Fact or Fiction for Jacksonville Jaguars' Biggest Offseason Question Marks
The main question mark hovering over the Jacksonville Jaguars offseason inevitably lies at quarterback. It concerns the choice between veteran incumbent Chad Henne and rookie Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Head coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell appear to have already made their choice. But is the decision to sit Bortles and trust the experience of Henne really the right move for a rebuilding team?
Of course, Jacksonville's success at quarterback could well be determined by the team's pass-catchers. A group of talented but young and unheralded wide receivers must prove they can thrive without Justin Blackmon.
Defensively, the questions are just as pressing. Specifically, has enough been done to boost an anemic pass rush?
Here's a fact-or-fiction judgment on the major question marks still surrounding the rebuilding Jaguars.
Toby Gerhart Can Replace Maurice Jones-Drew: Fact
Maurice Jones-Drew wasn't at his best during his final season in Jacksonville, but replacing him is still a tough job for the Jaguars. The man who is tasked with doing it is Toby Gerhart.
The former Minnesota Vikings backup is getting his first chance to be a lead runner in the NFL. But can a player who received only minimal carries during four seasons behind Adrian Peterson really lead this ground game effectively?
Gus comes from the Seattle Seahawks' model of playing good defense, relying on the run game where Marshawn Lynch was their 'Beast Mode' out there. Hopefully, I'll be the 'Beast Mode' down here for the Jaguars. I want to be a guy who helps turn this program around with a physical, punishing offense.
Gerhart is putting a lot of pressure on himself to be a true workhorse. Bradley has already indicated he expects at least "18 carries" per game from Gerhart, per Pro Football Talk reporter Mike Wilkening.
He definitely has the frame for the job. The 6'0", 231-pounder is a natural bruiser who runs with a power-based style. He came to the NFL from Stanford's power-heavy offense.
That makes him a good fit for a rushing attack that needs to be more physical than it was in 2013. The Jags averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last season. Gerhart, meanwhile, tallied 7.9 yards per his 36 attempts.
The only question mark concerning his suitability in Jacksonville could involve the blocking schemes. Bradley attempted to employ zone-based techniques when he first took over.
That was the scheme the former Seattle defensive coordinator saw Lynch thrive in. However, Jones-Drew resisted the change, something that might also happen to Gerhart.
The latter has been used to hat-on-hat power blocking since his Stanford days. If the Jags want the most out of Gerhart, they'll use a balanced blocking scheme, one that accommodates a healthy number of power plays.
If the scheme is tweaked to suit him, Gerhart can be a major success during Year 1 in Jacksonville. He can prove himself an able replacement for Jones-Drew.
The Pass Rush Has Been Significantly Strengthened: Fiction
It's impossible to deny that Bradley and Caldwell have made an effort to bolster a pass rush that registered just 31 sacks last season. However, it's difficult to believe they have done enough to significantly upgrade this area.
The Jaguars signed aging rush end Chris Clemons, along with linebacker Dekoda Watson in free agency. They waited until the fifth round to draft a pass-rusher, opting for the versatile Chris Smith.
That they didn't add more fresh faces, or at least target more marquee options, is proof they are content to gamble on progress. That means believing 32-year-old Clemons can bounce back, as well as thinking young players will be better in Bradley's second year.
That thinking led to the release of Jason Babin, according to ESPN.com reporter Michael DiRocco. Babin led a sack-shy team in quarterback takedowns in 2013.
But DiRocco has stressed how much Bradley believes in his younger players at the position:
Coach Gus Bradley has consistently praised third-year player Andre Branch, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2012, throughout OTAs. His burst off the ball and quickness around the edge is noticeable, and he has consistently been in the backfield during 11-on-11 drills. Though the players are only wearing helmets and prohibited from full contact, Branch appears to be ready to become the kind of consistent player he was during the second half of the 2013 season, when he recorded five of his six sacks in the final seven games.
Fifth-round pick Chris Smith doesn’t fit the Jaguars’ typical measurables for what they want in a LEO -- a hybrid end/linebacker whose primary responsibility is rushing the passer -- but they liked what they saw from him during Senior Bowl week so they took a chance. The 6-foot-1, 266-pound Smith is a little shorter than ideal, but he has long arms and runs well.
It's a risky move to trust largely unproven players to key a turnaround in such a vital area. The Jags play in an AFC South division that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andre Luck calls home. They must also be wary about the arrival of Ken Whisenhunt as head coach of the Tennessee Titans.
Whisenhunt is a sharp offensive mind who knows how to craft a dangerous passing scheme. Jacksonville's defense will need to apply consistent pressure if it's going to improve on last season's 27th ranking.
That's why it's a surprise that Bradley didn't covet more accomplished pass-rushers.
He brought Clemons in because he knows him from Seattle. Despite his fine pedigree, he mustered only 4.5 sacks last season. He is just about a year removed from suffering a torn ACL and undergoing major surgery.
That creates a big question mark over whether he will ever get back to the form that saw him log double-digit sacks three seasons running. If he can't, then Branch and Smith will be under greater pressure to deliver.
Of course, Bradley is not only banking on there still being life left in Clemons, but he's also ready to scheme a stronger pass rush.
One way he'll do it is by using Watson as an "Otto." That's the name given to a strong-side linebacker who is stacked on the defensive front and given plenty of rush responsibilities, per Florida Times-Union reporter Ryan O'Halloran.
