OTAs got underway last week throughout the league. This is the first opportunity players have to work with the new faces, and it is the first time coaches have to evaluate the players on the field. The Jacksonville Jaguars are no different and have a number of players they are specifically watching this offseason.
Some of these players are out to prove themselves worthy of a high spot on the depth chart, while others are looking to surprise coaches. Either way, it promises to be an exciting time.
Denard Robinson, Running Back
Despite being a fifth-round pick, Denard Robinson had a lot of expectations last season. He was labeled "OW" for offensive weapon, due to the versatility he was expected to bring. Unfortunately, his rookie year culminated in just 20 carries for 66 yards, including a 24-yard run ending in a fumble at the 1-yard line.
Robinson now goes into this offseason with a new focus on just the running back position. It is something head coach Gus Bradley thinks will help him achieve success this season, stating, via Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union (h/t NFL.com), "He understands he is a running back. He's a more confident athlete and I think he is really looking forward to this."
The Jaguars will be watching him closely to see how well he progresses at this defined role. Free-agent acquisition Toby Gerhart will be the starter, but Robinson will compete for the backup position.
Physically, he is the best candidate for the role, but he needs to adapt his physical talents to the position. He is fast, agile and able to slip by defenders at the line of scrimmage, something that is evident at numerous points during the video below.
The pressure is on for Robinson to achieve the potential everyone knows he has. If he reaches it, the Jaguars should field one of the best running back tandems in the league. If not, then he will be just another forgotten name.
Blake Bortles, Quarterback
Blake Bortles was the third pick in this year's draft and the first quarterback taken. He was selected to be the quarterback of the future for them and allow them to hopefully move on completely from the Blaine Gabbert fiasco.
After selecting him, general manager David Caldwell made it perfectly clear that the plan is to sit Bortles during his rookie year and let Chad Henne start. This is likely due to the fact they started Gabbert in his rookie year, well before he was ready.
Still, there is a chance that Bortles impresses enough that he could pry the starting job out of Henne's hands. Bortles possesses excellent pocket presence and poise, something Gabbert lacked. He has good accuracy and velocity on short-to-intermediate passes. He has all the tools necessary to be a franchise quarterback for the Jaguars.
The major thing lacking for Bortles is experience. He spent a lot of time in the shotgun instead of under center, so he needs time to adjust to it and work on his footwork. However, he has been impressing his coaches so far. Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said of the rookie, via Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union:
Blake was able to overcome a rookie mistake going the wrong way early, then the next time making a real nice throw. I think we’ll see that throughout the spring. We’ll see ups and downs, but he’ll continue to live through it, build and grow. He used his feet really well, so that was cool to see. ... He is committed to working hard and doing things right. His study habits have been excellent. His questions have been excellent.
Chances are slim that he becomes the starter this year, but if he shows enough now, it may be enough for the coaches to pull the trigger on him. Even if they don't, if he starts performing well now, it at least gives the organization, and the fans, something to look forward to down the line.
Andre Branch, Defensive End
Andre Branch is the latest high-round defensive end drafted by the Jaguars, being picked in the second round of the 2012 draft. He was picked in hopes of changing the fortune of the team's pass rush that hasn't placed in the top half of the league in sacks since 2007.
Branch took a big step in his sophomore year, recording six sacks (second on the team) despite not starting a game. However, he still has a large hill to climb to break into the starting role. The Jaguars picked up pass-rushing specialist Chris Clemons in free agency and they still have Jason Babin, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season. He may also have to contend with Tyson Alualu, who started 16 games at defensive end last year.
Branch has a lot riding this offseason.
He must prove to the coaches that he can handle the starting role in his third year. He has already caught the eye of Coach Bradley, who said, via The Florida Times-Union, "He is another guy with his pressure on the quarterback, just watching him do drill work, some of his vision that we talked to him about. He’s done a nice job."
Branch has a long road ahead of him to make fans forget about the busts Jacksonville has drafted, like Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. If he is to change this trend, it all starts now.
Luke Joeckel, Left Tackle
The Jaguars had a rough time at the tackle position last year.
They sported one of the best tackle combos at the beginning of the season with Eugene Monroe manning the left side and Luke Joeckel manning the right. The Jaguars had enough faith in Joeckel to trade Monroe to the Ravens. However, in his first action at left tackle, Joeckel broke his ankle and his season was done.
Joeckel has quite the offseason ahead of him now. Not only is he tasked with bouncing back from the injury but also proving that he can aptly replace Monroe, who had an outstanding season with the Ravens, grading out as the 12th-best tackle in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
During his time at Texas A&M, Joeckel shut down some of the best pass-rushers the SEC had to offer. He has to get back to that form in order to handle the talent he will be facing in the AFC South, such as J.J. Watt and Robert Mathis.
He is in no risk of losing his starting spot and he has already put the injury behind him, saying, via Carlyon (h/t NFL.com), "It's done. I'm trying to throw it out of my mind. I've just got to play football now at a fast and strong level. I can't think of myself as an injured, pathetic guy."
Now he just has to show the form that made him the most-touted lineman in last year's draft.
Ace Sanders, Wide Receiver
Ace Sanders had a decent rookie year, being the second-leading receiver on the team with 51 receptions for 484 yards. Like Branch, however, Sanders has quite a large hill to climb if he wants to see significant playing time this season. He figures to be stuck behind Cecil Shorts III and rookie receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson.
Sanders is one of the smallest receivers in the league, coming in at just 5'7" and 178 pounds. He uses his diminutive size to his advantage, excelling at slipping by the line of scrimmage on underneath screens and flare routes, a trait that is on display in the video below.
Sanders now needs to show a lot of growth in his second season if he wants any hope of surpassing either of the new rookie pass-catchers on the depth chart. His roster spot isn't in jeopardy since he is still the primary punt returner. Sanders knows the pressure is on, telling John Oehser of the team's website:
"I’m really holding myself accountable. I should know this stuff. I know what to expect now. I have a head start on stuff. The coaches are working with us. We have all this time to work together. I’m expecting to just build off that last season."
All five of these players have a lot riding on them. This is especially true since all five are young players who can shape the future of this franchise. If they all are able to hit their peak, they will help form the core of a perennial playoff contender.
Now is the time to see who is ready to take their play to the next level.