Early Predictions for Jacksonville Jaguars' 2014 Training Camp Battles
A potential tussle at quarterback will be the most entertaining training camp question the Jacksonville Jaguars have to answer. Veteran Chad Henne knows he is simply keeping the job warm for this year's third overall draft pick.
But there will also be an intriguing battle involving players who might catch passes from the eventual starting signal-caller. That's where a pair of second-round choices can make their mark.
Defensively, the competition at one outside linebacker spot should be fascinating. It pits a veteran who can be effective on the blitz against an undersized rookie who might be the better scheme fit.
Here are some early predictions for the Jags' best training camp battles.
Tight End: Clay Harbor Will Beat Marcedes Lewis to the Starting Job
It remains to be seen if a relatively new regime is actually pleased with Marcedes Lewis as the team's starting tight end. Head coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell have certainly pursued ways of expanding their options at the position.
One of those ways involved re-signing Clay Harbor. The ex-Philadelphia Eagles tight end has greater move skills than the more classically in-line Lewis.
But even if the team is starting to shift away from Lewis, he is unlikely to let his job go without a fight. The 30-year-old has tremendous size, although he's never really maximized his ample 6'6", 272-pound frame.
For his part, Lewis is convinced he can still be the sort of roving weapon modern tight ends are expected to be in today's pro schemes. He wants to be counted on to do it all, as he told Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union:
I don’t want to be a guy that when we’re running power, they have to take me out. Or if it’s third-and-short, they have to take me out and put an extra lineman in. No. I take pride in that. I’m going to block like a lineman and run my routes like a receiver. I want to block your best defensive end and be a mismatch problem in the passing game. I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to win games.
There was a time when Lewis' place as the starting tight end in Jacksonville was not disputed. But Harbor ensures very strong competition for the veteran.
Don't be surprised if the former Eagle has supplanted Lewis by the time the 2014 season begins.
Free Safety: Winston Guy Wins the Job Ahead of Josh Evans
Winsotn Guy is taking advantage of an injury to his competition to cement his status as Jacksonville's natural starting free safety this season. Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union reported that Guy has worked with the first-team units and impressed staff during OTAs:
Guy ran with the first-team defense partly because Josh Evans (foot) is injured and partly because the coaches liked what they saw last year.
Guy played only four snaps in the first eight games, but 349 snaps in the final eight weeks. He finished with 24 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery.
Coach Gus Bradley likes Guy’s ability to play physical (he’s 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds) if the game plan calls for him to play near the line of scrimmage, but also display athleticism if playing in a single-high look.
As a former member of the Seattle Seahawks, Guy knows Bradley's defensive schemes well. So that gives him an obvious edge over Evans.
The latter made 11 starts as a rookie last season, but he forced no turnovers, per figures from NFL.com. Bradley knows he needs more big-play capability from this position.
Expect Guy to have the job wrapped up by the time OTAs conclude.
Backup Running Back: Storm Johnson Edges out Denard Robinson for Backup Role
The starting running back role should belong to new arrival Toby Gerhart. The former Minnesota Vikings reserve can be a workhorse.
In fact, Bradley used that phrase "horse" when describing Gerhart's likely role this season, according to Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union.
But there are question marks about who could take some carries away from Gerhart. Basically, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch needs a speedy complement to Gerhart's obvious power.
Fisch has as many as five candidates to choose from. ESPN.com reporter Michael DiRocco has described how the field looks behind Gerhart:
Despite the Jaguars' confidence in Toby Gerhart, there is still some doubt among those outside the team over his ability to be a feature back. He has not done it since his days at Stanford, spending the past four seasons backing up Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. The plan is around 20 touches per game, but if he’s not able to handle that workload or be productive, there are not a whole lot of options behind him. Second-year player Jordan Todman, who backed up Maurice Jones-Drew last season and ran for 109 yards in his only start of the season, is the only proven ball carrier behind Gerhart. Denard Robinson has to fix his ball security issues. Seventh-round pick Storm Johnson has quickly become a fan favorite, but he was taken that late for a reason. Moments after drafting him, coach Gus Bradley said Johnson really struggles in pass protection and he also has trouble holding onto the football. After Johnson, it’s undrafted rookies Beau Blankenship and Terrance Cobb.
