The NFL preseason is at the halfway point with just two games left to play. For the Jacksonville Jaguars, it has mostly been a positive experience. The Jaguars came into the preseason with high expectations all over the roster, and for the most part, the players have delivered. There are a lot of good things to talk about in Jacksonville, so let's get right into it then.
There is a Quarterback Controversy Brewing
When Blake Bortles was drafted third overall back in May, the first question on everyone's mind was: When will he start? General manager David Caldwell immediately said that veteran Chad Henne would be the starter this year, wanting Bortles to wait until 2015 to take the reins.
Head coach Gus Bradley echoed this sentiment, stating on Jaguars Today (h/t Big Cat Country), "In a perfect world, Chad Henne starts all 16 games."
This was an understandable plan as the Jaguars didn't want a repeat of what happened with their last first-round quarterback, Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert was thrown into the starting position too early and floundered under the pressure from both the media and opposing defenses.
However, through these first two weeks, Bortles has played exceptionally well and has many people questioning Caldwell's plan. His stats so far are 18-of-28 (64 percent) for 277 yards (15.3 yards per completion).
As I wrote last week while breaking down his play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bortles has shown an excellent grasp of the offense. His awareness, vision and accuracy have been outstanding, leading to big plays down the field and efficient movement of the offense.
Bortles has played well above what most people expected, leading to the sentiment that he should be the starter Week 1.
However, I am not jumping on the bandwagon just yet. Bortles has been playing well, but he has been playing exclusively with the second-team offense and against second-team defenses. He has done exactly what he is supposed to do in this situation; he has outplayed his opposition.
Bortles will get reps with the first-team offense, per John Oehser of Jaguars.com. Bortles has earned this honor and will be looking to make the most of this opportunity. If he practices well during the week and plays well with the first-team offense against the Detroit Lions on Friday, he will make it substantially harder for Caldwell to stick to his guns.
He may not be the Week 1 starter, but at the very least, he will make Henne's leash that much shorter.
Denard Robinson is Breaking Away from the Pack
The only certainty about the Jaguars running game is that new free agent Toby Gerhart would be the starter. Behind him, Denard Robinson, Jordan Todman and seventh-round rookie Storm Johnson are all vying for the backup role.
This position battle has been a tight one all offseason, specifically between Robinson and Todman. Todman initially had the upper hand since he was the Jaguars' second leading rusher last year. However, it was Robinson who was expected to take the job due to his superior physical ability.
Robinson battled through nerve damage in his arm last season that impacted his ability to carry the ball. It has since healed, but he was still having a tough time beating out Todman for the backup role.
Early in training camp, Todman was the one earning praise from Bradley, who said, per ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco, "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 changeup, that burst that we know he has."
However, when it comes game time, it has been Robinson who has been delivering. In the Jaguars' two games, Robinson has 13 carries for 70 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and a touchdown. Todman, on the other hand, has 13 carries for 23 yards (1.7 YPC).
Granted, Robinson is in the same boat as Bortles in that he has played against second- and third-team defenses. Again, like Bortles, Robinson has outplayed his opponents as he should be doing.
He has shown his track-star speed, specifically during his touchdown run, which you can watch through the link in the tweet below. Robinson takes the pitch off the left side and burns two Buccaneers defenders on his way to the end zone untouched.
If Robinson can keep playing well, he will give the Jaguars an electric change-of-pace back to work with the bruising running style of Gerhart. These two will be big factors in turning around the next issue presented in this article.
The Offense Must Score Touchdowns
Despite how well Bortles, Robinson and a number of other players on offense have been playing, they have very little to show for it. They have managed only two offensive touchdowns in 24 offensive possessions, only one of which was with the first-team offense.
This is a problem that should get worked out by the beginning of the season as they have been missing numerous starters. Running back Toby Gerhart and receivers Cecil Shorts and Allen Robinson have all been battling injury since the start of preseason. Gerhart is the only one of the three to see any time on the field, and he only played 12 snaps.
Still, this is valuable time missed for these players as there is a lot of potential built into this offense. Preseason was the time for them to work out the kinks and start developing a rapport with both Chad Henne and Blake Bortles.
The Jaguars must be hopeful things will go smoothly once they all return. Until that time, the offense must find ways to score points. It is a good point to practice, as Shorts has yet to play a full season, so there is a good chance someone like Allen Hurns will be called upon to play a larger role than expected.
Speaking of Hurns...
The Rookies are Making an Impact
I've already talked about the impact Bortles is having, so I'm going to skip over him and give some attention to his rookie classmates. There have been numerous rookies who have been playing above what was expected.
Offensively speaking, the one player not named Bortles who has been lighting it up is undrafted receiver Allen Hurns. In two preseason games, Hurns' stat line reads six receptions for 117 yards and should actually be more, but he had an eight-yard reception nullified due to a questionable offensive pass interference call.
Hurns has been running crisp routes, allowing him to get separation from the corners, resulting in big plays of 19, 24 and 45 yards. He has been a welcome surprise contributor early on and has easily gained himself a roster spot.
Fellow rookie receiver Marqise Lee was invisible the first game but bounced back to have a decent game against the Chicago Bears with four receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown.
Even though he didn't post eye-popping numbers, the most important thing that came from his game is best said by Hank Joness of Big Cat Country: "The good news here is that the Jaguars made a point to force him the ball, and he did nothing to prove to them that they shouldn't continue doing so."
There have also been two rookies on the defensive side of the ball who have shown promise for the future. Outside linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive end Chris Smith both had good games against the Buccaneers but dropped off a bit against the Bears.
In the first game, Telvin Smith was a sideline-to-sideline player who had a nose for getting in on the running plays. He just needs to learn how to better use his small size (6'3", 219 lbs) because he got washed out of a couple plays by bigger offensive linemen.
Chris Smith showed good explosion off the line of scrimmage. He just needs to work on building his pass-rushing repertoire, as he relied too much on a speed rush and got run out of plays too often.
All in all, there is a lot to be excited about in Jacksonville, and it is due to these young players.
The Jaguars Actually Have a Pass Rush
If you were asked who the top pass-rushing team in the NFL was through two weeks of preseason, what would your answer be? Houston Texans? Seattle Seahawks? St. Louis Rams? Well, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), it is the Jaguars with a plus-14.6 rating.
The Jaguars have been great at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks so far in the preseason. Their defense has been credited with four sacks, seven quarterback hits and 19 quarterback hurries. This new found pass rush has been spearheaded by free agents Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood.
This is excellent news for the Jaguars, as they have struggled mightily in recent years getting after the quarterback. They now look ready to break the streak of back-to-back league-worst sack totals.
Even better news, two of the sacks were by Tyson Alualu, who has been flirting with the bust label. If he is finally coming into his own and the rest of the defense is ready to follow suit, it will make the Jaguars even more dangerous than originally projected.