A less patient owner would have cleaned house after the Jaguars lost five of their last six games. They didn’t protect the quarterback, didn’t run the football, didn’t rush the passer and didn’t create turnovers. But Shad Khan sees something in general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley: progress. Time is running out, though. Although Khan hasn’t made a public mandate for a specific number of wins to earn this administration a fifth year, he demands better results than the combined 12 wins over the last three years. The pressure is especially on Bradley after an offseason overhaul of a woeful defense.
Bradley is only the sixth coach in NFL history to have 13 or fewer wins in his first three years and be allowed to stick around. Of the previous five, Chuck Noll worked out in Pittsburgh with four Super Bowl titles, but the others never had a winning record. Can Bradley buck the trend? The Jaguars have been a laughingstock for most of this decade — five straight years with at least 11 losses. But maybe a turnaround is imminent. The Jaguars could have as many as six new starters on defense and have several foundational players on offense. The offense was greatly improved last year, and Bradley needs the defense to show similar improvement to save his job.
For the first time in several years, the Jaguars’ offense was watchable in 2015. Blake Bortles threw a franchise-record 35 touchdowns; receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns both eclipsed 1,000 yards; tight end Julius Thomas had five touchdowns despite multiple injuries; and rookie running back T.J. Yeldon showed promise before missing the final three games with a knee injury. The Jaguars know what they’re going to get from Bortles, Robinson and Hurns — arguably the league’s top young pass-and-catch trio — and Thomas should be more effective with a full offseason and training camp working with Bortles.
But two areas need to improve: offensive line play and the running game. The Jaguars have allowed 122 sacks in the last two years, and they have been outside of the top 20 in rushing yards per game in each of the last five years. If the Jags can protect better, then longer-developing routes by Thomas and receiver Marqise Lee will become available, and Bortles won’t have to improvise as much. Run it better, and it opens up the play action for Bortles to throw downfield to Robinson and Hurns.
To that end, the Jaguars signed Pittsburgh left tackle Kelvin Beachum, Dallas guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and N.Y. Jets running back Chris Ivory. Beachum isn’t expected to practice until early August because of a knee injury, but he’ll likely take over for former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel, who was last seen giving up five sacks to the Houston Texans. Bernadeau is a depth option. And Ivory, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, will team with Yeldon at tailback.
Obviously, the key is Bortles. Now a third-year player, he immediately clicked with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Nathaniel Hackett, who seek his input with the game plan and give him latitude at the line of scrimmage. Bortles threw a league-high 18 interceptions last year, including two in the red zone; better decisions in the scoring area will allow him to take the next step.
Fans will need a game program to figure out who’s who. They’ll recognize the names — Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Malik Jackson, etc. — but seeing them wearing Jacksonville helmets will be foreign. And those are just some of the new faces. After finishing next-to-last in points allowed, the Jags launched a needed overhaul.
Todd Wash was promoted from defensive line coach to coordinator. In free agency, Jackson (defensive tackle), Tashaun Gipson (free safety) and Prince Amukamara (cornerback) were signed; the draft produced Ramsey (cornerback) and Jack (linebacker). And the team will get Fowler (defensive end) and Sen’Derrick Marks (defensive tackle) back from injuries.
The Jaguars improved their rush defense last year, but they were unable to pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush, rarely got home with the blitz, couldn’t cover tight ends, couldn’t produce key turnovers and couldn’t stop teams on third down.
Wash is expected to tweak the flawed scheme to include more personnel packages instead of the standard four-man line regardless of the situation. And he will be more diverse with his pressures instead of Aaron Colvin blitzing from the slot or Paul Posluszny rushing from his middle linebacker spot. In addition to not having enough talent last year, the Jaguars were also predictable.
Fowler will be counted on to lead the pass rush. On first and second downs, strong-side end Jared Odrick and nose tackle Roy Miller are solid against the run. Jackson will take Marks’ starting spot, but the Jaguars envision them lining up beside each other on third down to provide a strong interior pass rush. At linebacker, Jack — who dropped into the second round because of a September 2015 knee injury — adds a speed and coverage combination the Jaguars haven’t had in years. Posluszny is the defensive quarterback, and weak-side backer Telvin Smith’s next step is producing more takeaways.
The secondary has been overhauled after intercepting just five passes. Cornerback Davon House had four of those and will play opposite Ramsey, who had surgery in late May to repair a small tear in the meniscus in his right knee. Amukamara will likely play the slot, and Colvin will provide depth after his four-game suspension to start the year. Gipson is a sideline-to-sideline player who is the Jaguars’ fifth free safety in four years. At strong safety, Johnathan Cyprien and James Sample will compete for the starting job.
The Jaguars solved their punt-return woes last year when they drafted Rashad Greene. He averaged 16.7 yards on 18 returns, including a 73-yard TD. In signing free agent Brad Nortman, they hope the punting has stabilized. Nortman, 26, is known for his directional punting and hang time. Jason Myers is back as the placekicker after an up-and-down season replacing Josh Scobee. Myers showed good leg strength on kickoffs but missed an NFL-high seven extra points. If he’s shaky again this year, his job could be in jeopardy. On kick returns, Denard Robinson will be pushed by Corey Grant and Nick Marshall. All three got a shot last year. The Jaguars haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2007.
Can a season be made or broken in the opening month? It sure can in the NFL, and it sure might be for the Jaguars. Bradley’s first three teams limped out of the gate with records of 0–4, 0–4 and 1–3. This year’s start is critical. The Jaguars face Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (home), San Diego’s Philip Rivers (away), Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (home) and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (London) in the opening four weeks. Salvage a split, and the Jaguars will possess something they’ve never had in the Bradley Era — early season momentum. Start poorly again and eventually finish with seven or fewer wins, and ownership would be justified in moving on from this coaching staff.