Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
The Jaguars are making strides, and it’s easy to buy into whatever high-energy coach Gus Bradley is selling.
So why are the Jaguars No. 32 on our countdown? The hill they have to climb is tremendously steep.
Jacksonville was 4-12 last year and outscored by 202 points. They weren’t above average in any major statistical category. None of their wins were against a quality opponent. They added some good players in free agency and the draft, but you can also argue that the two most talented players on the roster at the start of last season were offensive tackle Eugene Monroe and receiver Justin Blackmon, and Monroe is playing in Baltimore and the suspended Blackmon will not be playing anywhere anytime soon. The quarterback situation was atrocious and Blake Bortles’ help might be a year off. The skill-position talent is better but a lot depends on rookie receivers, and you know how that usually goes. The defense wasn’t very good last season and improvements this offseason were incremental. And so on.
So while the Jaguars have built some excitement in Jacksonville this offseason, there’s still a long way to go. It’ll take some time.
2013 review in less than 25 words: Jacksonville was 0-8, in danger of a historically bad season, before rallying for four second-half wins to finish 4-12.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The biggest losses happened during last season, when Monroe was traded and Blackmon was suspended. Losing Maurice Jones-Drew is more sentimental than a big on-field loss. Trading Blaine Gabbert sent shockwaves through the Jacksonville community (kidding). The free-agent additions were solid – guard Zane Beadles, defensive linemen Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood and running back Toby Gerhart among them – but unlikely to produce a superstar. The draft picks of Bortles and receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson were exciting. The roster is better, though unlikely to show a huge improvement this season.
Best offseason acquisition: It’s simple but the answer has to be Bortles. The Jaguars needed to take a shot on a franchise quarterback, and did so with Bortles at the No. 3 pick. This is a team that made one of the NFL’s all-time mistakes passing on Russell Wilson for a punter in the 2012 draft when it was clear Gabbert was a total disaster. They should have been drafting Sammy Watkins at No. 3 this year to go with Wilson, but what's done is done. A franchise with Chad Henne as its No. 1 quarterback had no hope. Now that Bortles is on board, the Jaguars’ fans have a reason for optimism now. It’s a move the team needed to make. Now the Jaguars just need Bortles to be good.
Achilles heel: Where to start? The problem is the Jaguars can’t move the ball or score. That’s a problem. They ranked 30th among 32 NFL teams in yards per pass attempt and 31stin yards per run play in 2013, so they didn’t really do anything well. It might not get much better right away, unless Bortles plays immediately and is good, Lee and Robinson look like veterans right away, Gerhart is a productive back and second-year tackle Luke Joeckel returns from injury, plays to his potential and leads an improved offensive line. The Jaguars would probably be happy if a couple of those things came true.
Position in flux: There are many, but the Jaguars really need to find a pass rusher or two. The Jaguars had 31 sacks last year, tied for fewest in the NFL. Adding some defensive linemen, especially Clemons, should help, although Clemons is 32 and not a long-term answer. Third-year end Andre Branch had a stretch of at least one sack in five of six games during the second half of last season. The Jaguars need him (and others, preferably) to emerge as a consistent force.
Ready to break out: I liked the Gerhart signing for the Jaguars. Two things stand out about Gerhart’s profile: He was efficient in Minnesota, averaging 4.7 yards per carry over his four seasons, and had only 276 carries behind workhorse Adrian Peterson. He has good experience and not many miles on his odometer, a nice combination. He will get plenty of carries for the Jaguars, finally getting a chance to show the talent he displayed years ago at Stanford. I think he’s been waiting patiently to show what he can do in a bigger role, and will do just fine with it.
Stat fact: Sometimes, a losing team can point to bad luck in the form of close losses. Not the Jaguars. Of their 12 losses, 11 came by a touchdown or more. The only close loss was a 20-16 loss to Tennessee in Week 16. They earned their poor record.
Schedule degree of difficulty: The Jaguars have one of the easier schedules in the NFL thanks to a division that includes Houston and Tennessee, which both had losing records in 2013, and three 2014 games against the NFC East, which was pretty poor as a whole last year. Because the schedule is so soft, the Jaguars have a pretty good chance to at very least match last year’s win total.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: One would assume Bortles will play at some point. Sitting the third pick all year behind a quarterback like Henne isn’t something that happens anymore, no matter how much the Jaguars keep insisting they want Bortles to wait and learn all year. The entire outlook of the franchise is dependent on if Bortles can be a good NFL starter (how’s that for some pressure?). Bortles doesn’t need to be 2011 Cam Newton when he plays as a rookie, but showing he belongs on the NFL stage would be a great step for the Jaguars. Everything else is a bonus in 2014.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Aside from Bortles looking like Gabbert reincarnated, there would be concern if young players like Joeckel, Lee, Robinson and Branch don’t show much this season. This Jaguars season won’t be measured in wins and losses. They aren’t good enough to contend for a playoff spot. This year is about Bortles’ progression, and Bradley starting to build a nucleus for future success.
The crystal ball says: There might be a few wins, because the schedule is pretty soft. But let’s put it this way: The Jaguars will be looking at another high draft pick in 2015. Maybe they can pull off a RG3-like trade, as the Rams did, if some team wants Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston in a bad way. It’ll be another long year, presumably with a similar record to last year, but the Jaguars should have some hope that better days are ahead.
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