The 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars will be defined by a rookie quarterback, new ownership and a head coaching change. QB Blaine Gabbert took over as the starter in Week 3 and showed little improvement throughout the season on his way to grading as our worst QB in the league. He had little help around him, but he was clearly overmatched in his first season.
In his ninth year with the organization, Head Coach Jack Del Rio was fired after a 3-8 start and owner Wayne Weaver sold the team to Shahid Khan the very same week. It was a wholesale shake-up for the Jaguars, who have only won a single playoff game since they lost the AFC Championship in 1999.
Lost in the rookie-quarterback growing pains and change of ownership was running back Maurice Jones-Drew taking home the rushing title and the defense’s emergence from one of the league’s worst to one of the best.
With new Head Coach Mike Mularkey taking over, it’s a fresh start in Jacksonville as the Jaguars look to move back into the top echelon of the league, just as they were in their first few years of existence.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) The Offense Goes Through MJD
It was an amazing season for Maurice Jones-Drew, especially when the ineptitude of the passing offense is considered. With defenses keying on the running game, Jones-Drew posted his best season as a runner and as mentioned, led the league with 1,606 yards on the ground. Of those yards, 954 came after contact as Jones-Drew proved as difficult to tackle as ever.
The only issue with listing Jones-Drew as the top reason to be confident is that he may be the top reason for concern as well. He is still holding out with hopes of restructuring his contract, and the Jaguars have yet to budge in negotiations with their top player. Despite the additions to the wide receiver corps, this is still Jones-Drew’s offense and his ability to help as a runner, receiver, and pass blocker make him the most vital cog to the Jacksonville offense. When and if Jones-Drew returns, the offense runs through MJD.
2) New Weapons for Gabbert
Not all of the blame should lay on Gabbert’s shoulders as he was throwing to the league’s worst wide receiver corps. Not one Jaguars WR graded positively, and it took tight end Marcedes Lewis’ late surge to get him back into the green. In an attempt to bring in some help for Gabbert, the Jaguars snagged WR Laurent Robinson in free agency and then later spent the No. 5 overall pick on WR Justin Blackmon. Robinson enjoyed a breakout 2011 season with the Dallas Cowboys as he graded at +5.4 to go along with 11 touchdowns, while Blackmon was regarded as the top WR in the draft. With Robinson and Blackmon pairing with WR Mike Thomas, the Jaguars should have a formidable WR corps, and certainly a much improved group over the 2011 version.
3) Strong at Linebacker
One of the biggest factors in the Jaguars’ defensive improvement last season was outstanding linebacker play, particularly from middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and outside linebacker Daryl Smith. Posluszny came over as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills, while Smith has been a fixture in the Jaguars’ LB corps and a PFF favorite for some time now. The duo played exceptionally well in pass coverage and their ability to cover the middle of the field allowed the Jaguars to rush four the majority of the time. When they mixed it up, both Posluszny and Smith proved to be opportune blitzers as they combined for 28 total pressures on only 164 pass rushes. As for the third spot, OLB Clint Session played well against the run in his limited time last season, but he’s battling concussion issues and his career may be in jeopardy. Luckily, versatile LB Russell Allen is capable of filling his role as a two-down run stopper.
4) Depth at Cornerback
The Jaguars have quietly assembled a deep stable of cornerbacks, though health was a major concern for last year’s unit. CB Rashean Mathis has been a fixture in the Jaguars’ defensive backfield since his rookie season in 2003. Though he graded out fairly average, he was often assigned to the opposing team’s top WR before his season was ended after only nine games. On the other side, third-year CB Derek Cox really started to emerge after two sub-par seasons. Like Mathis, he was hit with the injury bug, but when healthy, he started to live up to the size/speed combination the Jaguars loved when they drafted him in the third round of the 2009 draft. He allowed only 32% completions on balls thrown his way.
With Mathis and Cox injured for much of 2011, CB William Middleton emerged as the Jaguars best cornerback and he did most of his work while covering the slot. Middleton was good in coverage, and proved an impressive run defender at +6.4. In addition, Jacksonville signed CB Aaron Ross from the New York Giants and he has experience playing both on the outside or in the slot. If everyone stays healthy, it looks like the Jaguars have four viable options at cornerback.
