2016 NFL Preview: Don't buy all the Jaguars hype just yet

Shutdown Corner

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 of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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We know some team will have a dramatic improvement this season and find itself in the playoffs. It happens every year. What we don’t know is who that surprise team will be. That’s what makes guessing so fun.

This season, the bandwagon seems to be overflowing for two teams. We’ll get to the Oakland Raiders later in this series. But first, let’s examine the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Who doesn’t like the Jaguars’ direction heading into this season? There is Blake Bortles’ statistical improvement, two young and talented receivers, a free-agency shopping spree and a draft that was universally praised. Add in the return of 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler from injury to help the pass rush, and it’s no surprise the Jaguars are one of this year’s helium teams.

Is the hype justified? Be skeptical.

I like their offseason moves, like everyone else. Their foundation at the end of last season looked promising. But they’d need to make a massive leap to compete for a playoff spot this season.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The Jaguars weren’t good last year. They finished 25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric and 31st in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings at USA Today. They were 5-11 and advanced stats don’t indicate they were particularly unlucky. It’s not like they finished well either. They lost five of their last six. Even some of the strides they made were a bit of a mirage.

Look closely at what many think was a breakout season for Bortles, because he’s a good measuring stick for the Jaguars as a whole. Bortles has a lot of tools and could develop into a fine quarterback. He’s not there yet, no matter what last season’s stats show. Bortles had 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns, and that’s very good for a second-year player. He also did a lot of damage in garbage time. Bortles threw only 59 passes all of last season when the Jaguars held a lead. He threw 428 passes when the Jaguars trailed. Of those passes, 200 came with the Jaguars trailing by nine or more points. He had 1,789 yards and 16 touchdowns with the Jaguars trailing by more than one possession.

Bortles’ first half rating last year was 79.3, and his rating was 97.5 in the second half. Bortles’ second-half brilliance didn’t matter much; the Jaguars were 2-10 last season when trailing at halftime.

Blake Bortles wants to build on a solid 2015 season (AP)
Blake Bortles wants to build on a solid 2015 season (AP)

Perhaps you noticed Bortles’ line after the New Orleans Saints game in Week 16. He completed 27-of-35 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns. Wonderful! But wait. Bortles was terrible most of the first half. The Saints took a 24-0 lead with about four minutes left in the second quarter, and at that point Bortles was 5-for-9 for 33 yards and two interceptions against perhaps the worst pass defense in NFL history. After Jacksonville fell behind 24-0 — a deficit that Bortles helped create — Bortles had 335 yards and four touchdowns, and the Saints’ win probability (via pro-football-reference.com) never dipped below 92 percent. That’s a lot of empty calories.

That doesn’t mean everything Bortles did last season was meaningless, but it puts his 4,428 yards into perspective.

It’s not a slight on Bortles, who has done some good things and looked much more comfortable last season. By all accounts, Bortles is developing at a normal, promising pace and it looks like he could be a very good quarterback for many years. It’s not to say the Jaguars don’t have the makings of exciting, young passing game; they certainly do and their young stars will continue to improve together. But planning on a full repeat for Bortles or anyone else in the offense — or even expecting better production with another year of experience — is dangerous. The Jaguars are likely going to be a more competitive team this season, and Bortles will probably throw more than 59 passes when his team leads the game (and a lot fewer pass attempts overall). We need to see how Bortles and everyone else reacts to that. They haven’t had many reps in meaningful situations. The Jaguars are far from a finished product.

The Jaguars are in a strange position. They’ve lost at least 11 games each of the last five seasons, haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, didn’t play well last season but suddenly have lofty expectations. Even if the Jaguars won the offseason, it’s asking a lot for them to push for a playoff spot this season.

The Jaguars made some huge improvements. In terms of value, it can be argued that the Jaguars made the best pick in the first and second round in this year’s draft. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey was probably the best overall player in the draft, and Jacksonville got him No. 5 overall (oh, Dallas). Myles Jack should have been a top-10 pick but fears about possible microfracture surgery on his knee caused him to fall to the second round. Jack was passed over because someday he might have a knee problem and was picked after linebacker Jaylon Smith, who already has a serious knee injury that will likely keep him out for all of 2016 (oh, Dallas). No, I don’t quite get that either.

Free agency was productive too. Defensive lineman Malik Jackson might have been the second-best player on the Denver Broncos’ great Super Bowl championship defense last season. Cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Tashaun Gipson help the secondary. Running back Chris Ivory was overpaid, but he’s a good addition to the run game. Kelvin Beachum could replace disappointing Luke Joeckel at left tackle. Jacksonville’s only notable loss in free agency was center Stefan Wisniewski. What other grade can you give the Jags? Grade: A

On paper the Jaguars look good. Having Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler is like adding three first-round picks. Jackson was a great addition to the defense, and Tashaun Gipson was an underrated signing. Blake Bortles might have been a garbage time all-star in 2015, but the Jaguars are in fine shape at quarterback. Allen Robinson is a star and Allen Hurns is a very good No. 2 receiver. It’s easy to understand why this team is generating positive buzz this offseason.

I was fine with the Jaguars not firing Gus Bradley. At some point you have to trust a coaching hire and see it through. But do we know if Bradley is a decent coach? He has mostly gotten a pass through his first three seasons, even though the results have been really bad. Bradley has coached 48 games and has a .250 winning percentage. In NFL history, only three coaches with more than 40 games have a worse winning percentage: Bert Bell (.179), Steve Spagnuolo (.208) and Rod Marinelli (.208). Bradley, by all accounts, is a nice guy (that’s a big reason he has gotten a pass). He hasn’t had a lot of talent to work with. He deserves a chance to coach an upgraded roster after trying to patch things together for three years. Maybe we’ll all understand this season why the Jaguars were patient with Bradley. But it’s fair to have doubts.

