Having watched the Jaguars win seven games during the first two years of the Dave Caldwell-Gus Bradley Era, owner Shad Khan wouldn’t have been faulted this offseason if he had publicly mandated a specific number of wins for 2015. A regime’s third season is usually prove-it-or-else time. But he has bypassed that request at every turn.
Still, Khan clearly expects more. More wins. More close games. More touchdowns. More takeaways. And he made his thoughts known when addressing fans in mid-February: “We owe (fans) better results on game day. I know that. Dave knows that. Gus knows that.”
Knowing that, Caldwell (the general manager) and Bradley (the coach) went to work. They shook up the coaching staff. They signed a slew of free agents, six of whom are expected to start. And they added an eight-player draft class that will feature at least two opening-day starters.
The Jaguars reacted accordingly to a 3–13 season in which they didn’t score much (league-low 15.6 points per game), couldn’t run it (a misleading 21st), and didn’t protect the passer (league-high 71 sacks allowed).
In are offensive coordinator Greg Olson, offensive line coach Doug Marrone, tight end Julius Thomas, right tackle Jermey Parnell, center Stefen Wisniewski, running back T.J. Yeldon, slot receiver Rashad Greene and, potentially, left guard A.J. Cann. All of the changes are geared toward giving quarterback Blake Bortles every chance to be successful. In 14 games last year, Bortles showed an ability to extend plays (by sliding around the pocket) and equal parts athleticism/smarts by rushing for 419 yards without taking any major hits. The guy is a playmaker. The Jaguars need him to be a difference-maker.
The Jaguars hope that the newcomers, combined with the development of players such as left tackle Luke Joeckel and the second-year receiving trio of Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns, can help Bortles produce an offensive revival. Joeckel has spent the offseason adding lower- and upper-body strength so he can more effectively smash opponents in the run game and hold up against them in the passing game. Houston has J.J. Watt, Tennessee has Brian Orakpo and Indianapolis has Trent Cole. Joeckel must be ready to face each of them twice within the AFC South.
Watch out for Robinson. He was on his way to 75 catches before being shut down after Game 10 with a foot injury. He’s not a blazer, but he knows how to find the first-down marker and the openings in zone coverage. The Jaguars prefer to keep Robinson, Lee and Hurns on the outside, which created a need to draft Greene, a prolifically productive player at Florida State (school-record 270 catches) who will play in the slot.
Success for the Jaguars’ offense will also center around three newcomers: Thomas, who had 24 touchdown catches the last two years for Denver and gives the Jaguars a red-zone component they’ve lacked for years; Parnell, who was a spot starter for Dallas but was given big money ($14.5 million guaranteed) to solidify a position that has been leaky for most of this decade; and Yeldon, the 36th overall pick who had two 1,000-yard rushing years at Alabama.
The Jaguars were similarly flawed on defense last year, finishing 27th against the run and tied for last in interceptions (six). And the changes weren’t subtle. During the opening hours of free agency, defensive end Jared Odrick, outside linebacker Dan Skuta, cornerback Davon House and free safety Sergio Brown were signed to contracts worth a combined $32.1 million guaranteed. And then the Jaguars drafted pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., free safety James Sample and defensive tackle Michael Bennett.
Fowler, though, tore his left ACL in the team’s first rookie minicamp practice and is out for the season. That leaves Odrick as the key newcomer up front. He will play the strong-side end spot, and the Jaguars hope he can be a better all-around producer than Red Bryant was last year. At the weak-side spot without projected starter Fowler, the rotation will include Chris Clemons, Andre Branch and Ryan Davis. Inside, Sen’Derrick Marks has developed into a productive, every-down tackle, but is rehabilitating from a late December ACL injury. Although ahead of schedule in late April, the guess is that the Jaguars will bring him along slowly so he can be ready for Week 1. But it’s likely he will see his playing time reduced while he works back into shape. The other starter, Roy Miller, is also coming off knee surgery but is expected to be full-go for camp.
The loss of Fowler could have a crippling effect on the Jaguars’ pass rush. Bradley and coordinator Bob Babich don’t call many blitzes (less than 20 percent in 2015), relying on a four-man rush to provide pressure. That may not be the best strategy this year.
Linebacker depth is a concern. The starters are set entering camp — Paul Posluszny in the middle, Skuta on the strong side and Telvin Smith on the weak side. But the Jaguars, who didn’t address the position in the draft, are in trouble if they have injury issues. Skuta and Smith are intriguing for different reasons. Skuta can rush the passer on third down, and Smith is simply around the football at all times. A key is Posluszny’s health. He missed the last half of 2014 with a torn chest muscle.
This is a huge season for strong safety Johnathan Cyprien, now in his third year in the league. “It’s time,” defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker says. Time for Cyprien to change games. Time for him to create turnovers. Time for him to be noticed. The Jaguars hope that settling on Brown or Sample at free safety will create more opportunities for Cyprien to play in the box. House was signed from Green Bay to bring experience to the cornerback spot, where he’ll lead Demetrius McCray, Aaron Colvin and Dwayne Gratz. Colvin could be the best of them. An ACL injury dropped him to the fourth round last year, but he played the final six games and showed flashes of being a playmaker in coverage.
Kicker Josh Scobee, punter Bryan Anger and long snapper Carson Tinker will return for their 12th, fourth and third seasons, respectively, with the Jaguars. Scobee was 17-of-20 last year on field goals from under 50 yards, and Anger posted a net average of 39.6 yards. Where this unit will undergo some change is in the return game. Ace Sanders has had two years to give the punt return game a spark and hasn’t produced. The candidates to replace him are Tandon Doss (out last year with an ankle injury) and Greene, the rookie receiver. Running back Denard Robinson will get the first shot on kickoff returns.
This entire season hinges on the Jaguars’ offense in general and the team’s early-season offense in particular. Can the players, chiefly Bortles, get up to speed with Olson’s offense? Can second-year receivers Robinson, Lee and Hurns take steps forward in their progress? Can Yeldon and Thomas emerge as much-needed playmakers? If all of that happens, a jump from three wins to maybe .500 could be in the offing.