Chad Henne will start Week 1 for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but it needs to be Blake Bortles manning the offense by Week 17 or the Jags will be in a bind as they look to develop their prized young quarterback the right way.
All along, the Jaguars have stuck to the plan announced by head coach Gus Bradley in March that they would start the veteran Henne in 2014—even if they selected a quarterback early in the draft. Well, they did, and they didn't wait to do so, grabbing Bortles with the third overall pick.
The story didn't change after Jacksonville surprised by selecting the UCF quarterback so early, and it hasn't changed thus far in the preseason, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:
Decision made. … which is the same as the decision they’ve been saying I guess RT @ryanohalloran: Gus says Henne week 1 starter.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 23, 2014
Selecting a quarterback with the third overall pick and then stashing him as a long-term project is quite the gamble, especially for a franchise mired in mediocrity under new management. But the reasons were there—Bortles has little experience, came into the league very raw with his mechanics and had plenty to work on entering training camp.
Then came training camp, then the preseason. And instead of showing everyone why the Jags are wise to take their time with the young QB, he showed why that's not such a solid plan after all.
Bortles' preseason debut was strong, going 7-of-11 for 117 yards. But as the preseason has come along, so have his numbers and production.
The rookie followed that up with an 11-of-17, 160-yard performance against the Bears, but on Friday he was at his best. In a 13-12 loss to the Lions, Bortles dazzled with 10-of-17 passing for 158 yards and his first NFL touchdown.
He's 28-of-45 with 435 yards and a touchdown in three games, showing even against first-teamers that he can manufacture long drives and make tough throws against dangerous defensive backs.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports was adamant, like many others, in saying it's time to unleash the youngster:
Play. The Kid.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) August 23, 2014
NFL Network's Jeff Darlington thinks another rookie gunslinger would be generating much more hype with similar play:
If Johnny Manziel was playing even near the level of Blake Bortles, the world would explode.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) August 23, 2014
Of course, Henne hasn't played poorly by any stretch this preseason and has shown enough command of the offense to warrant being the starter in Week 1. He's more ready to start at this point, that much isn't really in question right now.
But the Jaguars know what they have in Henne—he'll keep them in games, but has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in Jacksonville and led the Jags to a 4-12 season last year. Plus, Bortles is simply more talented of a passer and can make throws that Henne cannot.
No matter what Bradley and general manager David Caldwell say, the Jaguars didn't draft the rookie to sit him for a number of years. Although Blaine Gabbert is a painful exception, some highly touted quarterbacks—like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan—have thrived starting off the bat and although Bortles lacks some of their experience, his skill is unquestionable.
Should Blake Bortles be Jacksonville's starter by Week 17?
In an ideal world, Henne will play well enough to make the Jaguars a much-improved team in 2014. But the Jags' recent history has been nowhere near ideal, and their roster is still very much a work in progress.
With young receivers needing time to build confidence and a roster that won't sniff playoff contention anyway, why not unleash Bortles? He's the most talented quarterback on the team, and any development he'll make off the field will pale in comparison to being thrown into the fire and learning the hard way.
Henne will start off the bat, but with the way Bortles is making strides, he needs to be calling the shots before his rookie season concludes or the Jaguars will be in a tough spot entering 2015.