Jacksonville Jaguars: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action
Well, it is getting to be that time of year again. Training camp is in full swing, and preseason is just around the corner. The Jacksonville Jaguars kick off their preseason schedule on Friday, August 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This is a day all Jaguars fans will be counting down to as we will finally get to see some real results from all the offseason hype. The Jaguars offseason has been filled with optimism stemming from numerous young players performing well in camp.
A number of questions still remain in Jacksonville, and some of them will start to be answered in a few days. Until then, let's break down some of the key things to watch for in preparation of the Jaguars' first game of the year.
How Will Blake Bortles Do?
This is the main question on everybody's mind. Blake Bortles was drafted third overall in May and has the expectations of being the savior of the franchise. The Jaguars finally were able to move on from the disastrous Blaine Gabbert experiment and now look to the future with confidence.
Bortles has performed well in camp thus far, earning the praise of his coaches. 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.
This has been Bortles' biggest asset in camp. He has been willing and able to learn from the mistakes he has made and improve upon his game.
Like any rookie quarterback, Bortles has made some bad throws in camp, but he doesn't let it affect his confidence, a trait that has caught the eye of head coach Gus Bradley, who said, via Jaguars.com: "[Bortles] threw a seam route with two guys on him, and he put it right between them. He made a great throw. That tells me something right there: He has no fear of failure, and that’s a really cool sign for a quarterback."
Despite Bortles' excellent showing in camp so far, he is still not the favorite to start Week 1. That honor goes to Chad Henne, because the Jaguars want Bortles to sit out his rookie year and hone his craft. Bradley even went so far as to say on Jaguars Today (h/t Big Cat Country), "In a perfect world, Chad Henne starts all 16 games."
Still, no player will garner more attention in the preseason than Bortles. He will have the opportunity to show everything he has learned in the offseason and prove that he can be the future of the franchise. He likely will go through some growing pains, but as long as he learns from them and can improve upon them, he will give all Jaguars fans something to look forward to next season.
The Unveiling of the Otto Linebacker
From a defensive perspective, this is an exciting time for Jacksonville as Bradley will be rolling out the newly created "Otto" linebacker. Defensive coordinator Bob Babich explained what this new position would entail during a radio interview on Jaguars Today on 1010XL (h/t Big Cat Country):
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.
Fourth-year pro Dekoda Watson was brought in from Tampa Bay in free agency to take over this new position. Unfortunately, Watson has been all but invisible for the Jaguars as he has been sidelined by injury for most of the offseason. He recently underwent sports hernia surgery and has since landed on the PUP list.
This has left second-year pro LaRoy Reynolds as the next man up. He has been taking all first-team snaps at the new position and looks to have it locked down, regardless of when Watson comes back from his injury.
This is an interesting saga as the linebacker corps is one of the biggest question marks on the team. If the transition to this new linebacker spot does not go smoothly, it could throw off multiple defensive assignments. If it does transition smoothly, it should help a league-worst pass rush from a year ago get pressure on the quarterback.
Which Receiver Will Step Up?
The Jacksonville Jaguars have fielded one of the weakest receiving corps in the NFL in recent years. This year has a different feeling, however, as they have numerous young players primed to make a big impact early on.
The pressure is on for these youngsters. The receivers who are expected to make an impact—Cecil Shorts, Allen Robinson and Ace Sanders—will be inactive for most, if not all, of the preseason. Shorts and Robinson are both battling through injury, while Sanders has taken a leave of absence following a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
This leaves three open slots for players to prove themselves. The top player on this list is second-round receiver Marqise Lee. He had a nightmarish fall out of the first round despite preseason predictions of him being a top-10 pick.
Lee is a shifty receiver who relies on his speed and acceleration to make big plays. He is excellent after the catch and brings the added dimension of returning kicks. He can be an explosive player out of the slot for the Jaguars.
