Jacksonville Jaguars: Recapping the Latest Buzz Heading into Training Camp
The Jacksonville Jaguars start up training camp on July 24 and have more optimism than they have had in recent years. The Jaguars have made numerous additions this offseason in both the draft and in free agency to bolster a roster that led the team to a 4-12 finish last year.
On offense, the Jaguars have added multiple new starters, including receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, offensive linemen Zane Beadles and Brandon Linder and running back Toby Gerhart.
The defense also has a few new additions looking to make an impact in defensive linemen Red Bryant, Ziggy Hood and Chris Clemons and linebacker Dekoda Watson.
With all of this roster turnover, there are bound to be questions regarding the potential of the team. Many of these questions will start to be answered on Thursday.
With this in mind, let's preview some of the more interesting storylines surrounding the team leading into training camp.
Rookies Are Making Waves
One of the major reasons the Jaguars have so much optimism this offseason is that a number of their rookies have been performing already and are making good impressions on the coaches. Even better, some of these rookies weren't expected to make an impact so soon.
One of these rookies breaking expectations so early is undrafted tight end Marcel Jensen. The Jaguars knew he was a bit raw, but Jensen has the size needed for the position, coming in at 6'6" and 259 pounds.
Still, they could see his potential. Head coach Gus Bradley told reporters, "Some of the skills we saw on tape are what we are starting to see now. ... We knew he had athleticism to be able to catch the ball."
Jensen has himself in a good position to be the team's third and most likely final tight end. Odds are he won't be a huge part of the team's plan for 2014, barring any injury issues to Marcedes Lewis and Clay Harbor. However, he can place himself into the conversation for being Lewis' successor down the line and increase his role over the course of the season.
Another rookie turning heads is undrafted receiver Allen Hurns. A number of receivers have been dealing with injury issues during OTAs and minicamp, opening the door for him.
He has done well so far, even impressing starting quarterback Chad Henne, who told the media, "Allen Hurns had a heck of a camp. I'm excited to see what he does in training camp once we get the pads on. He's a big, strong receiver and understands the offense .... Just a really reliable guy."
No rookie was under more pressure to perform early than Blake Bortles. Bortles, drafted third overall, has been in the spotlight since stepping onto the field during rookie minicamp.
So far, he has done well handling the pressure of being the savior of the franchise and has done everything asked of him so far. Some have even called for him to start the season. Which brings us to the next slide...
Blake Bortles Will Not Be the Week 1 Starter
Despite how much pressure is put on other first-round rookie quarterbacks in the league like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, Bortles will not be the starting quarterback in Week 1. General manager David Caldwell has already said Bortles will be sitting out his rookie year.
As I eluded to in the previous slide, Bortles has been having a very good camp so far. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said of Bortles, per 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.
It is excellent news for the franchise to hear that Bortles is coming along so well this early, but they shouldn't jump the gun and start him right away.
This is the mistake that was made when they drafted Blaine Gabbert. He wasn't ready for the starting role and had to do a lot of on-the-job training, which resulted in him regressing rather than learning. The offensive line wasn't doing its job, which led to Gabbert sensing pressure that wasn't supposed to be there.
This is an issue that Bortles could face this year if thrown in too early. The Jaguars will have three new starters on the offensive line (four if you count Luke Joeckel, who played in only five games last year). With this much change along the line, it could take awhile for them to mesh together, resulting in missed assignments early on in the season.
If there are too many of these missed assignments, Bortles could get the same shell-shocked demeanor that plagued Gabbert and, more famously, David Carr of the Houston Texans. This simply isn't a risk the Jaguars should be taking. They are a team on the rise with numerous young, exciting players on the roster. There is no point in putting him on the field before he is ready and jeopardizing the future of the franchise.
Now, I will say that it is possible for Bortles to see some action late in the season under certain circumstances. If the Jaguars reach the point in the season where it is impossible to make the playoffs, Bortles may be put in just to get some real-time experience to prepare him for next season.
Running Backs Ready to Lead Offense
For most of their history, the Jaguars have been spoiled at the running back position. Since 1998, they have had either Fred Taylor or Maurice Jones-Drew (or both) in the backfield, both of whom were top-end running backs.
This season puts the Jaguars in some unfamiliar territory, as Jones-Drew was not re-signed following last season and Toby Gerhart was brought in from Minnesota to be his replacement.
Gerhart now joins the Jaguars, looking to carry the torch from MJD. He saw limited action backing up Adrian Peterson, but 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 is an extremely physical runner who uses his large frame (6'0", 231 pounds) to run through defenders rather than around them. 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.
He has already been making a good impression in camp, with running backs coach Terry Richardson saying, "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."
Denard Robinson is the other running back on the roster for whom everyone has high hopes. Despite being a fifth-round pick, Robinson had a lot of expectations last season. He was labeled "OW" (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.
It has since come to light that Robinson was suffering from nerve damage to his arm following a hit to his elbow in the 2012 season against Nebraska. According to Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union (h/t Big Cat Country), Robinson had trouble keeping his hand open, impacting his ability to carry and catch the ball. O'Halloran disclosed some of the details of the injury, saying:
He didn’t have full strength in his hand and he couldn’t keep it open....
