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Original Issue

14 Jacksonville JAGUARS

Big data— at least that offered by the front office—is the friend of Blaine Gabbert, who got a vote of confidence and a huge gift in the draft. This is his last, best shot

TO SAY "role model" would be overstating it, but Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert certainly considers Kansas City's Alex Smith to be a kindred spirit. Like Gabbert, Smith is a former first-round pick who knows the pitfalls of a career that fails, painfully, to live up to its promise. Or at least appears to.

Drafted by the 49ers with the first pick in 2005, Smith went through the nightmare of playing under two different head coaches, six coordinators and five quarterbacks coaches during his first six seasons in San Francisco, but he persevered and saw his diligence rewarded when Jim Harbaugh took over as the 49ers' coach in '11. Though Smith lost his job to Colin Kaepernick last season and was traded to Kansas City in March, he's an example of persistence that resonates with Gabbert, the No. 10 pick in '11.

At a workout this off-season in California, the two QBs swapped been-there-done-that stories. "Alex told me, 'Keep doing what you do. Keep chipping away; things will turn around,' " says Gabbert, who in his third year in Jacksonville will play for his fourth different coach, for his third offensive coordinator and in his third offense. "They did for him, and that's what we're looking to do. It's been a crazy ride, but I'm not the first quarterback to be in this situation. I won't be the last."

Gabbert is beginning a crucial season, but the Jags haven't given up on him—despite his 5--19 record as a starter, which gives him the worst winning percentage (.208) of any QB with as many starts during the last two seasons. "He's been through a lot of adversity," says new G.M. David Caldwell, who gave Gabbert a somewhat surprising vote of confidence during his first Jaguars draft, in April, by choosing not to select a quarterback. "He's still very young. He's big, fast, athletic, accurate and has a strong arm. There's something there you can work with. It's worth giving a shot. But no more excuses."

Gabbert, the Jacksonville brass believed, would be a good fit in new coordinator Jedd Fisch's spread-formation offense, which resembles the one the quarterback starred in at Missouri. Gabbert will line up often in the shotgun and will be encouraged to move the pocket so that he can throw on the run. Expect to see far more shorter routes than the stand-in-the-pocket-and-throw-downfield approach that in the past has gotten Gabbert killed behind a shaky Jaguars line.

"The philosophy we're teaching Blaine is that you never go broke taking a profit," Fisch says of his offense. "His job is to complete passes, and I don't care where those come from. They don't have to be 30- or 40-yard completions. He only threw six screen passes last season. We looked at New England and they threw [110] passes behind the line. But those passes went for a ton of yards. Completions are critical."

The Jaguars did Gabbert another solid by drafting Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel No. 2 in April. Joeckel, who will transition to the right side (from the left, where he played at College Station), is a much-needed upgrade for a patchwork line that played a big hand in Gabbert getting sacked on a whopping 8.2% of his career passing plays. According to a study done by the Jags' analytics-heavy front offense, Gabbert's passer rating was in the top third of QBs last season when he was given at least 2.6 seconds to throw. (His overall rating was 25th in the NFL.)

Backed with those stats, Gabbert won the training camp competition over veteran Chad Henne, but in the second preseason game he suffered a hairline fracture of his throwing thumb. He's expected back by the opener against—appropriately—Alex Smith's Chiefs.

Finally playing in a QB-friendly and familiar system, and surrounded by weapons—receivers Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon (when he returns from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy), tight end Marcedes Lewis and a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew at running back—Gabbert has his best chance yet of succeeding.

"No matter what anyone else says, Blaine still believes in himself," says Shorts, the Jags' No. 1 receiver in 2012. "You'll see the real Blaine Gabbert this year. They finally have the right people around him. It's going to make the difference."

A small one, almost certainly. A big enough one to make him the franchise's quarterback of the future? Much less certain.


Two rookie playmakers

After years of running a vanilla offense, the Jaguars made it clear in this year's draft that they crave a little more flavor, using fourth- and fifth-round picks, respectively, on two versatile playmakers: South Carolina receiver-punt returner Ace Sanders and Michigan QB Denard Robinson (left), the latter of whom will be used as an RB, WR and, occasionally, read-option QB. In a sign of the times, Jacksonville even lists Robinson—whose hands were shown to need work this off-season but who the Jaguars are determined to get the ball in space and make defenses chase—as an OW, short for offensive weapon. Of the two, the 5' 7", 178-pound Sanders actually had the more eye-opening training camp, turning in surprising work in the slot and outside, and he got plenty of looks in reverses and in motion, even lining up at the same time as Robinson occasionally. "It's going to be different than what we've done—much more multiple," says new coordinator Jedd Fisch. "[Ours] is going to be an offense shaped by what these players do best. We're not going to handcuff ourselves."