Jacksonville Jaguars Rookie Progress Reports for Preseason Week 1
The Jacksonville Jaguars are set to take on the Chicago Bears on Thursday after earning a good win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There has been a lot of talk this offseason regarding the youth on Jacksonville's roster. That hype seemed to be confirmed, at least to an extent, as numerous rookies performed well in the win over Tampa Bay.
That game against the Bucs was our first chance to really see this rookie class perform on the field, and, for the most part, they didn't disappoint. Going back over the game (thank you NFL Game Rewind), there were a number of rookies who really stood out. On the flip side, there were some who didn't quite show up in their first game experience.
Going into this game against Chicago, these young players will once again have a chance to showcase their abilities. For some, they will be looking to repeat their performance and show it wasn't just beginner's luck. For others, it will be a chance at redemption and to show why they belong on the team. With this in mind, let's go back and break down the performances of the rookies from last week's game.
Blake Bortles, Quarterback
No player has had more pressure on him this offseason in Jacksonville than Blake Bortles. The third overall pick has been tasked with becoming the franchise quarterback and learning everything he can from Chad Henne. Bortles got his first real opportunity to show the league why he was the first quarterback chosen and he did not disappoint.
Statistically speaking, Bortles had a very nice night, finishing 7-of-11 for 117 yards. His numbers are even more impressive when you take into consideration that three of the four incompletions were the result of dropped passes. He also had two completions, totaling 21 yards, negated because of offensive pass interference, one of which was questionable.
However, to fully appreciate just how well Bortles played, you have to go beyond the stats. Bortles showed good pocket awareness, timing of his throws and accuracy. He allowed the routes to develop and went through his progressions. Also, he wasn't afraid to throw down the field, resulting in completions of 24 and 31 yards.
For most of his time on the field, the Jaguars gave him pretty solid protection. On the few occasions they did let someone through, Bortles didn't panic, something Jaguars fans became too accustomed to with Blaine Gabbert under center. Bortles knew when to take a sack and when to push the play. He made a great completion to Kerry Taylor for 16 yards despite a defender hitting him as he threw.
What was really impressive was his awareness of the timing routes. For instance, near the end of the first half, the Jaguars set at the line in the I-Formation with Allen Hurns aligned wide to the left and Mike Harris aligned wide to the right. Harris came in motion then ran a curl route. Bortles followed him the whole way then quickly snapped his hips and hit Hurns 19 yards downfield on a skinny post route. Aside from the throw being a little low, the execution was flawless.
All of this being said, let's not get too ahead of ourselves. It is just one game, and Bortles faced the second-team defense. However, there is definitely reason to be excited since Bortles did exactly what he was supposed to do; he outplayed his competition. He looked natural on the field and even Mark Brunell, who was calling the game, said he looked like "a six-year veteran". If it was possible, expectations will be even higher for Bortles now.
Marqise Lee, Wide Receiver
While Blake Bortles was enjoying his debut, Marqise Lee's night was a bit less spectacular. Lee had some high expectations for this game as well, seeing as how he would be the main weapon since both Cecil Shorts and Allen Robinson were out due to injury. Instead, he was invisible the entire night.
Lee was hoping to put the injury issues that kept him out of OTAs (and out of the first round) behind him with a stellar performance in his debut. Unfortunately, in the 17 snaps he played, he wasn't targeted a single time.
This complete lack of production initially led head coach Gus Bradley to question Lee's effort, saying,
I think that’s one of those things we’re looking at – it’s the consistency. Run your routes [like the football] is coming to you. You can’t change speeds. You can’t choose when and when not to. I’ve told you before that I’ve seen him switch to where he’s more focused.
Bradley later clarified his comment, stating
A couple of things that came up where he was unsure of positioning of the defense and the route in terms of how he should attack it. So, there was confusion on his part that we got cleared up. He is extremely focused, really competitive, really driven. I thought he came out today, learned from those things and got better.
That was on me. I got specific about one play where he was supposed to run a comeback and he ran it. It was never an effort thing, but he was confused about how the defender was playing him so he wasn't running at full speed. But, he's got to learn from that and run full speed.
With Bradley backing him, Lee must show he has taken this week of practice to work on these issues and come out strong against the Bears. He has to show that he can be a viable threat who doesn't disappear when he is needed. Otherwise, his spot as a projected starter could be up for grabs.
Brandon Linder, Guard
Brandon Linder was the Jaguars' third-round selection and was brought in to try to fortify their offensive line. Despite his rookie status, he has been the front-runner all offseason for the starting right guard position.
In his first legitimate action, Linder played fairly well. He was more than adequate in both pass protection and in run blocking. He showed good strength at the point of attack and made it to the second level on numerous run-blocking plays. He also did well when asked to pull out on outside run plays.
However, there were a few plays that showcased his major weakness; balance. One play specifically, he was leaning too far forward and defensive end Ronald Talley was easily able to plant him on his stomach and jump over him. The play resulted in a run for a loss.
Despite this, Linder did play well enough that he should retain the starting position. He just needs to work on his balance a bit more and he will be a more-than-serviceable starter for the Jaguars.
Telvin Smith, Outside Linebacker
Aside from Blake Bortles, Telvin Smith was the most impressive rookie for Jacksonville. The fifth-round linebacker showed off his speed, playing sideline to sideline. He seemed to be in the middle of almost every play he was on the field for, especially running plays.
