Jacksonville Jaguars Rookie Training Camp Progress Reports
However, one of the offseason highlights for this year's rookie class has been the form of fifth-round linebacker Telvin Smith. He has consistently impressed his coaches and is pushing for a prominent role in a scheme suited to his best attributes.
If there's reason to be cautious it comes from the failing health of the team's second-round wide receivers. Both Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee are being counting on to revive a previously dormant passing game. Sadly, each first-year pass-catcher has had trouble even making it onto the practice field.
Here's a more in-depth look at every member of Jacksonville's draft class, as well as a focus on any undrafted rookies catching the eye.
Blake Bortles, QB
The Jaguars have stayed true to a simple plan this offseason: adopt a steady approach to get third overall pick Bortles up to speed.
At times this approach has been so steady it's almost resembled a crawl. For instance, the towering (6'5"), strong-armed passer hasn't had any work with the starters. As in none at all, per Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union:
Bortles snaps with 1s since he was drafted: Zero.
— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) August 7, 2014
Not only does that reaffirm a commitment to veteran Chad Henne as the starter, it also leaves no doubt about Bortles being destined for a slow transition to the pros.
However, Bortles has still managed to use his time well. He left many suitably impressed during a recent organized scrimmage, according to ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco:
The former Central Florida standout looked poised and confident in his first action in the simulated-game atmosphere, completing 9 of 13 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He was victimized by one drop and had another pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.
That showing might have earned him extended action during the team's preseason opener against Florida rival the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, per O'Halloran:
Gus said second quarter for Bortles and maybe early third.
— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) August 7, 2014
Yet it's more likely that this is just another part of the plan. Any opportunity the Jags have to tease more action out of Bortles, they're likely to take it.
But that won't change the decision to leave him on the sideline for most of his rookie year.
Marqise Lee, WR
An ankle injury initially ruled out Lee from a large portion of OTAs. But since returning, the first of the team's two second-round picks this year has been making a positive impression.
Lee has been showcasing skills this passing game desperately needs more of. Specifically, the former USC ace has showcased a star quality no other player at his position on this roster boasts.
Jaguars.com writer John Oehser recently attempted to define that quality:
There have been times during the last week and a half – more times than it maybe is reasonable to have expected – where you watch the second-round draft selection from the University of Southern California, and think, 'This guy has … it.'
And about that 'it…'
Whatever the "it" is Oesher referred to, you usually recognize it when seeing it on the field. For receivers, the quality mostly shows up in the ability to win on the outside and the inside. It's an ability to terrorize defensive backs with speed, strength and smart route-running.
Those are all of the things a legitimate No. 1 receiver must do. But a premier wideout is something the Jags lack. Justin Blackmon's suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and ongoing off-field troubles have seen to that.
Lee must stay fresh because he has the matchup potential to pose the kind of threat the Jaguars initially envisioned when they drafted Blackmon fifth overall in 2012.
He's obviously not there yet. Indeed, wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan has noted some of the typical rookie inconsistency, per O'Halloran:
#Jaguars WR coach Jerry Sullivan chatted with reporters. Said Marqise Lee was "ordinary" Mon, "very good" Tues. Natural for rookie.
— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) August 6, 2014
But of the current crop of receivers, Lee still represents this team's best hope for a dynamic passing game this season.
Allen Robinson, WR
If the Jaguars drafted Lee to stretch the field, they selected Robinson one pick later to be a roving target who can consistently win underneath. That's just what he was at Penn State in 2013, when he caught 97 passes, per CFBStats.com.
Sadly, Robinson has barely been able to put on his helmet without succumbing to injury since being drafted. A troublesome hamstring has been the root of the rookie's problems.
His latest setback was confirmed by Oehser. Robinson's woes have merely been one part of a glut of injuries at the receiver position.
The issues recently prompted the team to sign ex-New York Giants flanker Ramses Barden. NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling noted how Robinson and Cecil Shorts suffering hamstring injuries, along with suspensions for Blackmon and Ace Sanders (for violating league's substance-abuse policy), made Barden's arrival inevitable.
It would be good to get Robinson healthy as soon as possible. He's a natural possession-style receiver with underrated quickness.
Those qualities can make him a crucial underneath outlet for Henne. They will also provide balance to the more vertical aspects of the passing scheme.
But Robinson has to see the field first for that plan to work.
