Cecil Shorts and the Jaguars are hoping for better results this fall after bringing in several new pieces through free agency and the draft
Phase 1 for the regime of general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley in Jacksonville was about survival, attempting to cobble together a roster last year that would avoid being totally outclassed. And the Jaguars did stay upright — barely, winning four games in the season’s second half. And now there is Phase 2, which is about being competitive in general and against the NFL’s best teams in particular.
The Jaguars went 0–7 last year against teams that made the playoffs, losing each game by at least 16 points. In 2014, the team wants to cut that margin and maybe even win some of those contests to confirm that it’s on the right path. To that end, Caldwell was active in free agency, adding eight players while also waving goodbye to veterans like running back Maurice Jones-Drew, right guard Uche Nwaneri and the retired Brad Meester and Russell Allen.
The Jaguars’ message to quarterback Blake Bortles once they drafted him third overall in May: Hurry up and wait. The Jaguars produced the draft’s first “Wow!” moment when they a) stayed at No. 3 instead of trading down and b) chose Bortles instead of higher-ranked names like Sammy Watkins and Khalil Mack. Bortles is the future, but Chad Henne is the present. Henne is well versed in the offense, respected in the locker room and huddle and stands tall in the pocket. But he’s also a player who is 18–32 as a starter in his career and has 55 touchdowns and 62 interceptions. Henne will keep the seat warm until Bortles is deemed ready to play (maybe at midseason, maybe after the Week 11 bye, maybe 2015). What should help Henne is a free-agent and draft season that re-tooled the offense. The Jaguars ranked last in points and second-to-last in yards, and upgrades were necessary. The end result is new faces, fresher legs and more speed.
After eight years and one league rushing championship, Jones-Drew was allowed to walk in free agency to Oakland. He will be replaced by Toby Gerhart, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry in four years as Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota. The Jaguars were intrigued by Gerhart’s lack of wear and tear, his ability to get yards after contact and experience as a receiver out of the backfield. A hip flexor injury kept him out of the first preseason game, but that was probably more for precautionary reasons than anything.
The Jaguars then took advantage of a deep receiver class in the draft. USC’s Marqise Lee fell to them at No. 39, and then they traded up to No. 60 late in the second round to take Penn State’s Allen Robinson. Both bring what the Jaguars have lacked in the passing game — a willingness to go over the middle for the tough catch and a knack for getting to the end zone. The Jaguars hope that their presence will open up the seam routes for tight end Marcedes Lewis and that the coverage downfield will shade away from Cecil Shorts. Getting Lewis back for a full year after he was slowed by a calf strain last September/October gives the Jaguars a fine blocker (they averaged 0.6 more yards per carry when he was on the field) and a red-zone target (touchdowns in four straight games last year).
But the Jaguars’ most expensive signing was designed to improve an offensive line that has been plagued by performance and durability issues in recent years. Zane Beadles arrived from Denver on a five-year, $30 million contract to play left guard and serve as a leader. Luke Joeckel, coming off a broken leg, has moved from right tackle to left tackle. Brandon Linder, whom the Jaguars traded up in the third round to draft, is the likely new right guard. Mike Brewster will enter camp as the favorite to start at center, and Austin Pasztor, a former guard who impressed last year, will start at right tackle. The goals of this group are to stay healthy, run-block better and prevent a third straight year of 50 sacks by its opponents.
The Jaguars basically have to do everything better on defense. In addition to increasing their sack total, they have to stop the run better (29th last year), produce more takeaways (only 21) and be more effective on third down (27th).
Call the Jags’ defense “Seattle South,” both in the personnel and the scheme. Red Bryant was signed to be an early-down run-stopper at defensive end, and Chris Clemons was added to improve a pass rush that was last in 2012 and tied for last in 2013. Both played for Bradley and defensive line coach Todd Wash in Seattle. The scheme: Use big bodies at three of the defensive line spots and replace them with speedy pass-rushers on third down.
Bradley often says a team can’t have enough pass-rushers, and that is reflected in the Jaguars’ acquisitions. Clemons and draft pick Chris Smith join holdovers Jason Babin and Andre Branch. Ideally, Bradley wants to have four “Leo” (open-side end) players active on Sundays.
At linebacker, the Jaguars hope they’ve added an ascending player in Dekoda Watson, who had only six career starts in four years with Tampa Bay but signed with the Jaguars hours after the free-agent market opened. They believe he can add a dimension against tight ends, a season-long bugaboo in 2013, and also fit into the pass-rushing defensive end rotation. He joins middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, a tackling machine who is the defense’s heart and soul, and Geno Hayes, who is coming off knee surgery.
If the Jaguars are better stopping the run and more effective with a four-man pass rush, that could mean good things for a secondary that started three rookies at various points last year. Veteran Alan Ball returns at one corner and is paired with second-year pro Dwayne Gratz, who has a nose for the football but was sidetracked by two high-ankle sprains last year. At strong safety, former second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien came on during the season’s second half. At free safety, Winston Guy (another Seattle alum) and Josh Evans will compete in camp. Guy and Evans are hard hitters but need to become surer tacklers.
The Jaguars were top 10 in covering kicks and punts and returning kicks, but last in punt returns. Ace Sanders was drafted as a receiver/punt returner but never got untracked on special teams. The second-year player from South Carolina also announced prior to the start of training camp that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team after he was notified he would be suspended the first four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. A candidate to replace Sanders is Tandon Doss, signed as a free agent from Baltimore. The Jaguars’ kicker-punter-long-snapper team of Josh Scobee-Bryan Anger-Carson Tinker returns intact. Scobee still gets good distance on his kickoffs and is adept at the directional kick, and Anger’s consistent hang time allows his teammates to get down the field.
Is it OK to say “Wait until next year” before the current year has even started? In the Jaguars’ case, probably. The goal this year should be to play better against the league’s elite teams, decide which players should make up the core moving forward and get Bortles late-season experience so that he’s ready to start in 2015.