Smith's speed allowed him to get to the edge very quickly and impact Tampa Bay's run game. He played with a good combination of awareness and aggression that allowed him to quickly recognize the play and attack it.
Smith's best play of the game came near the end of the first quarter. The Jaguars ran a two-linebacker blitz up the middle, with Smith being slightly behind Paul Posluszny. Posluszny was taken on by a blocker, leaving Smith free to put a hit on Josh McCown. Smith hit him right as he released the ball, resulting in a high throw straight into free safety Winston Guy's hands, which he turned into a 68-yard return touchdown.
The only downside to Smith's game was his size. He has the height you want in a linebacker, coming in a at 6'3", but is only 219 pounds. This affected his ability to impact run plays when he attacked the middle of the line. He was eaten up by the bigger blockers and was unable to disengage. He was at his best when he was able to attack the edges and use his speed to get around blockers.
Smith has to either bulk up a bit to take on tight ends, tackles and guards head on or he has to learn ways of shedding blocks more easily when facing players much bigger than him. He has the makings of being a fixture on this defense for years to come, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Chris Smith, Defensive End
Another player who had some size issues coming out of college is defensive end Chris Smith. Coming in at only 6'1", Smith's size caused him to fall a bit, but the Jaguars were impressed with his high-motor play and took a chance on him.
Initial results are good as he recorded a sack, a quarterback hurry and two stops, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). On his sack, Smith showcased his speed by running clear past tight end Timothy Wright and closed down quickly on quarterback Mike Glennon.
Smith's high motor certainly came into play during the game, and he didn't let his size stop him. He showed great anticipation and explosion off the line. However, as Hank Joness of Big Cat Country makes note of, he relied too heavily on a speed rush to get by blockers and wound up running himself out of the play.
He is vying for a backup role as a Leo pass rusher, and his performance against the Bucs certainly has given him a great shot at getting that roster spot. He just needs to work on his pass-rush versatility instead of relying on his speed to win all the time.
Luke Bowanko, Center
There isn't a whole lot I can say about sixth-round center Luke Bowanko. He just went out there, blocked the guy he was supposed to block and went back to the huddle. He was consistent in the 20 snaps he played but didn't have any eye-popping plays.
Bowanko could see more snaps in the game against the Bears by virtue of how poor his competition played. Expected starter Mike Brewster had two high snaps and will have a shorter leash this week, and Jacques McClendon is certainly not the answer. If Bowanko keeps putting in solid efforts like he did against the Bucs, he could find a roster spot.
Storm Johnson, Running Back
This was an important game for seventh-round pick Storm Johnson. With Toby Gerhart sidelined with an injury, Johnson would have more snaps than usual to show why he deserves a spot in the Jaguars' stable of running backs.
Johnson got a good number of snaps with the first-team offense but really failed to make much of an impact. He finished the game with nine carries for 21 yards. He had four carries that resulted in either no gain or a loss of yards.
On the positive plays he had, he showed good vision and ability to get yards after contact. Fortunately for him, Jordan Todman did not have a good outing, so he is still in the race and could wind up with a roster spot. However, he must show improvement against the Bears.
Allen Hurns, Wide Receiver
Allen Hurns has been one of the most talked about players in camp this offseason. Hurns is an undrafted receiver out of the University of Miami and is showing that sometimes scouts do make mistakes. Hurns has good size for the position, coming in at 6'3" and 195 pounds.
Hurns first started making waves by performing well during a rash of injuries to the receiving corps. He has continued to produce, being the team's leading receiver in their game against the Bucs with two receptions for 43 yards. His stat line should actually read three receptions for 51 yards as he had an eight-yard reception nullified due to a questionable offensive pass interference call.
Hurns' first catch was a 24-yard reception over the middle of the field. He found the soft spot in coverage and sat in it, and Bortles' perfect throw found him. At the time of the reception, there wasn't a defender within five yards of him.
The second reception was even more impressive. As I mentioned in the Bortles slide, Hurns ran a skinny post route and was able to adjust on the fly to haul in the low pass. Once again, he was able to gain separation and make the catch untouched.
Hurns has successfully gone from an on-the-bubble player to someone who may see significant action this season, especially with the suspension of Ace Sanders. Hurns will get another chance to impress as both Shorts and Robinson will be out at least another week, according to Jaguars.com.
Marcel Jensen, Tight End
Marcel Jensen is another undrafted rookie who has been making waves in camp. Jensen is a raw player who has a lot of upside, something that Jaguars saw when they signed him. Bradley was excited about his ability, saying via Jaguars.com, "We knew he had athleticism to be able to catch the ball...Some of the skills we saw on tape are what we are starting to see now."
Jensen is stuck behind Marcedes Lewis and Clay Harbor on the depth chart, but, given the injury to Harbor, this was Jensen's time to shine. Unfortunately, he failed to capitalize on this golden opportunity. Jensen played 42 snaps but didn’t see a single pass thrown his way.
He also struggled in run blocking, carrying a minus-5.5 grade, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). This is a disappointing showing for Jensen. And to make matters worse, it may be a little while until he is able to redeem himself. It was reported by Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union that Jensen was held out of practice Tuesday for an abdominal injury.