With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
The Mike Mularkey experiment lasted a year. There were some "memorable" moments during his abbreviated coaching stint -- Maurice Jones-Drew’s training camp holdout, Justin Blackmon’s aggravated DUI charge, the perplexing decision to play rookie Kevin Elliott and Mike Thomas at receiver over Cecil Shorts early in the season -- but Jaguars fans would probably prefer simply to forget about last season’s 2-14 record, the worst in the franchise’s 18-year history, and move on to the upcoming year and a new regime. Owner Shahid Kahn has cleaned house and installed former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and former Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel David Caldwell as the coach and general manager, respectively, to oversee one of the NFL’s biggest rebuilding project.
There is plenty of work to be done before Jacksonville can even think about playoff contention. This season is all about incremental progress, about seeing if Bradley and Caldwell can lay a solid foundation for the future. More than two wins seems likely, but expectations should be kept at modest levels.
• Biggest storyline : Is Blaine Gabbert the answer at quarterback?
The coaching staff and front office were overhauled this offseason, and many believed the turnover would naturally extend to the most important position on the field.
It did not.
Blaine Gabbert will be Jacksonville’s Week 1 starter. Veteran Chad Henne provided competition throughout the preseason, but Gabbert -- after completing 13 of 16 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown (before suffering a minor injury to his throwing hand that will keep him out the rest of the preseason) in last Saturday night's preseason loss to the Jets and showing encouraging signs throughout camp -- has convinced Bradley that he deserves another opportunity to prove he's Jacksonville's quarterback of the future.
In two seasons, Gabbert, a first-round pick in 2011, has been a massive disappointment. The most common criticism of his game is that he can’t read defenses and make clean throws under pressure, weaknesses that have resulted in a 53.8 completion percentage, 17 career interceptions against just 21 total touchdowns and an inability to provide the Jaguars’ offense with any sort of dynamic deep passing game.
There is reason to believe that Gabbert, with an improved offensive line and the statistical backing of senior vice president of football technology and analytics Tony Kahn -- who in May told the NFL Network that Gabbert ranked in the top third of NFL quarterbacks when given more than 2.6 seconds to throw -- can improve in a big way this season. If he does, the Jaguars will have taken an important step in the early part of Bradley’s tenure. If not, Jacksonville is all but certain to select a quarterback in the 2014 draft.
• Most intriguing position battle: Defensive tackle.
Jacksonville's defensive line will feature some new faces this season. Former first-round pick Tyson Alualu is expected to line up at defensive end in Jacksonville’s 4-3 front, while tackles Terrance Knighton and C.J. Mosley are no longer with the team. In their place are a batch of free agent-imports highlighted by Sen’Derrick Marks (via Tennessee) and Roy Miller (via Tampa Bay), the two probable starting replacements. Marks looks like a shoo-in for the three-technique DT spot, while Miller will be pushed by Patriots castoffs Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick for the one-technique (or “space eating’’) position.
Love is the better of the two and, with a strong training camp, just might unseat Miller, though that seems unlikely. Either way, the Jaguars will have a duo of effective run-stuffers paired with a talented three-technique in Marks, as well as a former first-round pick (Alualu) playing the position that best capitalizes on his size and skill set -- all of which augurs well for a defensive line that last season gave up the most rushing yards in franchise history.
• New face, new place: Alan Ball, cornerback.
After an uninspiring six-year career spent floating around at different positions, Ball has an excellent opportunity to win a starting cornerback spot in a transformed secondary. The Jaguars will most likely feature two rookie starters to begin the season, strong safety Jonathan Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz, and they also brought in veteran corner Marcus Trufant, but Ball -- who stands 6-foot-2, 197 pounds -- fits the big, bruising, physical cornerback mold Bradley had so much success with during his time in Seattle.
Ball should take well to his new press-coverage role and could wind up being one of Seattle’s most important offseason acquisitions.
Impact rookie: Ace Sanders, wide receiver/punt returner.
Instant special-teams impact is almost a given. Sanders, a fourth-round pick out of South Carolina, was the co-SEC Special Teams Player of the Year last season at South Carolina, and brings the speed and quick-twitch explosiveness every NFL return man covets.
The opportunity to use a mid-round pick on a player capable of making game-breaking plays whenever he touches the ball was an easy choice. In fact, it would have been a wise selection even if Sanders were never to play a down on offense. That he very likely will see time on the offense, unless something changes between now and Week 1, is a huge bonus. Former first-round pick and No. 2 receiver Justin Blackmon will miss the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy; Jacksonville hoped to make up for his absence when it signed Mohamed Massaquoi in free agency. Through the early part of training camp, Massaquoi has largely disappointed, while Sanders has received near-unanimous praise for his versatility and big-play ability.
Even if Sanders doesn’t earn a starting receiver job, expect him -- along with fifth-round draft pick Denard Robinson -- to see touches not just on special teams, but also on offense. Sanders' ability to imbue this lackluster offense with a measure of playmaking flair and unpredictability -- whether as a receiver, a scatback or in some other role -- is an enticing prospect for coordinator Jedd Fisch.
• Looking at the schedule: Pack your bags.
The scheduling lords must have mistaken Jacksonville for a West Coast city when piecing together the early part of this schedule. That’s the only conclusion one can reach when seeing the batch of brutal cross-country road trips Jacksonville faces during the first two months of the season.
After the home-opener against Kansas City, the Jaguars travel to Oakland and Seattle in Weeks 2 and 3, host Indianapolis Week 4, then face St. Louis and Denver in Weeks 5 and 6 before returning home to host San Diego. And none of those trips compares with what Jacksonville will undertake one week later: a game at Wembley Stadium in London against San Francisco.
The final eight games aren’t nearly as daunting, as least from afar, though when you’re working with one of the least talented rosters in the league, every game offers some level of challenge. Home games against Buffalo, Tennessee and Arizona, along with a road game at Cleveland, could help the Jaguars recover from their brutal travel-filled first half. This schedule, in short, isn’t terrible. There are plenty of “winnable” games and, given Jacksonville’s baseline for improvement (two victories), the chances for finishing 2013 with a greater sense of accomplishment are high. Doubling last season’s win total is a fair expectation.