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The Future Arrives

The Jaguars and Vikings got a glimpse at the days ahead on Sunday, as Jacksonville's Blake Bortles and Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater made their first regular-season starts. Here's how they did

Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, two of the three quarterbacks selected in the first round of the draft, got their first career starts on Sunday. Bortles threw two interceptions and was sacked three times as the Jaguars fell 33-14 to Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Bridgewater passed for 317 yards and added 27 on the ground, including a 13-yard score, as the Vikings took care of Matt Ryan and Falcons, 41-28.

So Bridgewater had the more impressive day, right? Not exactly. Factor in the degree of difficulty presented by the opposing defense, the performance of the supporting casts and the fact that the Jaguars were on the road on the West coast, and Bortles’ debut was just as good.

Give Bridgewater the edge, but Bortles doesn’t have much to hang his head about. The fact that Bridgewater didn’t finish the game (an ankle injury may or may not keep him out of Minnesota’s Thursday night matchup at Green Bay), has to be considered as well. The truth is, both Bortles and Bridgewater played exactly to their pre-draft scouting reports, which included a lot of good but also some aspects of their games that will need to improve.

Bortles had a tough task on the road in San Diego. (John W. McDonough/The MMQB)

Bortles had a tough task on the road in San Diego. (John W. McDonough/The MMQB)

Bortles: Reason For Optimism

When I scouted Bortles coming out of Central Florida, I marveled at his potential.

Despite the rise of smaller and more mobile quarterbacks, the NFL is still ruled by quarterbacks who execute from the pocket. And if you were to create a quarterback from scratch, Bortles would check every box. It’s why he’s near the top of this year’s draft class.

The one concern was that he just wasn’t polished enough. It’s the same assessment coach Gus Bradley and the Jaguars had. Despite drafting Bortles third overall, their original plan was to sit him for the entire season behind Chad Henne. Why did Bortles need to sit?

If Bortles played in the NFL right now, he would be a turnover machine and would probably flame out because his mechanics, mostly in the lower body, are extremely flawed.

Well, in a game and a half of regular-season action, Bortles has four interceptions. He threw two against the Chargers on Sunday.

Mechanics, specifically his footwork, remain an issue for Bortles. (John W. McDonough/The MMQB)

Mechanics, specifically his footwork, remain an issue for Bortles. (John W. McDonough/The MMQB)

On Bortles’ first pass attempt in San Diego, he showed his poor fundamentals again by stepping toward the sideline, instead of at the intended target, as he sailed an incomplete pass well over his receiver’s head. His final interception was also thrown flat-footed and was easily picked off by San Diego safety Eric Weddle.

But outside of a handful of similar throws, Bortles’ debut was very promising. He completed 78.4% of his passes, rushed five times for 24 yards, and threw a pretty two-yard touchdown pass to Nic Jacobs.

Bortles accomplished that despite playing behind a porous offensive line that was constantly under siege from the pressure packages dialed up by Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano. The Jaguars had no running game to keep San Diego honest (3.0 yards per carry on a combined 19 attempts for Toby Gerhart and Denard Robinson), and Bortles’ primary targets were an assortment of unknowns, especially after Cecil Shorts was forced from the game with a hamstring injury (Shorts’ injury was partly to blame for Bortles’ first interception. He ran a slow, poor route that didn’t threaten cornerback Brandon Flowers).

The Jaguars’ most impressive feat in the loss was their performance on third downs: 9-for-14 (64.3%). And a lot of that had to do with Bortles.

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On the Jaguars’ second drive, the Chargers sent a blitz on third-and-8 but Bortles stepped into a throw to Robinson and fit it in between two defenders. The Jaguars nearly converted a third-and-14 when Bortles stepped up against the rush and completed a 13-yard pass to Allen Hurns.

On the next possession, Jacksonville faced third-and-8. This time Pagano sent six rushers. Bortles didn’t flinch and made a big-time throw to Shorts for 13 yards, moving the chains on a scoring drive.

