With their franchise quarterback a year away from being ready, it's one more year of rebuilding for the Jaguars. But that doesn't mean they aren't headed in the right direction
I’m at EverBank Field, home of the Jaguars. It’s yet another team practice and training and showering and dressing at its permanent facility. For the Jaguars, it’s a chance to bond with local fans (1,504 of them for a late-morning practice in sticky 88-degree weather), and a chance to do things like practice at a local high school (which they did on Monday in front of more than 3,000), so they can continue to build the local market.
One vivid memory from watching practice
The young and impressive receiving corps (even without Justin Blackmon, who you’ve got to think will never see the field for the Jaguars because of his myriad slip-ups). Marqise Lee (second round, 2014) and Allen Robinson (second round, 2014) listened intently to vet WR coach Jerry Sullivan during the early portion of practice, when the receivers go through routes without the ball, to get their precision down. The group dropped three or four easy balls today. And this is likely to be a power-running team. But when Cecil Shorts III gets back from a hamstring strain in mid-August, the receiver group should begin to resemble an NFL unit. What might have been, though, with Blackmon.
How this team can go 12–4
It’s a 500-to-1 shot. Chad Henne will have to be a top-10 quarterback to have a prayer. No sense in wasting space on it, because it’s not going to happen. This is a year for progress, not realistic Super Bowl hopes.
How this team can go 4–12
That was Jacksonville’s record last year, and it took a stretch of four wins in five games in the second half of the season to get there. So 4-12 would represent no progress, and particularly in the mediocre AFC South, I doubt that will happen. But the early schedule is quite unkind (four of the first six on the road for the second straight year), with this five-game opener: at Philadelphia, at Washington, Indianapolis, at San Diego, Pittsburgh. It’s realistic to think the Jags will be touchdown-plus underdogs in every one of those games. So the league hasn’t done Jacksonville any favors with the schedule, and that tough start could make 4-12 quite possible.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Gus Bradley’s a big power-running fan, and for that reason, I’m bullish on Toby Gerhart’s chances to be a 1,000-yard rusher with some goal-line touchdowns.
2. I keep thinking one of these years Marcedes Lewis, incredible physical force that he is, is going to have a 70-catch, eight-TD season. The Jags know Chad Henne will need intermediate targets because he’s going to be pressured a lot, and Lewis, if healthy, would be a good late-round flyer.
3. There will be better defenses to pick, but I do know this about the Jaguars: They will pressure the quarter significantly better—Chris Clemons, who will most likely be a nickel rusher, had 33.5 sacks in three seasons under Bradley in Seattle—and will have some productive fantasy Sundays on defense.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Cecil Shorts III||LDE||Tyson Alualu|
|LT||Luke Joeckel||DT||Sen’Derrick Marks|
|LG||Zane Beadles||NT||Roy Miller/Ziggy Hood|
|C||Mike Brewster||RDE||Red Bryant|
|RG||Brandon Linder/Jacques McClendon||OLB||Dekoda Watson/Chris Smith|
|RT||Austin Pasztor||MLB||Paul Posluszny|
|TE||Marcedes Lewis||OLB||Geno Hayes|
|WR||Marqise Lee||CB||Dwayne Gratz|
|3rd WR||Denard Robinson/Ace Sanders/Allen Robinson||CB||Alan Ball/Mike Harris|
|QB||Chad Henne||3rd CB||Will Blackmon/Mike Harris|
|RB||Toby Gerhart||FS||Josh Evans|
|FB||Will Ta’ufo’ou||SS||Johnathan Cyprien|
|K||Josh Scobee||P||Bryan Anger|
Linder, the third-round pick from Miami, has shown strength and power in one-on-one drills and is ahead for the right guard spot … Ace Sanders would be the top third receiving option but for his four-game suspension to start the season. He had 51 catches as a poor man’s Tavon Austin as a rookie … Robinson could beat Lee for the starting spot opposite Shorts … Look for Chris Clemons to be a 400-snap player, minimum, as the nickel rusher replacing Alualu … Will Blackmon has had an impressive early camp and will be a valuable extra corner.
Best new player in camp
Pass-rusher Chris Clemons. He turns 33 this year, but he’s been consistently productive for the Seahawks, and he gives Jacksonville the kind of threatening edge rusher the team has lacked for several years. Jacksonville had only 31 sacks last year, and that had to make Bradley ill because he’s a big pressure guy. We’ll see how much Clemons has left, but his arrival has encouraged the defensive coaches.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Chad Henne will hold off Blake Bortles for most, if not all, of the 2014 season. The fact is, the Jags don’t want to play Bortles this year. They want this to be a redshirt, learning year for the rookie. And the decision of whether to stick with Henne won’t be based as much on how Henne plays but rather when Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch think the kid’s ready. Early read in camp: Bortles has a long way to go. His ball still comes out slightly wobbly (he’s working on some minor mechanics of throwing) and his decision-making isn’t fast enough yet.
Something I’ve never seen before
A pair of three-foot swimming/wading pools on an upper deck in the end zone, with eight cabanas and comfy beach chairs. A fan can stand in the pool, drink in hand, and look down on the field with a good end-zone view of the game. A wealthy fan. Because each of the cabanas—with tickets and food and beverage for 50—costs $12,500 per game ($250 per person for the 50 fans). “We’re about 60% sold,’’ said club president Mark Lamping. On a level above the pools are 12 more cabanas—no pool access for them—at $3,500 per cabana per game, with 20 tickets included. Those are sold out for the season. The lengths to which the Jags are going to flourish. Amazing.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
First thing: This is the first of the nine teams I’ve seen that I don’t think has a realistic chance to make the playoffs. But I was bullish on the progress GM Dave Caldwell and Bradley are making. Have patience, Jacksonville. Enjoy your “new” home stadium. And dream of challenging Indianapolis in 2015.