It doesn't seem that long ago that the Jacksonville Jaguars were a playoff contender and winning a postseason game.
Then again, it may be a lot longer than you think. That was 2007, when the team was 11-5 and beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the wild card round.
The franchise has not only failed to post a winning campaign in each of its last five seasons, the Jaguars are a combined 27-53 over that span. That includes a 2-14 finish in 2012, the worst record in the history of a club that dates back to 1995.
Now it is up to new head coach Gus Bradley to get the team back on track. What's interesting is that of the eight new head coaches that will open the 2013 NFL season, the former Seattle Seahawks' assistant is the lone defensive specialist of the group. It's safe to say that Bradley and his staff have their work cut out for them.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Jacksonville Jaguars:
QB Blaine Gabbert: Contrary to perception, the former first-round draft choice made significant improvement in 2012. In 10 games, Gabbert completed 58.3 percent of his throws for 1,662 yards, nine scores and six interceptions. The Jaguars' quarterback did lose 3-of-5 fumbles last season. During his rookie campaign, Gabbert barely completed half of his throws (50.8 percent) and totaled more fumbles (14, losing five) than touchdown passes (12) and was also picked off 11 times. The real disappointment will be if the third-year pro is not able to beat out Chad Henne for the starting job.
RB Maurice Jones-Drew: The franchise's all-time leader in total touchdowns scored missed the final 10 games of the 2012 campaign. And as amazing or disappointing as it may sound (depending on your perspective), Jones-Drew still led the club last season with 414 yards on the ground. When healthy, he remains one of the most versatile backs in the league and if he is around for 16 games, this is an entirely different football team.
WR Cecil Shorts: One of the surprise players in the league and a bright spot for the struggling Jaguars last season. While teammate Justin Blackmon led the team with 64 receptions, Shorts averaged 17.8 yards per catch on 55 grabs (for a team-high 979 yards) and led the team with seven touchdowns. With Blackmon out for the first four games in 2013 due to his suspension, there figures to be more balls headed Shorts' way in 2013.
DE Jason Babin: Here's a sobering statistic. The Jaguars finished dead last in the league with a mere 20 sacks last season. Even more disturbing is the fact that one of the team's division rivals, the Houston Texans, featured NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt--who totaled 20.5 sacks on his own. Let go by the Eagles late in 2012, Babin landed in Jacksonville, played in the team's final five games and totaled 1.5 sacks. The Jaguars will need more and should get it from the former Pro Bowler this season.
SS Jonathan Cyprien: The second-round pick from Florida International certainly bears watching on a defensive unit that gave up the third-most total yards in the league last season. And Cyprien's biggest contribution could be to a unit that was ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2012. That's pretty important in a division that includes the likes of running backs Arian Foster (Houston Texans) and Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans).
So what can we expect from the Jaguars in 2013? The team has not reached the playoffs since 2007 and has not won a division title since 1999. And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? It's safe to say that this team needs a lot of players to step up…and quickly.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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