Scouting Jacksonville: This Year’s Breakout Team
1. Jacksonville is this year’s trendy projected breakout team, and for good reason. Besides having a stacked defense (more on that later), they have a distinct offensive identity built on talented young players. It’s a vertical-attacking offense, with sizeable downfield targets in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas, plus a bright, strong-armed quarterback in Blake Bortles. Last season, the Jaguars tied with the Saints for most pass plays of 20 yards or more (72). Many of those can be attributed to a potent first down play-action game. (Their 40 passes of 20-plus yards on first down bested the next highest team, Arizona, by nine.) Expect them to build on that in 2016.
2. Any building, of course, is contingent on Bortles’s improving. He needs to. Yes, there is a lot to like about the 24-year-old. He has the physical tools, plus the willingness to move subtly in the pocket despite being capable of escaping when things break down. This is the foundation of a high-level quarterback. But to achieve that, Bortles must become more consistent. His ball placement can go inexplicably off the rails, sort of like how Donovan McNabb’s used to. He also has a bad tendency to predetermine throws, especially off play-action. This is dangerous in a slower-developing downfield play-action game like Jacksonville’s because the quarterback’s back is turned to the defense for longer. And so a predetermined throw becomes an act of blind faith if the ball is uncorked without the coverage being verified.
3. It would be a real surprise if 2013 No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel holds onto the left tackle job. He might have it early in the season because free-agent pickup Kelvin Beachum was shelved most of the summer while recovering from the ACL he tore last October. But if Joeckel were any good, Beachum wouldn’t be here to begin with. Joeckel has a poor anchor and has not learned how to consistently strike with his hands. Barring a drastic turnaround, he won’t remain a starter.
4. T.J. Yeldon can soon be a top-five running back. That might sound hyperbolized given that the second-round pick rushed for just 740 yards last year. But you have to evaluate the skill set, not the numbers (which, by the way, were partly a product of iffy run-blocking). Yeldon is 225 pounds and has light feet. His loose hips allow for precise short-area change-of-direction. Stylistically, as a runner, he’s a less refined Le’Veon Bell, only without breakaway speed. Yeldon won’t make the Pro Bowl this season because free-agent pickup Chris Ivory will eat into his snaps. But just know: the Jaguars are sitting on a really, really intriguing young runner.
5. Julius Thomas had just 46 catches for 455 yards in his 2015 debut season as a Jaguar. Expect that to change now that he’s fully healthy and has a year in coordinator Greg Olson’s system under his belt. Thomas might not put up quite the numbers he did in Denver, but he still presents the same value. He’s a mismatch maker out of base personnel. As a defense, do you play your base group with him on the field and hope he doesn’t split out wide against your linebacker? Or do you go small and play nickel, hoping that his shoddy run blocking will help keep your lighter box from getting gouged?
6. Two players who didn’t play here a year ago and can conjure radical improvements for Jacksonville’s defense are Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler. They potentially fix the inept four-man pass rush that undermined the D in 2015. Fowler, last year’s No. 3 overall pick, figures to be a pure edge-bender. Jackson, while also blessed with outstanding initial get-off, is more of a technician inside. Something he really thrives on are stunts—both as the setup man (the “picker” or “penetrator”) and occasionally as the looper (or “attacker”). Gus Bradley loves stunts—especially “long” stunts, where a defensive lineman loops around two gaps on his path to the quarterback. Bradley did not get a good return on these calls a year ago. Expect that to change in 2016.
7. If indeed Jacksonville’s four-man pass rush lives up to expectations, it’ll be interesting to see how much straight Seahawks-style Cover 3 Bradley plays versus how many man-free blitz concepts he dials up. Bradley was more diverse in his coverage calls and pressure tactics last season than people realize. But maybe that was a product of him not having quality edge rushers. Or, a quality centerfield safety like he now has in free-agent pickup Tashaun Gipson.
8. With the addition of Jackson, a healthy Fowler and the drafting of linebacker Myles Jack and corner Jalen Ramsey, this is now the deepest defense in the AFC. That doesn’t necessarily mean the best, but if all the young players fulfill their potential, it soon will. Jacksonville’s depth comes in all the right forms, too. They have a bevy of defensive linemen to rotate and keep fresh. They have speedy linebackers, which means options not just in the base 4-3 but also in nickel. And they have their choice of five corners, starting with Ramsey, going to Davon House and rising slot man Aaron Colvin, and finishing up with fourth-year pro Dwayne Gratz and former Giant Prince Amukamara. Perhaps all of this depth is an indication of how Bradley will approach the game. If he goes simple and plays his foundational Cover 3, most of his backups remain options, as they have the requisite speed and skill. But if he gets more complex, there’s a good chance not all the backups will get the necessary reps in practice to learn a wider-scoping scheme.
9. The best player on this defense is Telvin Smith. In fact, the third-year pro is one of the five best stacked linebackers in the NFL. As Smith has gained more experience, he’s further capitalized on his considerable length, fluidity and speed.
10. Don’t expect Myles Jack to play a ton as a rookie. Besides coming off a knee injury, Jack still has to earn a regular role in the nickel package if he’s to see more than half the snaps. There’s no chance he supplants Telvin Smith. And it’s hard to envision him immediately edging out Paul Posluszny, whom Jack was undoubtedly drafted to one day replace. Posluszny, aided by a high football IQ, still moves with great efficiency. He’s an alert pass defender and often the designated blitzer when Bradley does dial up pressure. At 31, he’s still too valuable to take off the field.
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