Predicting the Winner of the Jacksonville Jaguars' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Training camp is here, folks! It’s time to stop watching replays of last year’s games and prepare for a whole new season of Jacksonville Jaguars football!
There’s no doubt that this is an exciting time for Jaguars fans, as the team seems to be trending up. The leadership provided by owner Shad Khan, general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley has revitalized this team as it enters a true rebuilding project.
After going 4-12 last season, the club is certainly looking to improve. Thanks to the acquisition of some key free agents and draft picks, training camp is filled with more exciting position battles than ever.
Can Blake Bortles shine over Chad Henne?
Who will back up Toby Gerhart?
Who is the future at free safety?
Let’s take a look at these questions and more.
Backup Running Back
The Storyline: Who will be the main backup to Toby Gerhart?
The Contenders: Jordan Todman, Denard Robinson (RB/WR), Storm Johnson
The Prediction: Denard Robinson
The Jaguars signed Toby Gerhart this offseason to fill the void left by the departure of Maurice Jones-Drew. Gerhart is a power runner with decent speed and vision who will add a dimension of toughness to the rushing attack.
It’s widely believed that Gerhart will be heavily relied upon as a workhorse and could be in line for 300 carries this season.
The big question is, Who will fill in if Gerhart goes down?
Currently, the Jaguars have Jordan Todman, offensive weapon Denard Robinson and Storm Johnson in the wings. Todman is a veteran back who took over last season when Jones-Drew went down with injury, producing 109 yards on 25 carries and notching two touchdowns. Johnson is a rookie, and Robinson averaged 3.3 yards per carry on 20 carries in 2013.
While experience seems to be on Todman’s side, I wouldn’t count out Robinson just yet. Reports are surfacing that Robinson is looking more comfortable this offseason and could be in line for a larger role in the offense, per Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com (h/t Fansided).
Given Robinson’s versatility, he remains the player with the most upside. He’s a strong pass-catcher out of the backfield and an elusive runner. If he can flash during training camp, I expect him to win the job behind Gerhart.
The Storyline: Which three receivers will top the depth chart?
The Contenders: Mike Brown, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Ace Sanders, Cecil Shorts
The Prediction: Cecil Shorts, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee
Wild Card: Mike Brown
The receiver position will likely be the most exciting to watch during training camp, as the position easily possesses the most talent and potential.
Lee and Robinson are premier talents at the receiver position. Lee is a dynamic route-runner with excellent speed who can destroy defenses over the top. Robinson lacks elite speed, but he’s a polished route-runner with excellent hands and an outrageous catch radius.
As for the veteran competition, the Jaguars have an experienced stud in Cecil Shorts and two young players who have displayed great potential in Ace Sanders and Mike Brown.
Sanders could be relegated to a special teams role because of his dynamic speed and elusiveness. As for Brown, the second-year wide receiver was impressive last season in the slot, notching 446 yards on 32 receptions and two touchdowns. At 5'10", he lacks ideal size and is likely limited to the slot position, but he’s a strong route-runner with a solid football IQ.
Overall, I would be shocked to see anything but Shorts and Lee as the opening-day starters with Robinson playing the “X” receiver position in three-receiver formations. Brown will play a role as a dual-slot receiver when four receivers come on the field. Regardless of who starts, this group is talented from top to bottom.
The Storyline: Can the new acquisitions cement themselves as starters at outside linebacker?
The Contenders: Geno Hayes, LaRoy Reynolds, Telvin Smith, Dekoda Watson
The Prediction: Dekoda Watson (“Otto” linebacker) and Telvin Smith (“Will” linebacker) win starting roles.
OK, this is where things get complicated. Assessing defensive players and position battles is vastly more difficult than that of offensive skill positions. A defensive player’s impact cannot always be quantified by stats; therefore, it’s important to evaluate a player’s entire body of work.
When it comes to rookies and new acquisitions, it's difficult to project how they’ll do in a new defense because they have limited experience—all you can do is analyze the player in the past and make the best possible guess at how he'll perform in a new environment.
The Jaguars badly need an injection of talent at the outside linebacker position. In 2013 Geno Hayes graded as the 28th overall outside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) with an abysmal minus-5.4 rating. Moreover, the Jaguars lost their best outside linebacker when Russell Allen decided to retire.
Watson and Smith are both athletic linebackers with good instincts. They project to be playmakers at their positions and compete with passion. They’ll bring a swagger to this defense similar to that of the Seattle Seahawks.
The wild card here is LaRoy Reynolds, who will reportedly get the first shot at playing the Otto position, per Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country. Reynolds is strong and can set the edge and could emerge as a starting candidate.
Overall, I believe that Reynolds would be best as depth at middle linebacker. Watson and Smith will bring an attitude to the defense and can make plays against both the run and pass. Additionally, they are young, which allows them the time to develop and establish themselves as future leaders for a growing team.
Quarterback: Blake Bortles and Chad Henne
The Storyline: Will Blake Bortles put pressure on the organization to start him?
The Prediction: Bortles outplays Chad Henne in preseason but stays behind Henne on depth chart.
Blake Bortles isn’t necessarily in a positional battle, but he is a key player to watch in training camp. The organization has stood firm in saying that it will allow Bortles a year to develop.
Nevertheless, as camp starts, all eyes will be on the rookie signal-caller. If Bortles performs well, it may be hard for the team to sit him behind Chad Henne.
It will be interesting to see how Bortles works with the first-team offense. If he can develop chemistry with the receivers, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bortles sees some action in Year 1.
The Storyline: Can rookie Brandon Linder become the starter?
The Contenders: Brandon Linder, Jacques McClendon
The Prediction: Brandon Linder
This offseason the Jaguars made it a point to upgrade their offensive line. First, they signed veteran left guard Zane Beadles. Next, they drafted two offensive linemen in Brandon Linder and Luke Bowanko.
For now, let’s focus on Linder. The third-rounder will immediately battle Jacques McClendon, a two-game starter in 2013.
Linder is a strong guard with excellent footwork. He understands how to get leverage and use his hands. He has all the tools to be a career right guard in this league.
As for McClendon, he too is athletic, but he is the definition of a journeyman. He has been waived seven times by multiple teams.
The goal for the Jaguars is to build continuity with a young offensive line. For that fact alone, it seems like a smart move to put Linder in the starting lineup as soon as possible.
The Storyline: Who will be the free safety alongside Johnathan Cyprien?
The Contenders: Josh Evans, Winston Guy, Craig Loston
The Prediction: Winston Guy
It’s no secret that free safety Josh Evans was brutal last season. In 15 games in 2013 he allowed opponents to complete 85 percent of targets. Additionally, he allowed 243 yards and three touchdowns while only registering one pass defensed (according to Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
An upgrade at the position is essential.
The Jaguars are hoping that they have the future of the position on their roster. Besides Evans, Winston Guy and Craig Loston are the best options on the depth chart.
It’s feasible that Evans could still develop. He could make the leap with his rookie year behind him and an improved defense. However, Guy will be waiting if Evans comes to camp unprepared.
Guy, 24, will be eager to grab a starting spot. He’s a strong tackler who improved in coverage every year in college. He needs to work on his speed, but his instincts are above-average. It’s very likely that given the opportunity he would evolve into a playmaker on defense.
A guy to watch in the future is Loston. He is no lock to make the roster, but the undrafted free agent is a big hitter who has all the tools to develop in coverage. He could start on special teams while he adjusts to the speed of the NFL. Given a few years to develop, Loston could be the future for the Jaguars.
All stats courtesy Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.