32 Teams in 32 Days: Jacksonville Jaguars
Sometimes in life and in the NFL you just need a clean slate with a new vision to get things going in the right direction. After an abysmal 2-14 record during the 2012 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars ownership decided that it was time to start fresh and bring in a new group of leaders. The man hired to be the architect of this rebuilding process is new general manager Dave Caldwell. Caldwell may be a first time general manager, but he learned from two men who have a successful track record of turning franchises around. He was with the Colts under future Hall of Famer Bill Polian and most recently worked under Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta.
Caldwell’s most important task was his first. Finding the right head coach can make or break any general manager, but it is even more imperative for a team that will be rebuilding with young players. The idea in Jacksonville is to build through the draft and to have each draft pick reach their full potential with elite coaching. Caldwell decided that the right head coach for the Jaguars during this process was former Seahawks defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley.
The head coaching journey of Gus Bradley will start in 2013 with quite a few positions in need of development, however there are some pieces in place to help the Jaguars be competitive.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Return of MJD
How bad was the Jacksonville rushing attack last year? Despite playing in just 246 of their 1,082 offensive plays, Maurice Jones-Drew led the team in rushing. Jones-Drew was injured very early in the Jaguars sixth game and would be out for the remainder of the season. An offense that was already light on playmakers would miss him greatly. MJD is now fully recovered and entering his contract year, one that might be his last in Jacksonville. It would be a huge help to a young team if Jones-Drew can produce something similar to his last full season in 2011. That year, he led the league in rushing with 1,606 yards and was eighth in our running back Elusive Rating, finishing with a PFF grade of +12.4, fourth-highest among running backs. A healthy MJD will create more room in the passing game and be a major upgrade for an offense in need of playmakers. Jacksonville will also be counting on Jones-Drew to be a leader in a locker room filled with young, impressionable players.
2. Not Shorts on Talent
The same week that the Jaguars lost Jones-Drew, the most pleasant surprise of their 2012 season made his first start. Wide receiver, Cecil Shorts (+2.2) emerged as a bona fide offensive threat and was the team’s Secret Superstar, becoming one of the league’s unknown gems. In his nine starts Shorts tallied four 100-yard games and just missed 1,000 yards on the season, a landmark no Jaguar receiver has reached since 2005. Shorts finished with a higher yards per snap average than most of the biggest name receivers in the league and finished eighth in the NFL with 2.31 Yards Per Route Run. It was far from a great year for Jacksonville quarterbacks, but when throwing to Shorts they had a 94.5 QB rating, the 15th-highest in the NFL. To be considered a true No. 1 receiver, Shorts will need to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke and that he can still produce when opponents know he is the primary option. With his starting wide receiver counterpart, Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games of the year, Shorts will be put to the test immediately.
3. Strong Bookends
It is no secret that quarterbacks prefer to not be under pressure and don’t enjoy getting hit. Presumed starter, Blaine Gabbert is no different and his QB rating increased from 73.7 to 84.5 when he had more than 2.5 seconds to throw in 2012. This is an encouraging sign for the Jaguars who feel that they have one of the best, young offensive tackle duos in the league. Eugene Monroe is back at left tackle, coming off a fantastic season in which he was the highest-graded Jaguar on the entire team at +21.0. It was his second straight year with a grade above 20 and has recorded just two red-graded games (worse than -1.0) in the last two seasons. Monroe had the 15th-best Pass Blocking Efficiency grade of all offensive tackles in 2012, allowing just five sacks in 657 pass blocking opportunities. Monroe will have an expanded role this year which will include mentoring fellow first round pick, Luke Joeckel. Joeckel was taken with the second overall pick and appears to be NFL-ready — he’ll need to be as Jacksonville has him penciled in as the starting right tackle. Joeckel was a top-rated prospect with an elite skill set who can become a perennial Pro Bowler. Monroe, who is in the final year of his contract, might be mentoring his replacement, but it is more likely the Jaguars will keep the pair together as they are in very good cap shape for 2013 to sign extensions.
4. Safety Net
The Jacksonville defense was horrid in 2012. It was so bad, that of the sixteen players to play either linebacker or defensive back, there was just one that had a positive PFF grade. That player was Dwight Lowery, who finished the season at +6.8. Lowery struggled with injuries throughout 2012, but when he was on the field he was solid. He was in coverage for 280 snaps and allowed just eight receptions for a total of 63 yards. He will be asked to play the pivotal single-high safety in new head coach, Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme. Being a converted corner, Lowery will have a great opportunity to become a ball hawk and flourish in this role. His safety partner will be second-round pick, Johnathan Cyprien. Cyprien should fit perfectly in this system as the safety that spends most of his time in the box. He is known as a big hitter and sure tackler and, if he develops quickly, the Jags will have a quality safety tandem.
