NFL Preview Series: Jacksonville Jaguars

Byron Dixon| BKD TV

Jacksonville told the media that its initial plan was to have Blake Bortles take a redshirt season during his rookie campaign. For multiple reasons – Chad Henne’s ineptitude, the fans calling for the new signal-caller – Bortles made his initial start in Week 4. Bortles had some quality moments, but struggled at times and seemed to regress toward the end of the season. In his final six games, Bortles didn’t have a single performance in which he maintained a YPA of greater than 5.7, and there was only one contest featuring a completion percentage of his higher than 56.8. Bortles disappointed overall, but there’s a good chance he’ll make huge improvements in 2015. There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, Jacksonville made a terrific hire in bringing in offensive coordinator Greg Olson. The former Raider play-caller is a quarterback guru who was the only one who ever got Josh Freeman to play well. Olson has gotten the most out of every single signal-caller he’s ever coached, save for Blaine Gabbert, who was simply a lost cause. Bortles has great raw talent, and unlike Gabbert, he’s not afraid to get tackled.

While We Were Away: General manager David Caldwell made a few acquisitions that will improve Bortles’ blocking, which was abysmal in 2014. Caldwell began by signing Jermey Parnell to play the right tackle spot. Parnell didn’t see much action in Dallas, but played well when given the chance. Jacksonville then added center Stefen Wisniewski, who remained a free agent for a while because of injury concerns. If Wisniewski stays healthy in 2015, the Jaguars will have a top-15 center in the middle of their offensive line. If not, Wisniewski will still be an upgrade over what the team had at the position.

The Jaguars obtained another interior lineman when they chose guard A.J. Cann in the third round. Cann will provide depth behind the mediocre Zane Beadles and second-year Brandon Linder, who thrived as a rookie. Meanwhile, left tackle Luke Joeckel needs to improve. Joeckel is a former No. 2 overall pick, but he surrendered eight sacks in 2014. With all of the upgrades Caldwell made up front, perhaps Jacksonville will be able to give Joeckel some help in poor matchups for him. There’s some cause for optimism here, as Joeckel has added 15 pounds of muscle this off-season.

Even if Joeckle doesn’t improve, perhaps he won’t be so overwhelmed if the Jaguars are in shorter-yardage situations. That’ll be possible if they run the ball well, which they plan to do with second-round rookie T.J. Yeldon. Several teams were considering Yeldon at the end of the first frame, so Jacksonville got good value with the Alabama rookie atop Day 2. Yeldon is a major upgrade over plodder Toby Gerhart, and unlike Denard Robinson, he’s capable of handling a full workload. The mere threat of him in the backfield will make Bortles’ life so much easier.

Bortles will also benefit from throwing to his new prime target, Julius Thomas. The former Bronco tight end is a bit overrated because all of his production came with Peyton Manning, but he’s still an athletic freak and a big upgrade over Marcedes Lewis, at least in terms of being a pass-catcher. Bortles’ other targets include three second-year wideouts, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. All three flashed as rookies, so it’s probable that at least one will be able to take the next step this upcoming season. The favorite to do that is Robinson, who is having a fantastic off season. There’s belief that he is capable of becoming a special player.

2015 Season Outlook: There was a lot of justifiable optimism coming out of Jacksonville following the draft. Unfortunately for the team, disaster struck when third-overall pick Dante Fowler tore his ACL in OTAs. Fowler was seen as a perfect fit as a LEO in Gus Bradley’s defense, so his absence will weaken a pass rush that needed to be excellent to rattle Andrew Luck. Still, even without Fowler, Jacksonville’s defense has a chance to be decent enough to keep the team competitive in most games.

The Jaguar stop unit surrendered 21.7 points per game beginning in Week 5 last season. It was led by defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, who logged nine sacks. Marks, however, tore his ACL in a meaningless season finale and may not be ready for the opener. Marks will be able to play at some point, though it’s unclear how effective he’ll be. Jacksonville did well to sign Jared Odrick to help pick up the slack. Odrick had a terrific 2014 campaign for Miami and should be able to fit in well for Bradley.

There are a couple of holes up front. Red Bryant is gone, so Tyson Alualu may have to start, which is bad news because he’s a terrible player. Chris Clemons, meanwhile, could occupy the LEO spot that Fowler was supposed to take over. Clemons notched eight sacks in 2014, but struggled for the most part. He turns 34 in October, so he’ll continue to decline. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s released at final cuts.

Several changes were made to the secondary to perhaps offset any issues with the pass rush. Sergio Brown was signed over from Indianapolis, and he figures to start at safety until fourth-round rookie James Sample is ready. A strong special-teamer, Brown played well when stepping in as a starting safety when LaRon Landry was out of the lineup. He’ll line up across from 2013 second-rounder Jonathan Cyprien, who had a strong finish to his 2014 campaign.

Davon House, meanwhile, was added to provide more depth at cornerback. House figures to be the nickel, while Dwayne Gratz and Demetrius McCray line up outside. McCray was solid last year, while Gratz was pretty inconsistent. Aaron Colvin, a 2014 fourth-rounder, might be able to push for playing time.

The line-backing corps also figures to be improved. That was going to be the case by default because Paul Posluszny was returning from a torn chest that caused him to miss nine games. Posluszny will reestablish his place in the middle, while Dan Skuta and Telvin Smith will start on the outside. Smith, chosen in the fifth round last year, had a strong rookie campaign, performing well as a three-down player in the final six games of the season. Skuta, signed over from San Francisco, is a bit of an odd fit. He’s not bad in run support though, so he could work as a two-down defender.

2015 Record: 4-12
The Jaguars have four tough games to kick off the season; they have to battle the Panthers, Dolphins, Patriots and Colts in consecutive weeks. This could do them in and send them right back to the top of the draft, coach Gus Bradley is the man for the job so he will get this team to play hard. This team is still a few years away from truly competing.
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