But while that's a creative wrinkle, scheming can only get a team so far with its pass rush. Ultimately, the ability to consistently generate heavy pressure is determined by the talent of the athletes along the front seven.
The Jaguars may regret not recruiting more stellar talent for their pass rush.
A Young Wide Receiver Corps Can Thrive Without Justin Blackmon: Fact
The Jaguars appear content to live without 2012 fifth overall pick Justin Blackmon. The team's star wide receiver is serving an indefinite suspension.
Back in May, Caldwell ruled out the possibility of using Blackmon in 2014, per Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union. That means the Jags are content to go with their current crop of young and unproven flankers.
The group is led by Cecil Shorts III, who would be a terrific receiver if he could hang onto the ball with greater consistency. He is joined by Mike Brown and Ace Sanders.
The latter is a roving weapon who can be lined up anywhere by creative offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. What none of this trio possesses is imposing size. They are all shorter than 6'1" and weigh less than 205 pounds.
A lack of size is a problem the Jags have at this position without Blackmon, per Yahoo Sports writer Eric Edholm. But they went some way to solving the issue by using a second-round pick to draft 6'3", 210-pound Allen Robinson.
Earlier in the same round the Jaguars had selected Marqise Lee. This rookie duo gives the Jacksonville offense more physicality and big-play potential at wide receiver.
There is now a good balance at the position. Both Robinson and Lee can work on the outside, as well as over the middle. Meanwhile, diminutive speedsters like Shorts and Sanders could be very effective from the slot, attacking the inside seams.
Provided Lee and Robinson match their draft status and deliver on their potential, this is now a loaded position. It is certainly capable of thriving without Blackmon.
Jaguars Are Right to Sit Blake Bortles: Fiction
Caldwell hasn't been shy about the team's intention to let Bortles learn from the bench as a rookie. The general manager stated he wants to give Chad Henne a full season under center, per ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike" program (h/t Pro Football Talk reporter Mike Wilkening).
What they are doing has a lot of merit. Some of these guys who are going to bad teams are expected to play well right away. It's hard to do that. I've seen a couple guys able to do it. [Ben] Roethlisberger was able to do it. He had a team kind of around him. [Joe] Flacco had some success early but he had a team kind of in place. You go to a place that has some pieces and you can have some success early. But if you go to a team that doesn't have the pieces… it can really mess with your confidence.
Rodgers knows a thing or two about having to bide his time. It certainly worked out for the Super Bowl winner. However, sitting Bortles for a whole season is the wrong move for the Jaguars.
For one thing, why draft a player as high as third overall if you don't believe he's ready to play from Day 1? Selections used in the top five should be reserved for immediate difference-makers, not players who have to be shepherded through their development.
Rodgers' point about somebody like Baltimore Ravens passer Joe Flacco arriving to a ready-made team is well-taken, although it should be noted the Ravens were 4-12 the season before drafting Flacco.
The fact that the Jags are rebuilding is the whole reason why Bortles should start as a rookie. It makes sense to give him the opportunity to learn alongside a new and developing cast of supporting weapons.
He needs to establish a rapport with a group of young and talented receivers—players the Jags hope he will be connecting with for years to come. Not only that, but a young quarterback whom NFL defenses aren't ready for can provide a major spark for a floundering team. That's what Flacco did for the Ravens in 2008.
The Jaguars won't go as far as the AFC Championship Game, but they have improved in almost every area. Every area that is, except quarterback.
If they really believe Bortles is a franchise quarterback, then they must let him learn as he goes. He won't get ready if he's not on the field.
If they don't believe he is good enough to do that, then they had no business drafting him so high. That pick could have been used on a premier pass-rusher like Khalil Mack instead, while a developmental passer was added at the top of Round 2.
That would have made more sense for a team that thinks it can win now. But as the Jaguars are still locked in rebuilding mode, Bortles should be on the field early.
Chad Henne Is the Right Starter for This Team: Fiction
One of the main arguments against sitting Bortles is the absence of a truly competent incumbent. It's all very well for Rodgers to endorse a patient approach, but the Packers made that decision with Brett Favre under center.
The Jaguars are relying on Chad Henne in 2014. Bradley has been open about endorsing him as this team's starter, per NFL.com reporter Mike Coppinger.
But Bradley's willingness to leave the team in Henne's hands for another season is dubious. After all, this quarterback has never experienced a winning season in the NFL and threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2013.
Where is the evidence that Henne can lead the Jags to a winning year this season? Maybe that expectation is too high.
But if they are going to lose again with Henne, what does that really achieve? Surely, it's better to endure a tough first year with Bortles.
At least the byproduct of any struggles from the rookie would be a greater understanding of the speed and nuances of pro defenses, as well as a rapport with his supporting cast. Those are things that would make Bortles better in Year 2—something that is likely to turn the Jaguars into a winner sooner rather than later.
The Jags have done good work addressing many of their major personnel deficiencies. The running game and wide receiver contingent both appear stronger.
However, cause for concern is provided by the lack of premier talents along the front seven, particularly for the pass rush. But the biggest issue is the dubious decision about who will be under center in 2014.
Going with Henne seems like a sure way of prolonging a transition rather than fully committing to a new era.