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On the day after the Jacksonville Jaguars finished the 2012 regular season at 2-14, the worst regular season record in franchise history, owner Shad Khan began to make significant changes to the organization. Khan fired general manager Gene Smith and the process of finding a replacement ended with Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel David Caldwell, a highly-sought after talent evaluator who turned down a lucrative offer from the New York Jets to take the Jaguars' job.
Caldwell fired head coach Mike Mularkey and bucked the trend when he hired Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for the head coaching vacancy. Of the eight head coaches hired in 2013, Bradley is the only coach with a background on the defensive side of the ball. Hiring Bradley was a solid move — he had a major impact on the rebuilding of the Seahawks into one of the most physical defenses in the league — but came as a surprise as he and Caldwell had no previous relationship and the Jaguars have had one of the worst offenses in the league over the past two seasons.
Caldwell does not appear to be under any delusions about the Jaguars' prospects for the 2013 season. The team was quiet in free agency and is looking to rebuild through the draft. That's the smart path, but it will require a bit of patience from the fan base.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: 2013 is only Year 1 of what will likely be a multi-year rebuilding process, so on paper, the roster that Caldwell has put together might be considered a step back from the roston of a season ago. The Jaguars let fullback Greg Jones, defensive tackle Terence Knighton, linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerbacks Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis leave as unrestricted free agents and the team cut cornerback Aaron Ross, safety Dawan Landry and wide receiver Laurent Robinson. The Jaguars' biggest splash in free agency were the signings of defensive tackles Roy Miller and Sen'Derrick Marks, both of whom signing short-term deals that contained less than the $3.5 million in guaranteed money combined.
Best offseason acquisition: The selection of offensive tackle Luke Joeckel with the second overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Though the Jaguars already have a pretty good left tackle Eugene Monroe, the team's analytics department, spearheaded by Tony Khan, found that Blaine Gabbert was among the top third quarterbacks in the NFL when he had at least 2.6 seconds to throw. Improving the team's ability to protect the quarterback should lead to an improved offense overall. Joeckel is expected to start at right tackle, but could eventually switch sides with Monroe, who is a free agent next offseason.
Biggest hole on the roster: Jaguars quarterbacks will need as much time as possible to throw because there is zero depth at the receiver position. Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts are legitimate NFL starters, but behind them are Mohamed Massaquoi, Jordan Shipley and Taylor Price, three players who hardly instill fear in the hearts of opposing defensive backs. 2013 fourth-round pick Ace Sanders had nine receiving touchdowns last season at South Carolina and adds considerable speed to the receiving corps. Fifth-round pick Denard Robinson, a former quarterback at Michigan, will also see time at receiver in his new position of "offensive weapon".
Blaine Gabbert (USA Today Sports Images)
Position in flux: A main goal for the 2013 season is to find out if Gabbert is a legitimate long-term option at quarterback. The No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft has not had an easy road. Jedd Fisch will be his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons and Gabbert has been sacked 62 times, 8.2 percent of his drop-backs during his 25-game career. If Gabbert does not show that he is capable of being "The Man" in Jacksonville, the Jaguars have a capable veteran in Chad Henne to get them through this season and the QB search will begin anew in 2014. Caldwell used the waiver wire to add Mike Kafka to the mix and signed Matt Scott and Jordan Rodgers (younger brother of Aaron Rodgers) as undrafted rookie free agents.
Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: If you haven't already heard of Cecil Shorts, you will in 2013. Shorts, a 2011 fourth-round pick out of Mount Union, played sparingly as a rookie before taking on a larger role last season. Shorts was second on the team with 55 receptions, led the Jaguars with 979 yards and seven touchdowns, and was among the Top 30 receivers in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), two of the advanced metrics used by Football Outsiders.
Stat fact: Fourteen of the 26 players selected in the four drafts (2009-2012) overseen by former GM Gene Smith are no longer with the team.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: The Jaguars are unlikely to win any more than five or six games this season, so the best-case scenario should be the Jaguars developing into a team that is difficult to play against. Eight of the Jaguars' 14 losses in 2012 were by double-digit margins and 11 of the 14 losses were by margins of at least one touchdown. If the defense tightens up, Blaine Gabbert emerges as the leader of an offense that can actually move the chains and put points on the scoreboard, the Jaguars may find themselves in some closer games, perhaps even on the winning side of those games, and would not need to start over at the quarterback position.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Joeckel struggles at right tackle and second-round safety Jonathan Cyprien does not show signs of being the play-maker he's expected to be in Bradley's defense. Maurice Jones-Drew's foot injury lingers into the regular season and Blackmon is a non-factor when he returns from the four-game suspension he'll serve at the start of the season.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Blackmon was outstanding in the second half of his rookie season. Over the final seven games, Blackmon caught 38 passes for 615 yards with four of his five receiving touchdowns on the season. A lot of that production came during a seven-catch, 236-yard performance in a Nov. 18 loss to the Houston Texans, but Blackmon averaged six receptions per game over the final month of the season where he showed signs of being a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Due to a four-game suspension, Blackmon won't be seen until Oct. 7, but if he can carryover his performance from the second half of last year, the Jaguars will have three legitimate weapons — Blackmon, Shorts and tight end Marcedes Lewis — for Gabbert (or whoever the quarterback is) to work with.
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