Despite DiRocco's reservations, as versatile scat-style backs, Denard Robinson and Storm Johnson will stay near the top of the list. Fisch can get creative with how he uses the pair, even lining them up as wide receivers.
While he won't be able to expand the playbook in the same ways with Jordan Todman, Fisch is likely to want to keep him around as a more natural runner. The real competition will be between Johnson and Robinson.
The former's familiarity with rookie quarterback Blake Bortles, a college teammate, should give him the edge.
Outside Linebacker: Telvin Smith Will Beat Dekoda Watson to a Starting Job
Fifth-round pick Telvin Smith has already made a positive impression. Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union identified the ex-Florida State ace as a standout at Jacksonville's rookie minicamp:
On Friday, the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Smith reacted quickly to a check-down pass, showing off his burst. Later in the practice, he was responsible for second-round pick Marqise Lee in the slot. Quarterback Blake Bortles, the third-overall pick, looked to Lee the whole play while rolling out, but Smith had Lee covered. Bortles kept the ball, running out of bounds. Babich ran 20 yards to go celebrate with Smith.
Carlyon's recap of some brief Smith-led action is important in understanding why he can win a starting role on this season's defense. The key word is versatility.
As a safety-sized linebacker, Smith gives Bradley's front seven and nickel schemes greater flexibility. Being able to line him up in the slot and not worry about his speed staying with a receiver is a massive bonus.
It means Bradley can keep his secondary in a familiar coverage shell, and not have to disrupt the structure by moving safeties around to cover slot receivers and spread alignments.
Smith would be severely undersized in most schemes, but not the one Bradley runs. He was defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks when seventh-rounder Malcolm Smith, a 226-pounder, joined the team.
Smith won a starting job and eventually became Super Bowl MVP last season. Bradley knows the value of quick and light linebackers who can really run and cover.
Those qualities will give Smith the edge over veteran Dekoda Watson. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers special teamer is useful on the blitz and has the physicality a strong-side linebacker usually needs.
But in a scheme defined by speed and swarming pursuit, the Jags will be able to do more with Smith.
Wide Receiver: Marqise Lee Wins a Starting Job over Ace Sanders and Mike Brown
Using consecutive second-round picks on a pair of big wide receivers was a smart move by Caldwell during the 2014 NFL draft. The first of those picks, Marqise Lee, will win a starting job this offseason.
As a natural flanker with the speed to stretch a coverage scheme and win on the outside, Lee is something Jacksonville lacked last season. Justin Blackmon's suspension removed the one wideout who could truly scare defenses.
With Blackmon not around, Lee can make that role his own as a rookie. As NFL.com draft pundit Nolan Nawrocki noted, Lee's route-running ability is excellent:
Is a nifty runner after the catch -- can navigate through traffic and create with the ball in his hands. Can shift into top gear and run by tacklers -- terrific acceleration and short-area burst. Fine route runner -- understands how to set up defensive backs and has an innate feel for coverage. Understands how to manipulate man and zone coverage and can create separation when he needs to uncover. Very good hand-eye coordination. Tracks the deep ball very well -- has a knack for running underneath it.
Those are qualities that will help Lee stand out above fellow pass-catchers Ace Sanders and Mike Brown. Sanders is very useful as a roving weapon, but is probably best as a sub-package player.
Considering the Jags will either have a struggling veteran or a raw rookie under center, Lee's intelligent route running will be an invaluable asset.
Count on him starting alongside Cecil Shorts III, another fine route-runner, once the season begins.
Quarterback: Chad Henne Keeps His Job for Now
Most eyes will be on Blake Bortles throughout the team's OTAs. That's only natural considering the investment the Jaguars have made in 2014's third overall pick.
Bortles is obviously ticketed as this team's quarterback of the future. The next question is how soon will that future arrive?
Don't be surprised if it's during this season, even if incumbent Chad Henne keeps his job for now. That's the way things are presently shaping up.
Bortles has worked with second-team units at OTAs, per Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union. Bradley has been telling anybody who will listen that he is prepared to let Bortles spend his first pro season warming the bench, per NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus.
The Jaguars are making all the right noises about taking their time with Bortles. However, this is a significantly more talented team than it was last season.
The defense should be strong, while the offense now has greater options at the skill positions. That puts genuine pressure on Henne.
Henne will still get the first chance, but if he can't deliver, Bortles will be in sooner than expected.