Highlighting Jacksonville Jaguars' Best Preseason Performers so Far

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2014

Highlighting Jacksonville Jaguars' Best Preseason Performers so Far

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Preseason has been an excellent audition for a quintet of Jacksonville Jaguars players. The most obvious player to have benefited is the 2014 NFL draft's third overall pick, Blake Bortles.

    The quarterback is steadily positioning himself to force a rethink of the team's plans to start veteran Chad Henne this season. However, Bortles isn't the only one earning praise.

    An undrafted wide receiver continues to flourish, while a reserve "Leo" pass-rusher has walked his way into the sub-package defensive schemes. Here's the full list of players delivering strong performances in exhibition games so far.

Ryan Davis, DE

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Ryan Davis is managing to make waves along a defensive line that is filled with offseason reinforcements. The Jags added veterans Red Bryant, Ziggy Hood and Chris Clemons and rookie Chris Smith to the rotation.

    The latter three were certainly added with an eye on improving a pass rush that registered a mere 31 sacks in 2013. In particular, Clemons and Smith, naturally flexible edge-rushers, seemed destined to put Davis' place on the roster in jeopardy.

    But it hasn't quite worked out that way. Instead, the former undrafted free agent and practice squad member has been carving a niche role in head coach Gus Bradley's sub-package pressure schemes.

    Jaguars.com writer John Oehser has detailed Davis' role:

    Davis absolutely has a significant role: one of the team’s top four Leo pass rushers, a critical position in Head Coach Gus Bradley’s defense. He moved off the practice squad in mid-November last season, clinching a late-November victory at Houston with a late-game interception, and then registering a game-clinching sack at home against Houston two weeks later. He became integral during that time in the team’s three-Leo lightning package and remains so, lining up next to defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks and providing penetration as an inside pass rusher.

    Shifting a speedy rush end inside to a 3-technique role in pass-rushing situations is a common ploy. Davis already looks at home in the position.

    During the team's preseason opener, a 16-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Davis lined up inside for two huge plays—Winston Guy's scoring interception return and a third-quarter sack by Clemons.

    For a team that is desperate to fix its pass-rush woes, Davis' offseason performances are very encouraging.

Allen Hurns, WR

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    Allen Hurns just keeps on taking advantage of injuries at his position. The undrafted rookie is showing up big in preseason work and giving himself every chance to make the final roster.

    Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union has listed good reasons to believe Hurns won't be part of the final cuts:

    Hurns had one major thing going for him when he signed with the Jaguars after the draft. He was familiar with offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s offense because Fisch spent two years at the University of Miami as the offensive coordinator when Hurns was there.

    Hurns has made big plays in each of the first two preseason games, catching a 24-yarder against Tampa Bay and a 45-yarder on the final play of the first half in Chicago.

    For the two games, he has leads the team in catches (six), receiving yardage (117), average per catch (19. 5 yards) and longest catch (45).

    The numbers are impressive, but numbers aren't everything, particularly those gained in a preseason environment. What really stands out is that Hurns doesn't look out of place when he takes the field against experienced defensive players.

    He's gone up against first-teamers and has not played like a rookie free agent or been intimidated by reputation. Just as importantly, Hurns offers physical attributes the Jags need.

    At 6'3" and 195 pounds, he's a big target. Whoever is under center this season needs some size to aim for on the outside.

    Just like in the pass rush, the Jaguars need solutions wherever they can find them to remedy a tame passing game that ranked 22nd last season. Hurns is making the strongest case possible to be one of those solutions.

Telvin Smith, OLB

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    Telvin Smith continues to demonstrate he's a natural born playmaker. The rookie linebacker hasn't been short of a highlight moment or two during the team's first two preseason games.

    ESPN.com Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco has detailed some of Smith's finer efforts:

    It doesn't really show up on the stat sheet, but rookie linebacker Telvin Smith has been responsible for forcing turnovers in both preseason games. He tipped a Jimmy Clausen pass that safety Josh Evans intercepted on Thursday night. In the preseason opener against Tampa Bay, Smith pressured Josh McCown into a poor throw that safety Winston Guy intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

    It's good stuff from Smith and evidence the Jaguars will have another new impact player along their front seven this season. The fifth-round pick has earned rave reviews most of this offseason.

    Smith is sure to challenge veteran Nick Roach on the weak side, as well as play a key role in nickel situations. His safety size and natural speed, agility and range will be major assets in a scheme that places a premium on those qualities at the linebacker level.

    Bradley made reference to that when he noted after the Tampa Bay game, "We got faster with him on the field," per Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union.

    When Bradley took over last season, he inherited a heavy and plodding defense entrenched in the two-gap 4-3 schemes of previous head coach Jack Del Rio and coordinator Mel Tucker.

    Smith's potential ascension is further proof of how quickly Bradley is creating a leaner, faster unit.

Brandon Linder, G/C

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Brandon Linder has enjoyed an impressive offseason. The third-round pick already looks like a candidate to help bolster what was a dreadful offensive line last season.

    The Jags surrendered 50 sacks and were especially struck by problems along the interior. But Linder has been getting first-team work at both center and right guard during preseason.

    ESPN.com Jaguars writer Michael DiRocco believes the rookie is in contention for a starting job at either spot:

    Gus Bradley said Mike Brewster and Brandon Linder both played well at center against Chicago on Thursday night. It's still too early for anything definitive because the game against Detroit will be key to the decision, but my guess right now is we see Brewster at center and Linder at right guard. If Linder were to win the job at center, then it would probably be Jacques McClendon at right guard.

    Frankly, the Jags need all the help they can get on the inside. The team averaged just 3.3 yards per rush a year ago. That statistic has to improve this season.

    Former Denver Broncos Pro Bowler Zane Beadles was the only veteran added to the O-line during free agency, so any immediate impact from Linder will be a huge bonus.

Blake Bortles, QB

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    It's impossible to underestimate the significance of Bortles' fine showings during preseason. They could lead to a shakeup at possibly the most important position on the team.

    Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has already indicated Bortles has coaches thinking along those lines, per Peter King of The MMQB: "This fanbase saw a quarterback get thrown to the wolves. We don’t need to force it. We never thought when we drafted [Bortles] we were taking him to play now. But nothing is set in stone. We’re giving Blake every chance to make the decision super-hard for us."

    As King noted, the first line of Fisch's quote is an obvious allusion to 2011 first-round flop Blaine Gabbert. Although this coaching staff wasn't around when the Jags drafted Gabbert, the calamity of that decision is clearly weighing on minds.

    Bortles' positive preseason performances have yielded some recent first-team reps in practice. But these have been few in number, per Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union. That's more proof of the steady approach that coaches are determined to take with Bortles.

    However, while caution is often commendable, it is possible to be too careful. This isn't 2011, and the Jaguars aren't the same franchise.

    Bradley and general manager David Caldwell are following a clear plan that is creating a genuine sense of optimism for the first time in a long while.

    But even with that goodwill, immediate expectations aren't high. It's understood that this is a rebuilding project. Therefore, some rough learning experiences for a rookie starting quarterback can be tolerated.

    What's more difficult to accept is needlessly delaying the inevitable. This is supposed to be Bortles' team. Whether it's this season or the next, veteran Chad Henne knows his days are numbered.

    If Bortles is proving he can run the offense Fisch wants, then why leave him on the sidelines? It would be better to let a young team grow along with its principal player.

    It will stand out that all of the players on this list are rookies. Yet that's good news for a team being totally refreshed under the stewardship of Bradley and Caldwell.

    The Jags are entering the 2014 season as a younger, more confident team that is primed to surprise a few people.

    All statistics and rankings via NFL.com.