5. Positive Energy and Direction
Despite the lack of a flashy offseason, there is a positive vibe and feel about the direction of this organization. Gus Bradley appeared to be headed to Philadelphia to coach the Eagles, but when Chip Kelly decided to take that job, Bradley fell into Jacksonville’s lap. He will bring a new energy and excitement to this young team, which promises to give maximum effort on every snap. Combined with new general manager, Dave Caldwell, the Jaguars have a pair of men committed to building this franchise the right way. It won’t happen overnight, but the future is in good hands.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Quarterback Play
It is far from a secret that to win in the NFL you need good quarterback play. In 2012 the Jaguars suffered through something much less than that and it remains a major concern for 2013. Since being drafted 10th overall in 2011 Blaine Gabbert has failed to entrench himself as the starter and become a franchise quarterback. He will once again get the first crack at the starting job this year, but might have a short leash with veteran Chad Henne breathing down his neck for playing time. The played almost an identical number of snaps in 2012 and Gabbert was the lesser of two evils with a -4.3 grade compared to Henne’s -7.3. Gabbert is still just 23 years old and has the physical tools that coaches salivate over. Yet he will need to have a good season to prove to the new regime that he is the man to lead them moving forward. If the Jaguars struggle as much in 2013 as many anticipate it will largely be because Gabbert hasn’t progressed.
2. Lack of Pass Rush
In today’s pass-heavy NFL the best way to slow down an offense is to harass the passer, this is something that the Jaguars struggled with big time in 2012. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be much improved for 2013. They will be counting on 2012 waiver acquisition Jason Babin to help improve a pass rush that garnered a league-low 20 sacks last season. Babin has big time pass rush ability as he has finished in the Top 10 in Pass Rush Productivity the last three seasons. However with very little assistance in 2013, he will probably see a lot of double teams. Former first round pick Tyson Alualu led the team in sacks last year with 3.5, but had a -7.8 pass rush grade and has been a major disappointment. He will be playing some defensive end this year and Jacksonville really needs him to break out. Free agent additions Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks will see significant time on the inside, but neither poses a pass rushing threat. Miller ranked 66th out of 68 defensive tackles is pass rush productivity and Marks was 38th, hardly a scary duo. Bradley is known as a top defensive mind, but without a pass rush it will be hard to execute his plan.
3. Cornerback Concerns
What made Gus Bradley’s defense so successful in Seattle was that he had two of the most physical and talented cornerbacks in the league playing for him. That will not be the case in Jacksonville in 2013. The projected starting corners are rookie third round pick, Dwayne Gratz and veteran Marcus Trufant who followed Bradley over from Seattle. Trufant had a decent year with the Seahawks playing mainly in the slot, finishing the year with a +1.9 grade, but will be asked to take on a much larger role this year and is getting a little long in the tooth (he’s 32 now). Gratz has the size that Bradley covets, but is raw and can’t be expected to be a shutdown corner in his rookie season. There isn’t much depth at corner either as Alan Ball (-1.2) and Mike Harris (-6.8) will provide most of the help in specialty packages. With not much pass rush to count on it could be a long year for these corners.
4. Linebacking Woes
It is a major problem when not one player from an entire position group has a positive grade, and that was the case with the 2012 Jaguar linebackers. After a promising first year with the team middle linebacker, Paul Posluszny struggled mightily in 2012 finishing with a -14.3 grade. He finished ranked 25th in the NFL in stop percentage among inside linebackers, making just 38 stops on 509 running plays. Posluszny is still the leader of the defense and will be a major asset with assisting teammates in learning a new scheme. He will be joined in the starting lineup by Geno Hayes and Russell Allen on the outside. Allen returns for the Jaguars after a season in which he finished with a -6.8 grade, he is a steady player, but hardly someone that offenses need to worry about. Hayes played just 141 snaps for the Bears last year and will be counted on to handle a much larger workload. In 2011 when he was a starter for Tampa Bay he finished the season with a putrid -15.6 grade. Even if this linebacker corps gets a bounce back year from Posluszny it figures to struggle in 2013 and be a focal point of next offseason.
5. Blackmon Suspended
On a team desperate for playmakers and difference makers, it is a shame that one of the few ultra-talented players they have won’t be available until their fifth game. Justin Blackmon and Shorts could develop into a dangerous team at wide receiver if only Blackmon could keep himself out of trouble and on the field. He is one more screw-up away from being suspended for an entire season and that is the last thing a rebuilding team can tolerate. One of Bradley’s most important tasks will be to harness Blackmon and push him toward his full potential. Blackmon has already put his team in a tough spot for the first four games of the year — he will need to be good on the field and even better off of it in order tobe a major part of the future in Jacksonville.
What to Expect?
The Jaguars have made a selection in the Top 10 of the NFL draft each of the last five years. It seems likely that they are destined to continue that trend. There is an overall lack of talent on this team, especially on defense. Combined with the major question mark at quarterback, anything more than five wins would be a surprise. However, there are some pieces in place to build around and the best way to measure success in Jacksonville this year will be through the development of the young players. The Jaguars will play hard and hopefully get better every week. The new regime has a vision and a long term plan in place; hopefully in 2013 the Jaguars take the first step in having that vision become reality.
32 Teams in 32 Days, previous editions:
Follow John Castellane on Twitter.