Jaguars owner Shad Khan began the housecleaning 15 hours after the worst season in franchise history concluded with a thud at Tennessee. And fans still think he waited too long to act.
Starting Dec. 31, Khan changed the course of the team he bought from Wayne Weaver less than a year earlier. General manager Gene Smith and coach Mike Mularkey were fired less than two weeks apart, replaced by David Caldwell and Gus Bradley, respectively.
It will be up to Caldwell, the new general manager who was previously Thomas Dimitroff’s chief assistant in Atlanta, and Bradley, who was previously Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator in Seattle, to spark a franchise that has struggled not only to win, but also to be interesting.
Out of the playoffs since 2007 and possessing only three winning seasons since 1999, the Jaguars are Team New this year — the longest shot on the preseason board to win the Super Bowl. New management. New head coach. New coordinators. New uniforms. New players. And a new vibe.
But it might not translate into a winning record right away.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 16th
If he so chooses, quarterback Blaine Gabbert has excuses around every corner for his 5–19 career record. No stability on the coaching staff. Offensive line under-performance. A bad running game. Playing before he was ready. But nobody says the NFL is fair, which means this is Gabbert’s last chance to become the Jaguars’ present and future triggerman.
With an unimpressive free agent and draft class, the Jaguars chose to build around Gabbert entering this year instead of tossing him to the sideline. Some of the moves could resuscitate an offense that scored more than 24 points just once last year.
Reasons for optimism: The return to health of running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who missed the last nine games of 2012 with a broken foot, and the expected next step in production for receivers Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon.
The Jaguars have switched to a zone-blocking scheme in the running game, partly to take advantage of Jones-Drew’s decisive cutback style. It’s the same system he ran in at UCLA. If he regains the form that made him the 2011 NFL rushing champion, it should result in a play-action game that will make defenses play honest instead of pressuring the edges and making Gabbert step up into traffic.
Shorts and Blackmon are a formidable duo at receiver — when they’re on the field together, which they won’t be for the first four games. Shorts is the downfield threat and Blackmon the third down possession weapon. But Blackmon is suspended for the first four weeks for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. In his place, newcomer Mohamed Massaquoi likely becomes a starter. A potential X-factor was acquired in the draft — former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who will get work at running back and slot receiver.
A key will be the Jaguars’ offensive line. Last year, the team rolled through five left guards and two right tackles and allowed 50 sacks. Drafted No. 2 overall, Luke Joeckel will move to right tackle, and the Jaguars will get Will Rackley (ankle) back at left guard. If the group can stay healthy, it will give offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch options to keep defenses off balance.
The primary goal for Bradley and new defensive coordinator Bob Babich is to create more pressure on the quarterback and be more stout against the run. The Jaguars’ 20 sacks last year were the NFL’s fewest, and they were 30th in stopping the rush.
Hallmarks of Bradley’s system in Seattle that he hopes to bring to Jacksonville are getting pressure without blitzing, relying on cornerbacks to play press-man coverage, using only one safety in center field and allowing the “Leo” player — a defensive end who lines up on the non-tight end side — to create havoc on the quarterback.
The Jaguars believe they have some of the talent required. Up front, they overhauled the interior, signing Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks to team with Tyson Alualu. At end, Jason Babin and Andre Branch will play the Leo spot in a two-point stance to take advantage of their speed.
Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and outside backer Russell Allen return and need to be better in coverage. A way to mask that deficiency would be to use Posluszny as a pass-rusher; he showed a knack for creating pressure on delayed blitzes last year. Up for grabs in training camp will be the weak-side linebacker, a three-down player who must be able to play the run and cover. Geno Hayes will enter the summer as the favorite, but there are doubts about his speed.
The secondary has been revamped. Free safety Dwight Lowery is the only returning starter, and rookies Johnathan Cyprien (strong safety) and Dwayne Gratz (cornerback) are expected to be first-teamers. Cyprien, who will often play close to the line to take advantage of his tackling, could be the enforcer the Jaguars have lacked for years. Seahawks veteran Marcus Trufant signed in May and will play one corner. The common trait among the cornerbacks — Trufant, newcomer Alan Ball, Gratz and projected nickel back Mike Harris — is that they all bring a physical element to coverage.
The Jaguars were horrid in the return game last year, and Caldwell has taken steps to improve it. In free agency, he signed Justin Forsett to be a backup running back but also a kickoff returner. And in the draft, the Jaguars used a fourth-round pick on South Carolina’s tiny terror Ace Sanders, who is 5'7" but has the speed and instincts to make things happen on punt returns. He represents an immediate upgrade and potential field-position-flipping player. Robinson will get a shot on kickoff returns even though he didn’t perform that role at Michigan.
Placekicker Josh Scobee and punter Bryan Anger both return. Scobee enters his 10th season with the team and is the franchise’s all-time leader in points and field goals. Anger was the controversial third-round pick in 2012 of former general manager Gene Smith. But he can produce — he has a strong ability for a young punter to get off kicks that have equal parts hang time and placement to negate the league’s top return men.
Final Analysis: 4th in AFC South
Until they get consistent play from the quarterback position, the Jaguars will be running uphill in the competitive AFC South. If Gabbert can take a huge step forward in his development in his third year, it’s conceivable the Jaguars could improve to the six-win level, which would give them momentum entering the offseason. Things could be ugly early, which will test the always-upbeat Bradley. The Jaguars play four of their first six on the road, and one of their first-half “home” games is against San Francisco in London.
Order your 2013 Jacksonville Jaguars Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
NY Jets (8/15)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)
Tampa Bay (8/15)