most notable returning members, while rookies Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee are the new guys.
Right now, you would imagine that Shorts and the 6'3" Robinson will be the team's Z and Z wide receivers, respectively.
Assuming that's the case, how Lee and Sanders get used will be up to offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.
Lee is explosive. He's the type of guy who can get the football in his hands and just go. Even though he's just 6'0", he plays bigger than his size indicates.
Sanders, on the other hand, is more of an "offensive weapon." Because of his size—5'7", 178 pounds—he will be conformed to the slot.
The beauty of having a player like Sanders on your roster is that he can become a "joker" of sorts. Whether he's lining up in the backfield or coming out of the slot, he's a creative chess piece that can be implemented to tear open a defense.
All of these guys will be factors regardless of what position they line up at.
The competition is going to be more about which player will emerge as the team's top pass-catcher entering the 2014.
Rebuilding the Jaguars offensive line was another task Caldwell embraced this offseason.
Inking former Denver Broncos guard Zane Beadles to a five-year deal was just the start of things to come.
The Jaguars were able to exit the draft with two potential starters.
University of Miami guard Brandon Linder and center Luke Bowanko from Virginia come to the team looking to make an impact at their respective positions.
Linder should have an easier path becoming a starter considering he was taken in the third round and the Jaguars are depleted at the guard position.
Bowanko, on the other hand, is going to be in for a heated battle.
The center position has been vacant ever since Brad Meester stepped away from the game at the end of the 2013 season.
Now with guys like Mike Brewster, Bowanko, Jacques McClendon and Patrick Lewis, finding a starter is going to be strictly based off each player's performance leading up to the regular season.
As it stands today, Brewster looks like he's the favorite to win the job. John Oehser of Jaguars.com explained why:
General Manager David Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley typically have mentioned Brewster first when discussing the position, with Bradley saying at the NFL Annual Meeting in late March the team felt confident when going through its end-of-season evaluations that Brewster “could hold the fort down” at the position.
Of course, nothing is set in stone. Only time will reveal the true identity of the club's starting center.
You can argue that the Jaguars will stick to their plan and relegate Bortles to the bench this season. You can tell me all about Chad Henne and how his experience in Coach Fisch's scheme makes him the right choice.
However, being the third overall pick in the 2014 draft puts pressure not only on Bortles but the regime in Jacksonville to make him the team's starter on Day 1.
Right now, listing Henne as the starter is smart. It quiets the whispers about Bortles being "ready" to start right away and instead allows him to learn Coach Fisch's system, as well as try to figure out how to grow as a passer.
Still, being a high draft pick is going to eventually lead to dialogue about starting.
Coach Bradley raved about his new quarterback after rookie minicamp, telling Hays Carlyon of Jacksonville.com, "We knew he had some things that we needed to develop, but his leadership and the flashes that we are seeing are great about him."
Training camp will be just the tip of the iceberg. What ends up happening during the preseason will be a huge focal point for the Bortles' narrative. If he comes out and carves up defenses, Henne could be put on notice early.
The "smart" decision will be giving Bortles a chance to improve as a quarterback without facing NFL defenses right out of the gate. Whether that holds up by the time September rears its head remains to be seen.