Brandon Linder, G
Brandon Linder has been a true pleasant surprise in this rookie class. The third-round pick has wasted little time elevating himself to first-team recognition.
Linder has worked extensively with the starting units. In fact, a starting role is now almost a foregone conclusion for the former University of Miami standout, according to Oehser: "Rookie Brandon Linder has worked with the first team at right guard, and if he doesn’t start there Friday it doesn’t appear as if it will be long before he’s in the starting lineup."
Linder's rapid rise is terrific news for an offensive line that needs to register significant improvement this season. The group was beyond feeble last season and all but destroyed any chance the team had for fielding a credible offense.
The Jags surrendered 50 sacks in 2013, while runners averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, per the team's NFL.com profile page, behind blocking that was poor in every area.
The key changes have come along the interior. Scrappy and savvy left guard Zane Beadles was lured away from the Denver Broncos during free agency. He can be counted on for flexibility and veteran leadership.
Jacksonville offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch must also hope that Linder can provide the move skills he covets for the zone-based scheme the team attempted unsuccessfully to employ last term.
Aaron Colvin, CB
The Jaguars knew they were going to have to wait a while for Aaron Colvin when they used a fourth-round pick to select him. That was the risk the team took on a player who sustained a major knee injury at the Senior Bowl.
The plan is already in place to sit Colvin for his debut season, per DiRocco:
Fourth-round pick Aaron Colvin, who is on the PUP list with a torn ACL suffered in the first days of Senior Bowl practice, should be the starter opposite Dwayne Gratz next season, but McCray’s development will earn him a lot of playing time this season and next.
DiRocco's point about Colvin's stater potential is well taken. It stems not only from his natural ball skills, but also his fit for the defensive schemes of head coach Gus Bradley and coordinator Bob Babich.
Both favor big cornerbacks prepared to get physical with wide receivers at the line. The 5'11", 177-pound Colvin may be lean, but he uses his natural length well. He also plays with a tenacity that makes him a nuisance for towering receivers.
Those qualities are perfectly suited to Bradley's scheme. They are attributes that should make Colvin worth the wait.
Telvin Smith, OLB
Smith would probably be too small to play linebacker for all but a handful of NFL teams. But getting drafted by the Jaguars was an ideal scenario for the safety-sized 'backer.
Bradley values speed, hustle and athletic range above all other qualities in his linebackers. Lighter athletes at the second level ensure faster pursuit against the run, as well as being able to quickly swarm around receivers and fill passing lanes.
That's how Bradley ran his defense with the Seattle Seahawks before the Jags hired him. He is trying to replicate that formula in Jacksonville.
That process was obvious when the team signed 226-pound veteran Geno Hayes during free agency last year. Now Bradley has made room for 6'3", 218-pound fifth-round rookie Smith.
His gamble already looks like a calculated one. Smith was a star during OTAs, per Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union. The rookie showed off his coverage chops and lateral quickness.
The former quality has encouraged Bradley and Babich to try Smith in a role as a sub-package linebacker in nickel sets, according to another report from Carlyon:
Smith is trying to earn a spot in the nickel package, allowing the Jaguars to take advantage of his coverage skills. Bradley complimented Smith's reactionary quickness, but said the coaches are working with him on cleaning up his footwork.
Given how often teams rely on nickel fronts in today's league, it will say a lot if Smith becomes a feature in that package. It's clear the Jags see a potential playmaker in this former Florida State star.
By refining his technique, Smith should make an immediate impact for a defense that will surprise many this season.
Chris Smith, DE
When the Jaguars used a second fifth-round pick on Chris Smith, it was Bradley's way of looking for another option at the most important position on his defense.
As a versatile rush end, Smith will compete for snaps at the "Leo" position. That is the designation given to the pass-rusher who flip-flops between defensive end and outside linebacker.
The Leo essentially enables the Jags to show 3-4 looks with 4-3 personnel. It also means the defense can keep quarterbacks guessing, since opposing signal-callers can't be sure if the Leo will rush or drop into coverage.
Smith has the right attributes for the position and has already made a very positive impression on D-line coach Todd Wash, per O'Halloran:
4. Wash likes rookie DE Chris Smith "speed to power" transition as pass rusher. Test be will ability to stop the run on early downs.
