Three years ago, the Jaguars began their rebuilding project in earnest. After finishing 2-14 in the 2012 season, Jacksonville cleaned house, firing general manager Gene Smith and coach Mike Mularkey and bringing in GM David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley.
The new hires faced a daunting task. As you’d expect from a two-win team, the Jaguars were short on talent. Real short. The offense was built around aging running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who was coming off a season-ending foot injury, while disappointing first-rounder Blaine Gabbert lined up under center. Lacking playmakers on the other side of the ball, the Jaguars ranked 30th in total defense.
Caldwell and Bradley preached patience to a fan base that had seen just two playoff trips since 1999.
“We believe in getting better, and then as a team we believe in victory, and victory to us is being the best that you can be," Caldwell told the Orlando Sentinel in 2014, a year after the Jaguars finished 4-12. "'Hey Gus, how about winning?' I don't think about that. 'Hey Gus, what happens if you lose?' I'll learn from it, and then I'm on this journey to be the best that we can be, so I just use that for growth."
Growth, at least record-wise, has been hard to come by in Jacksonville. After finishing 4-12 in Caldwell and Bradley’s first year, Jacksonville took a step back in 2014, ending up with a 3-13 record. But while the Jaguars haven’t climbed up the standings, the roster has certainly improved. One of the first acquisitions of the Caldwell-Bradley era was Sen’Derrick Marks, who has developed into one of the top interior lineman in the NFL. A year later, they tabbed a new franchise cornerstone, taking Blake Bortles No. 3 in the 2014 draft. Bortles struggled his rookie year, but the team has worked to put talent around him, drafting two receivers in 2014 and opening the wallet to bring tight end Julius Thomas to Jacksonville this off-season. They also spent heavily on defense this spring, signing DE Jared Odrick and CB Davon House and drafting edge rusher Dante Fowler (who suffered a season-ending injury in OTAs) safety James Sample and DT Michael Bennett.
“It'll be a little bit of a slower process,” Caldwell said of the Jaguars’ roster overhaul, which largely emphasized building through the draft, “but hopefully it'll be a process where you can have some sustainable success."
Can the Jaguars start that string of success in 2015? The pieces are certainly in place, especially considering the bountiful additions made this off-season.
Best acquisition: Jared Odrick, DE
Odrick is a consolation prize after the Jaguars missed out on Ndamukong Suh, Odrick isn’t a household name, but this was one of the savvier signings of the off-season.
Given Jacksonville’s struggles on that side of the ball, it’s easy to forget Bradley is a defensive-minded coach. He helped develop the “Legion of Boom” in Seattle, and has been trying to recreate that edge in Jacksonville … with limited success. In Bradley’s two years at the helm, the Jags have never finished better than 26th in points or yards allowed.
Odrick is a talented, versatile and much-needed piece up front. Able to play end or tackle, Odrick isn’t a pure pass-rusher, but he’s stout against the run, an area where the Jaguars really struggled in 2014. Jacksonville signed a slew of defenders in free agency (Odrick, OLB Dan Skuta, House, S Sergio Brown), and while Odrick carried the highest price tag ($42.5 million over five years), he should prove his worth early on.
Biggest loss: Cecil Shorts, WR
Jacksonville saw few departures this off-season, so Shorts fills this category by default. The Jaguars’ leading receiver in 2013 and ’12, Shorts left Jacksonville for Houston, which isn’t much of a passing-game upgrade with its tandem of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett.
Shorts's departure leaves the Jaguars short on experience at the skill positions. While Julius Thomas has been in the league for four years, he has little track record of success, despite catching passes from Peyton Manning for the last four seasons. Beyond Marcedes Lewis (who has never been much of a receiver), the Jaguars will depend on rookies and second-year players in Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Rashad Greene. That group is certainly talented, but if they struggle to hit the ground running in 2015, some may wonder why the team didn’t do more to keep Shorts, who signed a very reasonable deal with the Texans ($6M over two years).
Underrated draft pick: A.J. Cann, G, South Carolina (Round 3, pick No. 67)
The Jaguars had a great draft, and if it wasn’t for Fowler’s ACL injury, they would have earned an 'A' for their off-season. (Is it fair to knock the team for a freak injury? Maybe not, but since Fowler can’t play in 2015, it’s hard to count that pick as a success for the team right now.) One of their best selections was A.J. Cann out of South Carolina in round 3.
It’s hard to get excited about guards, which is probably why this pick flew a bit under the radar. But Cann, who NFL.com’s Mike Mayock ranked as the fourth-best interior lineman in the draft, was a great value on Day 2 with his ability to excel as both a run and pass blocker. Jacksonville’s O-line gave up a franchise-record 71 sacks in 2014, and while the team didn’t have an obvious need at guard, Cann should find his way into the lineup sooner rather than later.
Looming question for training camp: How much did Blake Bortles improve during the off-season?
After struggling in Year 1, Bortles went back to the drawing board this off-season to refine his mechanics.
“This off-season, Blake did everything he could to improve his craft,” Adam Dedeaux, an instructor with 3DQB, a motion analysis outfit that works with quarterbacks, told the Florida Times-Union. “Blake really worked smart this off-season. He now has a process that’s going to work for him to be successful, which is the main goal. His attention to detail, wanting to get better, his expectations of himself, are right there with the best. I know he’s taking that into training camp. The dude got after it.”
It’s encouraging news for the Jags to see Bortles putting in the work after he put up 2,908 yards, 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions on 58.9 percent passing in his rookie year.
"I like what he did in the off-season," Bradley told reporters. "The ideal thing is to be with us and to be with our coaches, but that can’t happen [per NFL off-season rules] so he took the next best thing and met with somebody, met with another player, and threw in the off-season and really worked on it. I appreciate that. I think the team appreciates that.”
Mechanics, however, will only get him so far. As noted above, the offensive line was a sieve last season and the team failed to generate any real ground game. With an improved O-line and Thomas and rookie running back T.J. Yeldon in tow, the Jaguars’ offense in general should be better in ’15. Can Bortles rise to the challenge as well? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining Jacksonville’s fortunes in 2015.