TIME TO STEP IT UP
As Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." The Jaguars have gone 7--25 in coach Gus Bradley's first two seasons, with a point differential of minus-202 in 2013 and minus-163 in '14. Consider Jackonsville hit squarely on the chin.
Last season Bradley and GM Dave Caldwell had planned to sit rookie QB Blake Bortles for the entire season, and that strategy lasted all of three games. Bortles, after showing promise in his first few starts, unsurprisingly regressed behind a terrible offensive line and with a lack of receiving targets. After an off-season reboot in which Bortles tinkered with his mechanics again, there's optimism that the young quarterback is making progress. While he appears much improved, he also looked good in the preseason last year.
It would help both him and the team if Bradley, who made his name as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator, could elevate the Jaguars' D to mediocrity at the very least. After finishing 28th and 27th in points and yards allowed in 2013, the Jaguars inched up to 26th in both last season. Analytics—the kind being viewed by the Jaguars' front office—suggest this team is a little more advanced; according to Football Outsiders, Jacksonville's defense ranked 20th in total D, rushing, on first and second downs, and in the first half. (It was also an impressive fifth in the red zone.)
The lack of success wasn't for lack of effort. Flip on the film of any Jaguars game and you'd see players flying all over the field. The problem, of course, was a lack of talent, which was made worse by injuries, most notably to middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who suffered a torn pectoral in Week 7.
The forecast for 2015 doesn't look much better. It was a huge blow when end Dante Fowler, the third pick in the draft out of Florida, tore his left ACL in the first day of minicamp. Outstanding defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, who tore an ACL in the final game of '14, could be back by the season opener, but if his recovery mirrors that of Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, a similar player who had the same injury, the tackle won't regain his explosiveness until next season. While Jared Odrick, signed from the Dolphins, should help against the run, he's not a great pass rusher, and that is where the Jaguars really need the help.
A big season from former Seahawks end Chris Clemons would be most welcome. He had eight sacks and four forced fumbles in 2014, his first year in Jacksonville. But Clemons missed much of training camp with an undisclosed personal issue. Andre Branch, who has been underwhelming to this point in his career, has been working at Clemons's spot. But the Jaguars have two young pass rushers to keep an eye on: fourth-year man Ryan Davis, who had 6½ sacks as a reserve last year, and undrafted rookie Nordly Capi (Akron).
The importance of having Posluszny back healthy can't be overstated. There's no depth behind him, and as an instinctive middle linebacker who is a great communicator, the Jaguars need him between outside linebackers Telvin Smith (an impressive fifth-round pick last season), and former 49er Dan Skuta. Smith may be the defense's top playmaker if Marks isn't back to his former form.
The Jaguars feel very good about their cornerbacks, and they should because they have a deep group. Davon House was signed from the Packers to complement Aaron Colvin and Demetrius McCray. (House and Colvin are likely starters, with McCray coming on in nickel packages.) House was a role player behind veterans in Green Bay, but he's a terrific athlete. Colvin, last year's fourth-round pick, showed the rare ability to play outside and in the slot, and he's definitely on the rise.
At safety there's a chance Jacksonville could be without Johnathan Cyprien (finger) to start the season, which would be a blow because they are thin at the position—so thin that former Patriot and Colt Sergio Brown could be the starter at free. He's a decent special teams player, but Brown has yet to show the instincts needed to be an every-down starter. If he doesn't work out, the Jaguars may have to turn to fourth-round pick James Sample (Louisville).
The Jags have some new weapons for Bortles. Some promising top-line talent. But marked improvement? It remains an elusive goal. This very well could be the last shot for Caldwell and Bradley.
SI'S PREDICTION: 3--13
ANDY BENOIT ON THE JAGUARS' MISPLACED TOOLS
The jury is in early deliberation on Blake Bortles (above), the third pick of the 2014 draft. Yes, his rookie numbers were poor, most notably these: 11 TDs, 17 interceptions. It could have been worse, given how often he misread coverages, which will happen to rookies with no help around them. But Bortles also shows signs of a bright future. He moves well enough to warrant regular read-option calls and rollout passes. With his size and ability to string balls through tight windows, he has the makeup to be sturdy in the pocket. But at this stage he needs the right supporting cast. Bortles has a slow, maybe even methodical, delivery, which limits what he can do in a spread game. He is more suited to a traditional drop-back attack, which requires a stable ground game and trustworthy pass protection—two things the Jags have lacked. On this note, it's a little puzzling that GM Dave Caldwell spent '14 second-round picks on receivers Allen Robinson and especially Marqise Lee. Both are worthy talents but better suited for a spread because their games are based on initial quickness and athleticism. You could argue the same about tight end Julius Thomas. Bortles has the tools, but one questions whether the Jags are putting him in the right box.
BILL FRAKES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
LB Paul Posluszny
SIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED