New names promise to punch up the D
Dante Fowler Jr. tried his best to stay positive while rehabbing a torn left ACL last season. But, he says, "I had my little spurts here and there when I would get down on myself." When those low moments came, he sought out the one comfort food that would set him straight. "McDonald's," Fowler says with a smile. "A Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder with fries." This year Fowler is past the pity parties at the drive-thru window. Spend any amount of time with the 22-year-old defensive end and it's clear he can't contain his joy to be back. While answering an unrelated question, Fowler stopped midsentence, put his head into his hands and sighed, "I'm just so happy!"
The No. 3 pick out of Florida in 2015, Fowler joins a unit drastically different from the one he watched last season from a box at EverBank Field. No AFC team did more to rebuild its defense this off-season than the Jaguars, signing tackle Malik Jackson, cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Tashaun Gipson and drafting Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack with their top picks. All five should start at some point this season. They will be led by a new coordinator, Todd Wash, promoted from run-defense coordinator to replace Bob Babich.
Coach Gus Bradley's 12--36 record over three years would have gotten many entire staffs fired in today's win-now NFL. But owner Shahid Khan granted Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell a fourth year, in part because of the huge strides made by the offense under quarterback Blake Bortles, who threw for a franchise-record 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2015. Receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns also emerged as one of the league's top duos; both surpassed 1,000 yards. But the defense didn't do its part, and the Jaguars lost games in which they scored 25, 27, 31 and 39 points. "That was pure disappointment," says veteran middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. "All we have to do is stop the other team a couple of times and we'll be in good shape."
Bortles, who lines up across from this remade unit every day in training camp, says he sees a huge change compared with last season. "The most obvious thing I've noticed is that it just looks better," he said. "Malik Jackson looks like a dominant defensive end in the NFL. When you get off a bus, Malik Jackson is one of the guys you want getting off first."
Fowler has also shown his old pass-rushing burst. The only sign he is 15 months removed from ACL surgery is the camouflage brace he wears on his knee. "To me, he is very Von [Miller]-esque," Jackson says. "I think he can definitely be the same player."
In the secondary Gipson has impressed as a playmaker. Early in OTAs, Bortles threw a familiar route on a double move by tight end Julius Thomas. "We probably threw this 50 times on the defense last year [in practice] for 50 touchdowns," Bortles says. Not this time; Gipson picked it off. "A year ago we didn't have a free safety that could make that play," says Bortles. "Now we've got a guy that can run end line to end line as fast as anybody in the league." The secondary has much room to improve; last year the Jags finished tied for 26th in the league with just nine interceptions and did not get any from their free safeties.
Fowler's stat goal for this season: to average a sack a game. A lofty ambition, but that is the attitude in Jacksonville this season. "The personal expectations are much higher this year, and that is an internal thing," Posluszny says. "That's the first time that I've seen that with Coach Bradley's group. This is our year. We all have that sense of urgency."
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
Last season the Jaguars had 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more, tying the Saints for the most in the NFL. The receiver on a league-leading 31 of those plays was Allen Robinson(left), who finished sixth in the NFL with 1,400 receiving yards and caught 14 touchdowns, tied for the league's best. The 6'3", 218-pound Robinson, long in body and in stride, can snag balls that are away from his frame and eat up space with great build-up speed late in routes. He's a perfect fit for QB Blake Bortles, who has a lively arm but takes time to wind it up. To accommodate his slower release, the Jaguars have built their passing game around downfield play-action routes that take time to unfold—and allow Robinson time to get open. The beauty of play-action is that it's almost always used on early downs, when defenses are in predictable coverages, giving the designs an even greater chance to succeed.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 7--9
2015 Record: 5--11
SEPT. 11 vs.GB [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 atSD
SEPT. 25 vs.BAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 vs.IND
OCT. 16 atCHI
OCT. 23 vs.OAK [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 27 atTEN
NOV. 6 atKC
NOV. 13 vs.HOU
NOV. 20 atDET [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 atBUF
DEC. 4 vs.DEN
DEC. 11 vs.MIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 atHOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 vs.TEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atIND
= PREDICTED WINNER