COMMENTARY | The Jacksonville Jaguars head into the 2013 season with extremely low expectations, after coming off the worst season in franchise history. This year, everything from the front office, to the coaching staff, to the players differs greatly from last season. After a failed rebuilding process that started back in 2008, the team is once again rebuilding and essentially starting from scratch in 2013.
However, even the teams at the bottom of the food chain have important questions they need to face in order to improve and take the next step as a franchise. Here is a look at five burning questions the 2013 Jaguars face going into the season.
1. How will Maurice Jones-Drew respond?
It has been quite a last 12 months for the diminutive Maurice Jones-Drew. Last year at this time, he was holding out for a new contract. After failing to garner one, he begrudgingly rejoined the team, only to injure his foot six games into the season, which sidelined him for the rest of the year. Then there was the whole St. Augustine situation, which created unfavorable media buzz and speculation.
Two weeks until training camp, MJD is not holding out. He will be attending training camp on a surgically repaired foot, looking to have a big season in a contract year. Expect a fresh, motivated Jones-Drew to hit the ground running (no pun intended) for the team from the get-go. If his foot shows no lingering effects, expect MJD to get a lot of carries - maybe even lead the league in the category.
Considering he did not get the contract he felt he deserved last year, Jones-Drew will be on a mission to prove his doubters, and even the Jaguars organization, that he is still one of the top backs in the league. At 28 years old, this may be his last chance to earn an enormous contract (by NFL standards) and a long-term deal.
With an improved offensive line and newfound motivation, it would not be surprising to see Jones-Drew statistically finish as one of the top five rushers in 2013, despite how the team performs as a whole. Do not sleep on Jones-Drew this season.
2. Will Cecil Shorts take the 'next step?'
At this time last year, nobody was sure if Cecil Shorts would even make the Jaguars roster. He was coming off a rough rookie season where he hauled in a meager two passes over the course of the entire season. After an impressive training camp and string of preseason performances, Shorts made the team, albeit as a backup behind free-agent acquisition Laurent Robinson, rookie first-round pick Justin Blackmon, and shifty slot receiver Mike Thomas.
Shorts ended up exploding onto the scene and having a breakout season which saw him lead the team in reception yards, despite seeing limited playing time over the first four games of the season. He was just 21 yards short of being the first Jaguars receiver since Jimmy Smith to reach the plateau, and would have likely achieved it had he not missed the last game of the season due to concussion issues.
This season people will be taking notice. Shorts is a great route runner, has superb hands, great instincts, and has a willingness to be a great receiver in this league. With Jones-Drew garnering much defensive attention and Blackmon missing the first four games of the regular season due to suspension, expect Shorts to have a big year and be the primary receiver in this Jaguars offense. If he shows as much improvement this season as he did going from his rookie to sophomore year, not only will Shorts establish himself as a legitimate number-one receiver, but also he will be looked upon as one of the top receivers in the game.
3. Will the defense improve?
In 2012, Jacksonville had one of the worst defensive units in the entire NFL, statistically.
They go into 2013 with a completely new defensive look and philosophy. Head coach Gus Bradley is implementing a defensive philosophy that is similar to the one he ran as defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. Bradley is stressing the importance of playing fast, tackling properly, and staying aggressive.
Many of the "key" defensive players on the roster in recent years, such as cornerbacks Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, and linebacker Daryl Smith, are no longer on the team as they either left in free agency or were released in order to get collectively younger as a unit. These players were replaced via free agency by cornerback Alan Ball, linebacker Geno Hayes, and defensive tackle Roy Miller, among others.
They also drafted cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz, Jeremy Harris, and Demetrius McCray, along with highly touted safety Johnathan Cyprien, in an attempt to get younger and faster. They will have veteran sack-artist Jason Babin for an entire season this year and held on to linebacker Paul Posluszny. The team hopes second-year player Andre Branch shows significant improvements this year in order to help out Babin in filling the LEO role for the defense.
After the front office gave this defensive unit a total facelift, do not expect them to light the league on fire right away. The unit is extremely young collectively, albeit filled with authentic, raw talent. Expect the 2013 Jaguars defense to be marginally better than the 2012 version.
4. Can Luke Joeckel adjust to right tackle?
Luke Joeckel was arguably the best overall player in this year's draft. The Jaguars gladly snatched up the former Outland Trophy winner with the second overall pick and called it a day.
However, Joeckel was not drafted to play his natural position of left tackle, considering Eugene Monroe already does a great job manning that position. The Jaguars will put Joeckel at right tackle, hoping he improves a position that has been watered down by the play of Cameron Bradfield, Guy Whimper, and Eben Britton over the last few seasons.
The transition from left to right tackle will not be easy. Left tackle is typically played by somebody who is more athletic and has quicker lateral movement, whereas right tackle is played by somebody who is more of a physical road-grater. Not only will Joeckel have to adjust to a new position, he will have to do it fast, considering he has to match up against All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt twice this year.
Joeckel is a complete offensive tackle who excels in both run and pass protection. There is no doubt that Joeckel is an enormous upgrade at the position and may very well end up being the best right tackle the team has ever had.
5. Who will be the starting quarterback?
You had to know this one was coming.
Gabbert, a former first-round pick, had a horrific rookie season, followed by a marginally improved sophomore campaign before being placed on IR midway through the season.
Henne, a former second-round pick, took over for the injured Gabbert and did not perform much better. Outside of a four-touchdown performance against Houston, Henne was skittish and inaccurate in most games, throwing 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over the course of ten contests.
General Manager Dave Caldwell refused to draft a quarterback in last April's draft, which means the battle for starting quarterback will be between Gabbert and Henne once again. Gabbert is younger, has a stronger arm, and still has the potential to get better, whereareas Henne may have peaked as a football player. However, Henne seems to have a better rapport with young receiver Justin Blackmon, who really started to come along once Henne took over, and if the second Houston game was any indication, he also takes more chances downfield.
With that said, whoever wins the starting quarterback role is not necessarily going to be the "franchise quarterback" per se. If Henne wins the role, he still would not be looked upon as the quarterback of the future, and the Jaguars would likely draft a franchise guy in 2014. If Gabbert wins the job, then he will have the season to prove that he can be the face of a franchise that desperately lacks one.
Matt Gonzales is a Jacksonville native who has been following the Jaguars for the last decade. He graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in Journalism and is a contributing freelance writer for both Yahoo! Sports and Fanspeak.com.
Follow Matt on Twitter @mattgonzales25
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Jacksonville Jaguars