Jacksonville Jaguars Offseason State of the Union
The Jacksonville Jaguars have had a very busy offseason following a dismal 4-12 2013 campaign. Head coach Gus Bradley is in his second year with the Jaguars and has two good drafts to build off of thanks to general manager David Caldwell, who is also in his second year.
The Jaguars made upgrades at nearly every position on the roster and so far it has been paying off. There have been a number of players who have impressed and look ready to start now. Others, like Blake Bortles, are showing real promise for the future.
While the Jaguars are far from the perfect team, they are showing real potential in certain spots. In other spots, they still have serious question marks that could hinder the progress of the team as a whole. With all of these changes happening in Jacksonville, it is a good time to sit down and dissect some of the more important storylines regarding the Jaguars.
Wide Receiver Corps Will Turn Some Heads
The Jaguars' passing offense is far removed from the years of dominance it saw with Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. It has been seven years since the Jaguars' passing attack has finished in the top 15 of the league. The Jaguars have struggled to replace Smith's production since his retirement in 2005, failing to have a 1,000-yard receiver during that time. Now, that is all about to change.
The one receiver who has really earned his keep during this time is Cecil Shorts III, a fourth-round pick in 2011. Over the past two seasons, he has 121 receptions for 1,756 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 2012, he posted 979 yards, which is the most yards produced by a wide receiver for Jacksonville since Smith's final year in 2005.
Shorts has been a reliable target but has the skill set better suited for a No. 2 receiver. The Jaguars thought they had found their answer at the No. 1 position when they drafted Justin Blackmon in 2012, but he has proven to be more of a headache than anything after receiving multiple suspensions for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
The Jaguars once again looked to the draft to solve this issue and came away with gold. They picked up USC superstar Marqise Lee and Penn State standout Allen Robinson in the second round to bolster their unit. Both players bring an incredibly diverse range of skills that will help turn this unit into one of the most dangerous units in the league.
Robinson is your standard No. 1 receiver. He uses his big frame (6'3", 220 pounds) to box out defenders and come down with contested catches. Lee, on the other hand, is your prototypical slot receiver at this level. He is an excellent route-runner who will excel running underneath routes where he can use his speed in space to get by defenders. Both players possess spectacular run-after-the-catch ability.
With this trio in place for the 2014 season and beyond, the Jaguars finally have a solid core group of young receiving talent to help their quarterback. This unit is by far their most improved from last year and it may very well be their best unit as well. I have already gone on record saying this will be the most improved offense in the league this year and the receivers are a big reason why.
The Linebackers Are Still a Bit Suspect
Given the Seattle Seahawks' recent defensive success, it is no wonder why Bradley, the architect of the Legion of Boom, is installing a similar defense in Jacksonville. The evolution continues this season as the Jaguars will be running sub-packages similar to the classic 46 "BEAR" defense. Bradley also scrapped the strong-side linebacker position for the new OTTO linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Bob Babich explained the new position during a radio interview on Jaguars Today on 1010XL, per Big Cat Country, stating:
OTTO is kind of going to be on the edge, we'd like to have some pass rush ability, in a pinch he could go down in a third-down situation to blitz him off the edge. It's something that's new to us, so formulating exactly what he's gonna be. But, it's gone really well and our guys have adjusted to it and our guys are excited about it. He can be strong or weak and most of the time he's going to be on the line of scrimmage, standing up.
This new linebacker spot puts more pressure on a unit that is the weak link of the defense. Paul Posluszny will remain the stalwart in the middle but the other two spots have some question marks about them.
Dekoda Watson was brought in from Tampa Bay during free agency to fill this OTTO linebacker spot. The major concern with this is Watson is very inexperienced. Despite appearing in 60 games in his four-year career so far, he has only six starts. Also, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has averaged under 200 snaps per year.
On the other side is last year's starter Geno Hayes. Hayes did not have a good year last year, grading out with a minus-7.0 mark, including a pitiful minus-13.3 grade against the run, per Pro Football Focus. Hayes did have a redeeming quality in his game play when it came to coverage, grading out with a plus-6.8 grade. Still, he has proven to be a liability on the weak-side.
This unit experienced the least amount of growth and is a serious question mark for this team going into the season. According to Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran, Watson has missed all 12 OTAs due to injury, something that doesn't bode well for a player learning a new position. With Watson yet to take the field and Hayes performing poorly when he did take the field, this is shaping up to be a long year at the linebacker position.
Players Under the Microscope
With the Jaguars looking like a team trending upward, there are a number of players who are under the coach's microscope and must prove they are in the team's future plans. Here is a brief breakdown of these players.
Tyson Alualu, Defensive Line: Alualu is flirting heavily with the bust label. After being selected 10th overall in the 2010 draft, he has only 11 sacks to his name. He switched from defensive tackle to defensive end last year and had his worst season yet, managing only 1.5 sacks.