— Ryan O'Halloran (@ryanohalloran) August 5, 2014
Combining quickness with strength off the edge is an obvious necessity for any outside rusher. Smith's long arms also give him a good chance to make an early impact. He can shed and quickly reach past offensive tackles to create pressure.
Smith's raw skills are already encouraging the Jaguars to let him feature in an intriguing new sub-package dubbed "lightning," per DiRocco.
The scheme will involve Smith lining up as one of four Leos. It's a schematic wrinkle that should help boost a pass-rushing unit that managed just 31 sacks a year ago, per statistics via NFL.com.
The Jaguars reloaded at this position by drafting Smith and signing veteran Chris Clemons. A team this hungry for a pass rush will give the capable rookie every chance to contribute in his first year.
Luke Bowanko, C
It says a lot about Luke Bowanko's offseason when the Jaguars are ready to start Mike Brewster at center. DiRocco has noted Brewster's inexperience at the position but also pointed out that Bowanko isn't one of the alternatives:
Mike Brewster has been working as the starter at center, but the knock on him has been a lack of lower-body strength. The coaching staff gave Jacques McClendon some reps there a few days ago. It was partly to rattle Brewster’s cage a bit but also a message that he needs to perform. Brewster is still having some trouble with bull-rushers and hasn't been able to create much space in the middle on run downs. He also is entering his third season and has played in 26 games but has never snapped in a game.
Part of Bowanko's struggle to make an impact is an absence of imposing strength. That's not always an issue in a zone-based scheme, particularly for the man in the middle.
However, with new arrival Toby Gerhart a natural bruiser at running back, the Jags are going to need to create some lanes inside. That means at least initial power will be a necessity in the trenches, especially along the interior.
So far, Bowanko hasn't displayed that quality. In another ESPN report, DiRocco detailed how Bowanko has been finding it tough to stand up to power in individual duels:
Guard/center Luke Bowanko, the team’s sixth-round pick, had trouble with rookie defensive tackle Ricky Havili-Heimuli. Havili-Heimuli bull-rushed Bowanko into the backfield twice.
Consider Bowanko a long shot to make the final roster, even for a team with so many question marks still remaining up front.
Storm Johnson, RB
Storm Johnson looks like a natural fit for third-down work. He's small (6'0", 209 lbs), shifty and blink-of-an-eye fast. However, the ex-Central Florida teammate of Bortles lacks some core skills for what should be his obvious role in this offense.
Most notably, Johnson struggles in pass protection. That's simply not an option for runners who see work on the down when defensive coordinators tend to be their most creative and aggressive.
Johnson's case has also been hampered by difficulty protecting the football. He's also been put under increased pressure by fellow runner Jordan Todman.
The latter is pushing to emerge as the necessary contrast in styles to Gerhart's punishing running, per DiRocco:
Todman was the top backup to Maurice Jones-Drew last season, carrying the ball 76 times for 256 yards and two touchdowns and catching 14 passes for 116 yards and another score. He started against Buffalo because Jones-Drew was hurt and ran for 109 yards on 25 carries.
That gave him somewhat of an edge over second-year player Denard Robinson and seventh-round draft pick Storm Johnson heading into camp, but the competition to be Gerhart’s top backup was wide open. Though Robinson’s ball skills have improved significantly because the nerve damage in his hand has healed and Johnson looked good in organized team activities and minicamp, Todman is still ahead on the depth chart.
Johnson could ultimately edge out Robinson. That way he could take some carries off Gerhart in base situations and leave the third-down duties to Todman.
At this point, that seems like the seventh-rounder's best fit.
Allen Hurns, WR
As an undrafted free agent, Allen Hurns has been a bright spark throughout the offseason. He was one of the stars of the team's minicamp, per Fox Sports Florida reporter Ken Hornack.
However, his progress has slowed a little since the start of training camp. A hip flexor injury and some drops have seen to that.
Yet Hurns remains in the mix at receiver, if for no other reason than the myriad injuries that have laid waste to the rotation.
Just like last season, Bradley and general manager David Caldwell have worked hard to stockpile potential playmakers to add to a younger roster. But injuries have taken an unfortunate toll on this season's plans.
Yet there is still optimism, particularly for defensive rookies such as Telvin and Chris Smith. Both should feature in sub-packages during their first year.
Meanwhile, if the Jags get a new starter along the O-line in Linder, that will be a major success for the team's attempts to overhaul one of its weakest positions.