Even though Blake Bortles isn’t a finished product, and his 35 interceptions in 30 games should be a concern, the Jaguars won’t be in the market for a quarterback for a long time. Bortles came into the NFL as a raw, talented prospect. His development has been good (but, again, don’t look at last year’s counting stats and assume he’s already there). He could start to put it all together in his third season. If nothing else, Bortles will be getting a big second contract unless something unforeseen happens.

If tight end Julius Thomas has a big season, that could catapult the Jaguars to a new level on offense. He was Jacksonville’s big signing last year, but he suffered a broken finger in the preseason and it seemed to affect him most of the year. When he had 116 yards on Nov. 29, it was only the second time all season he had more than 28 yards in a game. Then in December and January, he had 15 or fewer yards in three of five games. It was a disappointing season to say the least.

Either Thomas was a product of playing in a great Denver Broncos offense with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball and he cashed in at exactly the right time, or he’s a talented athlete who deserves a pass for 2015 because of the injury.

If Thomas is the player Jacksonville thought it was getting last offseason, he’ll be a versatile piece who can create matchup issues and be a reliable red-zone target. A young quarterback like Blake Bortles could use a tight end like that.

Cosell: “[Blake Bortles’] improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 was really strong. Bortles in some ways might be a guy — and I’ve discussed it with people in Jacksonville — who always throws a couple more picks than you’d like because he’s an aggressive thrower. He’s a ‘turn it loose’ quarterback. And he makes a lot of really good throws because he’s a ‘turn it loose’ quarterback. He makes a lot of throws other quarterbacks might not even attempt. You have to factor that into the equation. That’s the kind of player he is. I always view that as a positive. I’d rather a quarterback do that than constantly throw a checkdown, because my belief is that if a guy is smart and aware, over time he figures out what he can do and what he can’t do.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Jaguars and the rest of the AFC South.]

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “The Jags added T.J. Yeldon in 2015 with the expectation that the second-round pick would carry the team’s ground game. The rookie was fed, averaging over 18 touches per contest (15 via the ground and 3 through the air), but had trouble converting in the red area of the field.

“In an attempt to add depth and keep Yeldon’s legs fresh, Jacksonville brought in Chris Ivory at more than $6 million dollars a year. A bruiser who notched the seventh-most red zone carries last season, the former Jet will likely eat into Yeldon’s opportunities and exist as the team’s goal-line hammer. Both RB3s, Ivory is being drafted two rounds ahead of Yeldon. He’s the preferred option in standard scoring leagues, but he’s not worth reaching for before the sixth round of 12-team leagues.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

After catching one pass for 27 yards in the opener, Allen Robinson had at least 51 yards in 14 of Jacksonville’s final 15 games. That includes six 100-yard games. In three of those games he went over 150. His numbers will likely decrease if the Jaguars are a more competitive team, because Blake Bortles won’t pass as often if the games are more competitive. Even if Robinson’s numbers dip, he is still a top-10 NFL receiver. Allen Hurns got $10 million a year from the Jaguars this offseason. Hurns is good but Robinson is better and he’s going to cash in big.

WHY SIGN CHRIS IVORY AFTER INVESTING IN T.J. YELDON LAST SEASON?

Ivory is a good, tough runner, and the Jaguars had money to burn this offseason. Ivory’s contract places him seventh among all NFL running backs in average salary per year, which is insane. But again, the Jaguars had more cap space than they could ever use. It was a luxury signing.

What does this say about Yeldon, who was the 36th pick of the 2015 draft? He averaged 4.1 yards per carry and was good in the pass game. According to Pro Football Focus’ grades, Yeldon was the No. 8 running back in the NFL last season. The Jaguars should not regret investing in Yeldon. But Jacksonville didn’t give Ivory $32 million over five years with $10 million guaranteed to spell Yeldon here and there. Ivory is going to play a lot and probably start. But why did the Jaguars sign him at the expense of Yeldon’s development?

Fortunes can turn quickly in the NFL. The Jaguars added some potential blue-chip players to a young, hungry roster. Not every team that gets preseason hype pays off, but some do. If the Jaguars’ young players make an impact right away and the veteran additions shore up some problems, Jacksonville can win the AFC South.

It’s possible we’re getting ahead of ourselves with the Jaguars. They weren’t good in 2015. If you’re picking them to improve substantially, you’re probably depending on big-name rookies to play well immediately, and that’s never a sure thing. Not every team that spends a lot in free agency sees immediate results, either. The gains the offense made in 2015 might be exposed as fraudulent under a brighter spotlight this year. It’s hard to imagine Gus Bradley can survive if the Jaguars turn in another double-digit loss season.

Everyone is a year early on the Jaguars. This season should bring improvement but not the massive leap some are predicting. Then keep an eye on the Jaguars in 2017.

Will ownership see enough progress in 2016 to stay on the same path? Let’s say the Jaguars go 7-9. That would be an improvement (and their best season since 2010) but wouldn’t be a great return on all the money the Jaguars poured into the roster. The NFL is an impatient league. If the Jaguars take a step, but not a big enough step to land a playoff spot, the franchise will have an interesting offseason.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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