Offseason Report Card: Jaguars
With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
"With the third pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select ... Blake Bortles, quarterback, Central Florida."
As the Jaguars prepare to enter their 20th season in existence, that one sentence from commissioner Roger Goodell stands as among the most critical in franchise history. Jacksonville sent shock waves through Radio City Music Hall by nabbing Bortles with the No. 3 pick, ahead of Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater (and Khalil Mack, Sammy Watkins, etc.) The hope, obviously, is that Bortles eventually surpasses Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard in the Jaguars' QB annals.
He will not need much to leapfrog Blaine Gabbert, the quarterback last pegged as this franchise's savior when he was selected with the No. 10 pick in 2011. Gabbert tanked, eventually leading to ousters for head coach Jack Del Rio and GM Gene Smith.
Bortles' future carries similar weight for second-year head coach Gus Bradley and GM Dave Caldwell. Unlike in 2011, though, when Gabbert entered training camp as the favorite for starting duties and then -- after initially losing the QB job to Luke McCown -- took over in Week 2, Bradley plans to give Bortles time.
"We really felt comfortable with [Chad Henne] coming back with another year in the system," Bradley told the NFL Network after his team's selection. "I think it gave us flexibility. When Blake was there available for us, 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."
Bradley and Caldwell seem to understand that the rebuilding process for this team, which has not seen the postseason since 2007, is a multi-year endeavor. Jacksonville lost its first eight games in 2013 en route to a 4-12 finish. The expectation entering this season is that Bradley's bunch at least will be more competitive.
The roster clearly better fits Bradley's image, with DEs Chris Clemons and Red Bryant joining the team this offseason -- both played under Bradley while he was Seattle's defensive coordinator. The Jaguars also spent multiple draft picks at wide receiver, on Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee, preparing for the inevitability that Justin Blackmon misses significant time to suspension in 2014.
The secondary remains a likely headache, while just about every other position on the field is a work in progress. But that progress is being made, however so slowly. Bringing Bortles along at the appropriate speed will set the tone for everything else.
Offseason Grade: B+
Best acquisition: Toby Gerhart, RB.
Gerhart is never going to be confused with LeSean McCoy or Adrian Peterson, the latter for whom he served as a steady backup from 2010-13. He may be better than people expect, however, now that he is being handed a starting role. Gerhart averaged 4.7 yards per carry and caught 77 passes over his four seasons with Minnesota, and in Jacksonville he should get a crack at being an every-down back -- an opportunity well within his skillset.
The jury's still out on how well Gerhart can hold up if handed 200-plus touches in the NFL. (His previous high of 132 came in 2011.) His between-the-tackles style and a résumé that includes a 343-carry senior season at Stanford points to Gerhart being just fine.
On top of being a first-time starter, Gerhart also is stepping into the void left by longtime Jaguar RB Maurice Jones-Drew, now a Raider. Jones-Drew piled up more than 8,000 yards over his Jacksonville career, plus led the league in rushing three years back at 100.4 yards per game. But he also struggled with injury in 2012 and barely topped 800 yards on the ground last season. The statistical bar left by Jones-Drew is not as high as perception might demand.
The Jaguars have compiled a talented and unproven backfield, with Gerhart joined by Jordan Todman, Denard Robinson and 2014 seventh-rounder Storm Johnson. They'll look to Gerhart to lead the way early.
Biggest loss: Brad Meester, C.
Meester, who turned 37 in March, announced at the tail end of the 2013 season that he would hang up his cleats before 2014. So Jacksonville has had time to craft a plan moving forward at the position -- for now, Mike Brewster and sixth-rounder Luke Bowanko are expected to compete for the gig. (The Jags made a run at Browns center Alex Mack, but Cleveland matched the offer on the restricted free agent.)
How hard will it be for either to replace Meester? Well, Meester started all 16 games in his rookie season of 2000, then missed just 15 games for the remainder of his career, none between 2009-13. That durability alone will be extremely difficult to match, no matter who handles snaps.
“I’m really going to miss his leadership the most," said kicker Josh Scobee, a Jaguar since 2004. "Brad is the type of person that you want in the locker room. He’s the type of guy you want to lead the O-line or any position for that matter. He’s just a good person, he works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen at their position. He’s a true professional in every sense of the word."
Underrated draft pick: Telvin Smith, LB.
Mainly due to his lack of size (218 pounds), Smith slipped into Round 5. He would have found it difficult to handpick a better landing spot than with Bradley in Jacksonville. As has been well-documented, Bradley helped spur Seattle's defensive success with an aggressive 4-3 scheme that featured an athletic "Leo" linebacker pressuring off the edge.
More than a couple teams thought Smith might make for a better NFL safety than LB, so there is no questioning his speed or capability as a chase-and-tackle defender. If Bradley can find some spots to turn him loose, Smith will put that trait to use.
Looming question for training camp: How will Gus Bradley employ his new defensive weapons?
Bradley may be trading in that "Leo" spot for the "OTTO," which defensive coordinator Bob Babich described recently to 1010 XL as follows:
“OTTO is a guy that’s going to be on the edge and we would like to have some pass-rush ability [there]," Babich said, via coachingsearch.com. "In a pinch, he could go in for a third-down situation. We’d like to blitz him off the edge. It’s something that’s new to us, so we’re still formulating exactly what he’s going to be. It’s gone really well. We think the guys have adjusted to it and our team is excited about it."
Babich added that the OTTO would be able to play on either the strongside or weakside of the defense; the Leo is a weakside hybrid DE/LB. Who plays that newly minted position and how often the Jaguars utilize it is just one of the mysteries on that side of the football. The presence of Smith, Clemons, Bryant, DT Ziggy Hood, Dekoda Watson and another rookie in pass-rusher Chris Smith mean that, if nothing else, Bradley and Babich have much more meaningful depth to roll out this season. Who is on the field, how often and in what formations will be revealed in the coming months.