With nerves, you never know when they’re going to re-generate – it could be a day, two days, a year, two years, three years. With the time off this off-season and a lot of work, it came back for him.
Fortunately for the Jaguars, Robinson seems to have made a full recovery, which is already showing. They re-evaluated their expectations for him and have him focusing on just the running back position instead of spreading him across multiple positions. With the injury healed up, Robinson is looking more confident, according to John Oehser of Jaguars.com:
Robinson’s rookie struggles have been well-documented, focused mostly on ball security. But the nerve damage in his hand that hampered him much of his rookie season reportedly has healed and he looked far more confident during the offseason. Robinson has the speed and playmaking ability to change momentum and games, and showed flashes of that as a rookie. ... He won’t likely get as many touches as Gerhart, but Robinson’s playmaking is such that he doesn’t need a mammoth amount of carries to make an impact.
It is commonplace for teams to have a running back-by-committee approach, and the Jaguars are no different. They have the makings of a potent one-two punch with Gerhart and Robinson. If both players can live up to their potential, the Jaguars' running game could dominate the AFC South.
Injuries Are Having an Early Impact
One issue that may limit the potential of the Jaguars this season has been the rash of injuries the team has faced so far this offseason. Numerous key players have been limited by injuries which have significantly impacted their ability to be ready for full-speed practices during training camp.
One of the most heavily hit positions has been the receiver group. Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Cecil Shorts III, all expected starters, have all been limited due to various injuries. It is especially detrimental for Lee and Robinson, since they are rookies expecting to have a large impact and need all the time they can get to prepare for the speed of the NFL.
Another player whose injury poses a serious concern is linebacker Dekoda Watson. Watson was brought in from Tampa Bay during free agency to play the new "Otto" linebacker position, which replaces the strong-side linebacker. Like the two rookie receivers, Watson needed all the time he could get to learn this position, because despite playing 60 games in his four-year career he has only six starts.
There was hope he could be ready for training camp, but it is looking very unlikely that he will even be ready for the start of the season. Watson required surgery for the groin issue that kept him out of all workouts thus far. He has since been placed on the PUP list.
Free safety Josh Evans is another player who was bitten by the injury bug and could lose his starting job because of it. Evans, a sixth-round pick last year, started 11 games in relief of the injured Dwight Lowery and was expected to remain the starter this year, according to The Florida Times Union, (h/t Rotoworld).
Unfortunately, Evans is still recovering from surgery on his foot, forcing him to miss all workouts so far. He did gain some valuable experience last year in the starting role and did improve as the year went on, but he needed another good offseason to really make the most of his abilities.
The silver lining is that some players have taken this opportunity to stake their claims. Allen Hurns has stepped up in the absence of Robinson and Lee to show that he is a legitimate contender for the final roster. Others, like linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and free safety Winston Guy, have taken advantage of the extra snaps to all but secure their starting roster spots.
Offensive Line Must Answer Questions
With all of the improvements on the offensive side of the ball, the one position that has gotten lost in the shuffle is the offensive line.
No matter how many upgrades the Jaguars made to their skill positions, it can all be undone by poor offensive-line play. This is something that is of concern given how inexperienced this line is.
As I stated earlier, the offensive line has essentially four new starters. Last year's starting guards, Uche Nwaneri and Will Rackley, were both let go in free agency, while stalwart center Brad Meester retired after 14 years. Luke Joeckel started the first five games of the year but missed most of the season after sustaining an injury in the fifth game.
The only player returning to the same position for Jacksonville is right tackle Austin Pasztor...and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Pasztor had trouble managing the right-tackle spot, especially in the run game, having a minus-11.6 grade per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Jaguars dove into free agency to help solidify the line with the acquisition of former Denver guard Zane Beadles. Beadles was generally considered one of the top guards on the market but also paled in comparison to the guards ahead of him (Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah). He has a lot of potential and is still young enough to tap it, but he must show up as the veteran presence on the line.
Mike Brewster will be kicking inside to center after making a handful of starts at guard over the past two seasons. Brewster was a highly decorated center coming out of Ohio State but wound up going undrafted. Next to him at right guard will most likely be rookie Brandon Linder. Both players must play beyond their years in order to keep things running smoothly.
Of course, everyone will be watching how Joeckel does coming back from the injury. Joeckel has already put the injury behind him, telling Carlyon, "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 must show he is ready to anchor the offensive line and be the franchise left tackle. He will have his hands full in the AFC South, as he will be facing the likes of Robert Mathis, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. He made a name for himself in college shutting down some of the best pass-rushers the SEC had to offer. Now he must do it at the NFL level.
The potential is there for the Jaguars' offense to improve by leaps and bounds this year, but it is very dependent on how well the offensive line plays. This is a very young and inexperienced line. To put it one way, Beadles has played more games than the rest of the line has combined.
If they can all live up to their potential and mesh together quickly, it will be a giant step forward for this young offense.