Trailing 10-7, the Jaguars had a third-and-5 when Bortles sidestepped the rush, reset his feet and found Hurns wide open on a busted coverage for 44 yards (on what would have been a touchdown had Hurns kept his feet). On the next play, Bortles placed a perfect pass into the corner of the end zone for tight end Jacobs, who was just signed off the Saints’ practice squad this week.

In the third quarter, trailing 27-14, the Jaguars faced third-and-3. Bortles appeared to err when he connected with tight end Clay Harbor for a loss of two yards. Actually, that was a designed route with two picks built in, not Bortles’ decision, that simply didn’t work.

Bortles’ future still depends on whether or not he can limit the turnovers, by being more consistent with his mechanics and just playing smarter (he made a few ill-advised plays when he just should have taken a sack). But all the impressive positives were there. He was physically imposing in the pocket and eluding pressure, delivered in clutch spots even when under heavy pressure, and fit the ball into tight spots.

Bridgewater hit the ground running on Sunday. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Bridgewater hit the ground running on Sunday. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Bridgewater: It Doesn't Get Any Easier Than This

Even Bridgewater himself, taken 32nd overall, probably couldn’t have scripted his first start any better.

Minnesota’s two running backs, Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon, combined for 213 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries (5.6 average) and added another 39 on four catches. Running game? Check.

The Falcons rarely blitzed, and hit the quarterback only one time (officially and by the naked eye). Weak opponent? Check.

Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner tailored Sunday’s scheme to Bridgewater’s strengths, with most passes thrown out of a read option look with nearly all routes run in the middle of the field. The Atlanta defense was off-balance all day. Helpful play-caller? Check.

Bridgewater shouldn’t celebrate too much. NFL games seldom shape up that well for a quarterback.

Bridgewater was the Bridgewater many us touted during the pre-draft process: poised, competitive, athletic and smart. His weaknesses also showed, as his accuracy waned the deeper and wider the throw, and he didn’t make it out of the game. Bridgewater’s narrow build (6-2, 211 pounds) and his ability to take the pounding of the NFL game have long been questioned.

Bridgewater was carted off with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, but not before he had put the Vikings in position for the win. (Jim Mone/AP)

Bridgewater was carted off with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, but not before he had put the Vikings in position for the win. (Jim Mone/AP)

Bridgewater was expertly managed by Turner, one of the best game-planners and play-callers in the history of the NFL. Bridgewater’s first four pass attempts were behind the line of scrimmage. The read option, or at least the threat of it, was completely integrated into the run and pass game, with play-action to hold the linebackers in order to open up throwing lanes.

Bridgewater did make plays. There was the well-timed, well-placed skinny post to Greg Jennings at the 2:45 mark of the first quarter. On third-and-6 with 3:14 left in the second quarter, Bridgewater got back to his drop and fired a 21-yard dart to Jarius Wright on a crossing pattern with three defenders around.

And Bridgewater, despite being much more of a pocket passer than most realize, also made plays with his legs. There was the 13-yard scoring scamper when it looked like he instinctively knew, as soon as he saw Falcons outside linebacker Kroy Biermann go inside and fail to hold the edge, there would be plenty of room to roam. And Bridgewater put up a superlative play early in the third quarter, the first time he felt pressure all day. He stepped up to elude one defender, did a jump cut to make another miss then spun to free himself for a 10-yard gain.

But there were missed chances, the biggest coming with 45 seconds left in the third quarter with the Vikings trailing 28-27. Wright was streaking wide open down the left sideline but Bridgewater overthrew him, which seemed to happen at least once a game in college. He’s good, but not perfect.

Bridgewater did well with what he was given, and delivered a victory. There just weren’t that many difficulty situations or throws. It will get much harder, and Bridgewater will need to keep showing improvement.

Same goes for the rest of the quarterback class of 2014. The Raiders’ Derek Carr was the first to start, and he has showed some promise. Now the more talented Bortles and Bridgewater, with Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel waiting in the wings, have taken the stage.

They showed why they were drafted in the first round. They also showed why they weren’t regarded as can’t-miss prospects.