The move to defensive end was an attempt to make him more like Red Bryant in Seattle; a defensive tackle playing defensive end to shut down the run. Even in this respect he failed, carrying a minus-1.0 grade against the run, per Pro Football Focus.
This is Alualu's last chance to prove his worth to this team. The people who drafted him are gone and the final year of his contract is voidable, making this year essentially a contract year, per Rotoworld.com. There is no buyer's loyalty left so if he doesn't prove himself, he won't be back.
Andre Branch, Defensive End: Branch was a second-round draft pick in 2012 and had a breakout year last year. He recorded six sacks despite not starting a single game.
So far, Branch has been making a good impression on his coaches in OTAs, with head coach Gus Bradley saying, 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."
With the Jaguars recently releasing veteran defensive end Jason Babin, the door is wide open for him to find playing time across from the newly acquired Chris Clemons. The Jaguars have been in dire need of a pass-rushing threat for years and now is the time for Branch to become that threat.
Denard Robinson, Running back: Despite being a fifth-round pick last year, Robinson had some pretty high expectations for the season. He was praised coming out of college for his immense athleticism, making people wonder where exactly he would play. The Jaguars didn't even have a specific place for him as he was listed on the roster as "OW" for offensive weapon.
Robinson's rookie season did not go nearly as planned. He managed only 20 carries for 66 yards, including a 24-yard run that resulted in a fumble on the 1-yard line. This year the Jaguars have him just focusing on being a running back.
He has all the physical traits necessary to be a dangerous change-of-pace back to Toby Gerhart's powerful running style. Now we just have to wait and see if he can live up to his potential.
Toby Gerhart Will Make His Presence Felt
The biggest offseason acquisition for the Jaguars is undoubtedly running back Toby Gerhart. Gerhart comes to a team that has been spoiled at the running back position since Fred Taylor was drafted in 1998. Since then, Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who left in free agency to Oakland, have produced 10 1,000-yard seasons. Gerhart looks to continue on this proud tradition of Jacksonville runners.
Gerhart was a second-round pick in 2010 for the Minnesota Vikings but saw limited action backing up Adrian Peterson. In what little action he did see, he made his impact known. In his career, he carries a 4.7 yards-per-carry average, including an impressive 7.9 YPC average last year.
Gerhart brings a powerful style of running to the Jaguars that will help them dictate the pace of the game. He is a bruiser of a running back on the verge of breaking out. Last year, Gerhart had 283 rushing yards, 136 of which came after contact, leaving him with a yards-after-contact average of 3.8 yards. To put this in perspective, Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson averaged 2.5 and 2.97 YAC, respectively.*
Gerhart has already been winning over his coaches. Jaguars running backs coach Terry Richardson said of him, "He's a horse. He's a big guy, and I talked to one of his former (position) coaches, and he was saying Toby had the strongest legs he's been around in terms of his leg drive and leg power. We're excited about that."
Gerhart has had the privilege of sitting behind the best running back of this generation for four years. He figures to find plenty of opportunities carrying the ball as the Jaguars won't want to rely too much on the passing game given the inexperience of their receivers. Now it is time for him to show everyone just what he is capable of.
*All stats from Pro Football Focus
Who Is Impressing?
There have been a number of players who have been impressive so far in OTAs. Here is a brief breakdown of each player.
Marcel Jensen, Tight End: The 6'6" undrafted rookie has bounced back from surgery in April to find himself in a good position to make the final roster. He is an athletic tight end who will take a bit of time to develop but could eventually take over the starting position from Marcedes Lewis in a few years.
"We knew he had athleticism to be able to catch the ball...Some of the skills we saw on tape are what we are starting to see now," said head coach Gus Bradley, via John Oehser of Jaguars.com.
Blake Bortles, Quarterback: Bortles was drafted third overall to be the Jaguars franchise quarterback. Despite his high-profile draft status, he will be sitting out his rookie year, according to general manager David Caldwell, who wants him to learn the position better before starting. So far, Bortles hasn't disappointed, per Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, 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.
Chad Henne, Quarterback: Henne will retain the starter role by virtue of Caldwell's words but this doesn't mean he hasn't earned the right to start. Henne has played well so far in OTAs and, as expected, is staying ahead of Bortles on the depth chart, per David Levin of FootballNation.com:
Coach Bradley has gone out of his way on multiple occasions during the first two weeks of OTAs to praise Henne. Bradley said the veteran quarterback has looked sharp and he talked Tuesday about Henne piling good practices on top of one another. He said Thursday Henne has done that throughout the first two weeks. That’s what the Jaguars wanted to see when they re-signed him in free agency.