Jags want to take it slow with Bortles, but he's making the case to start now
When the Jacksonville Jaguars selected UCF quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, most people expected that Bortles would start sooner than later. After all, the recent NFL trend has been for highly-drafted passers to start right away -- from Cam Newton to Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck to Russell Wilson, many great quarterback situations began from Day 1.
It was surprising then, when it was suggested that Bortles would essentially sit out his first season. It was surprising because Chad Henne was the only guy Bortles had to beat out to start; it was surprising because the Jaguars are not realistically in contention for a 2014 playoff berth; and it was surprising because more and more, NFL teams are meeting their young quarterbacks halfway when it comes to the offenses they want those quarterbacks to run in the pros, and the games they ran in college.
"We really felt comfortable with [Henne] coming back with another year in the system," head coach Gus Bradley said in May. "I think it gave us flexibility. When Blake was there available for us [at the No. 3 pick], we really wanted to capture that opportunity. And we do feel good about where Blake's at, but we feel like this time that he has under Chad, a year to develop, will be really good in the end result."
That's not a surprise in one way. Bradley is a defensive-minded coach, and defensive-minded coaches generally want their quarterbacks to be safe and reliable. But given what we've seen from Bortles in two preseason games, Bradley and the Jaguars might want to take a page from the Seattle Seahawks (whose defense Bradley used to run), who named Russell Wilson their starter in 2012 despite having signed the more experienced Matt Flynn to a lucrative free-agent contract in the offseason. Wilson was good enough in the preseason to alter the paradigm, and the Seahawks were flexible enough to let it happen.
Through his two preseason games, Bortles has completed 18-of-28 passes for 277 yards, and though he's left a few plays on the field, Bortles has shown that he throws very well on the run and has the kind of arm that allows him to fit the ball into tight windows in ways that Henne simply can't. He completed 11-of-17 passes for 160 yards in Jacksonville's 20-19 Thursday night loss to the Chicago Bears, and he did not look at all like a rookie. Frankly, the development from his college tape was quite impressive, even given the fact that he was facing a preseason version of a Bears' passing defense that will have problems stopping most anyone this season.
Put simply, if the Jags are interested in putting the best players on the field, what Bortles has shown them has to alter the plan.
“He did a nice job. Both quarterbacks did a really good job, I thought," Bradley said of Bortles after the game. "Really good job. I think Blake had a few more yards. ... The percentage and things like that, Chad did a really nice job managing and getting us into scoring drives.”
It wasn't just that Bortles had a few more yards (160 to Henne's 130) -- it was that he clearly allows the Jaguars to do things with their passing offense, especially outside the pocket, that Henne does not. The team already knows what it has in Henne, which is Henne's appeal -- he's a smart veteran who won't screw too many things up. But winning teams need explosive plays, and if Bortles can manage a game at the NFL level (which he appears able to do), why not roll with the upside?
“I think it was good," Bortles said. "We did some good things and our tempo was good. The outside zone is part of who we are and we were able to establish that. Obviously there are still some things we’ve got to work on, but I think there was a lot of positive.
“There’s obviously a different comfort level with it being your second game. You know it’s not your first game anymore. You’ve done it before. For the most part it did feel similar. It was a good experience being on the road. I thought we handled it well. Definitely would have liked to win but I thought we did some good things.”
In today's NFL, the best way to get a young quarterback ready for prime time is to adjust the gameplan to his abilities and throw him in the pool. That's what the Jaguars should consider doing with Blake Bortles. Let him roll with the first team, and see what he's made of.