Another player to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie Allen Hurns. At 6'3", he is the tallest receiver on the team alongside Robinson. He has been taking advantage of the numerous injuries to the receiving corps and has left his mark on the coaching staff.
Starting quarterback Chad Henne was impressed as well. Per Ken Hornack of Fox Sports, Henne said, "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."
Lee and Hurns will also have to hold off veterans Tandon Doss and Mike Brown. Lee will be fighting to prove he can be a starter, whereas Hurns will be fighting for a roster spot. If they can make a good impression, it will give the coaches some comfort while waiting for Shorts and Robinson to return.
Which Running Back Will Steal the Show?
Much like the receivers, the coaches and the fans will be looking for a running back to break away from the pack in the battle for the backup position. Toby Gerhart is being held out of the preseason opener due to a hip flexor, which means the trio of backs vying for the backup role will see extended playing time during the first game.
Now is the time for someone to make his move.
The one running back everyone has been watching has been Denard Robinson. He failed to live up to the lofty expectations set for him in his rookie season, compiling only 66 yards on 20 carries, including a 24-yard run ending in a fumble on the 1-yard line.
Robinson had some problems with fumbles last season, contributing to his lack of success. It was announced earlier this offseason that this issue stemmed from nerve damage to his arm following a hit he took in 2012. He has since healed completely and is more confident than ever. He is looking to use his great combination of speed and agility to stake his claim as the change-of-pace back.
As much as Robinson wants that position, he is getting a surprising amount of competition from veteran Jordan Todman. Per Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com, head coach Gus Bradley was impressed by Todman, saying, "You’re seeing him break some. The other day he had one where he broke, and you saw him accelerate. Today he had another one, and I think that’s what we’re counting on him for—to give that change-up, that burst that we know he has."
Todman had little buzz about him up until this point, with most of the attention being on Robinson and seventh-round pick Storm Johnson. By catching on here near the beginning of the season, Todman may very well steal back some of the carries Robinson was expected to take and may even supplant the second-year player as the favorite for the backup role.
Johnson doesn't figure to factor too much into this race as he still has some learning to do. However, we have seen seventh-round running backs, such as Ahmad Bradshaw and Bryce Brown, make a surprising impact for their team. Johnson has the ability to replicate their success since he was projected to go a few rounds higher than he did, but only time will tell.
Can the Defensive Line Provide Pressure?
One issue that has plagued the Jaguars for years is their pass rush. They finished tied for last in the league in sacks last year for the second year in a row and haven't placed in the top half of the league in sacks since 2007. They desperately need to improve in this area, and the game against Tampa Bay will be a great first look at how things are coming along.
The Jaguars will be looking to get pass-rush production from Chris Clemons and Andre Branch. Clemons had the best years of his career when Bradley was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. During that three-year span, Clemons racked up 33.5 sacks but managed only 4.5 last year. Coming to Jacksonville, Clemons is hoping for a career revival.
Branch had a breakout season last year, compiling six sacks despite not starting a single game. This was an excellent leap forward for the third-year player who was drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft in hopes of bringing a legitimate pass-rusher to the Jaguars.
Another player to keep an eye on is fifth-round rookie Chris Smith. He has been gaining some praise in camp for his versatility and high motor. Smith was knocked for being on the smaller side at only 6'1", but Bradley made it clear that isn't a hindrance. He said, per Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com, "He’s not as tall, but he’s got good length in his arms, and that’s what’s showing up."
The Jaguars pass rush should get some opportunities to get after the quarterback when they take on Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers offensive line graded out as the 25th-worst offensive line in terms of pass-block efficiency last year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In the best-case scenario, the Jaguars defensive line will handle the Tampa Bay offensive line, and it will gives us a peek into just how much this line has improved. The worst-case scenario would see the Jaguars find very little success attacking the offensive line, leading to concerns that not enough was done.
Either way, this question, and all the others that have been talked about in this article, will start to be answered on August 8.