5) Emerging Defensive Line
There is talent at every level of the defense and the defensive line is led by DE Jeremy Mincey. I was one of Mincey’s biggest fans last season, as he was a workhorse who played 94% of the team’s snaps. He was the Jaguars most consistent pass rusher while proving stout against the run. Mincey’s emergence and subsequent re-signing in free agency brings great stability to a defensive line that has been looking for a reliable three-down option for a number of years. On the other side, DE Andre Branch was drafted in the second round and he’s flashed the explosiveness off the edge to rush the passer. In the middle, DT Terrence Knighton has developed into a solid run stopper, but he provides little while rushing the passer. It’s a pity 2010 first round pick Tyson Alualu had to battle through injury last season, as his performance suffered. After a promising start to his career, Alualu has been mostly ineffective since Week 5 of his rookie season, but better health could put him in position to live up to his first-round billing in his third year.
Five Reasons for Concern
1) Will Gabbert Improve?
Again, it comes back to the quarterback play. It can be easy to pile on and blame Gabbert for the Jaguars woeful season, but perhaps too much was expected for a player who was drafted as a junior and thrust into the starting lineup before he was ready. Regardless, there were so few positive moments from Gabbert’s rookie season, that even the slightest bit of improvement sent Jaguars fans into a frenzy. Whether it’s pocket presence, dealing with pressure, or overall accuracy, Gabbert has a ways to go before he’s a viable option for the Jaguars. In particular, he must get better while pressured as he completed only 40% of such passes in 2011.
2) Holes on the Offensive Line
There were two major weaknesses on the Jaguars offensive line in 2011, left guard Will Rackley (-35.7) and right tackle Guy Whimper (-13.5). Rackley was drafted in the third round in 2011, and his rookie season went about as poorly as Gabbert’s. He simply looked overmatched by the competition, perhaps rightfully so after coming from Lehigh, and he graded as our worst guard in the league. Whimper led all tackles in Sacks Allowed with 14, while Rackley tied for the lead among guards with six. Both players are in danger of losing their starting jobs as Eben Britton has played some left guard, while Cameron Bradfield looks poised to take over at right tackle.
3) MJD Holding Out
Strength turns into weakness if your best player does not show up. Backup RB Rashad Jennings has played well when given the opportunity, but he missed all of 2011, and it remains to be seen if he could handle a starter’s workload. When Jones-Drew is in camp, Jennings represents a nice option as a change of pace and he can help to keep Jones-Drew fresh throughout the season.
4) Unproven Wide Receivers
Credit the Jaguars for adding Robinson and drafting Blackmon, but questions still remain. Robinson has had only one good year and Jaguars fans know all about getting overly excited about a one-year wonder WR who broke out on the strength of uncanny TD production (remember: Reggie Williams). So perhaps that was a lesson, or perhaps Robinson is the real deal, but his lack of a track-record has to be a concern given the money that was invested in him.
While Robinson has one good year on his resume, Blackmon has never stepped onto an NFL football field and he already has a DUI under his belt from earlier this year. I think he will develop into a good slot receiver in the Anquan Boldin mold, but he must stay clean off the field in order to live up to his potential.
5) Who Rushes the Passer?
Despite Mincey’s impressive 2011 (+12.7 Pass Rush), he will need some help rushing the passer. Specialist John Chick (+9.7) was on his way to an outstanding season getting after the quarterback before injuring his knee, and he is currently on the PUP list. Branch will get a shot to play opposite Mincey, but it may be too much to rely on the second-round rookie. As mentioned, the middle of the line has provided little push so it may be on the shoulders of the DEs to disrupt the passing game. For teams that rely so heavily on a four-man rush, it’s difficult to do so without at least one elite rusher, but the Jaguars will hope someone new emerges in 2012. If no one does, we may see more blitzes out of the talented linebacking corps.
What to Expect
Expectations will be relatively low in Jacksonville and it certainly shapes up to look like a rebuilding year. The difficult question when looking back at 2011 is how good the Jaguars could have been if they just had an average passing game. The defense played exceptionally for most of the season and the running attack was one of the best in the league. If both facets of the game remain intact, the new WR weapons, combined with second-year improvement from Gabbert, could lead to a few surprise victories along the way. It’s a big far-fetched to look at Jacksonville as anything better than a .500 team, but they have the makings of team that will play teams tough while mixing in some upsets in Mularkey’s first year as head coach.