Will Jacksonville’s promising rookies and splashy free-agent signings help the team contend right away. The coaching staff and front office better hope so.
This is setting up to be a make-or-break year for the Jaguars to take a leap and challenge for an AFC South title. Former No. 3 pick Blake Bortles is headed into his third year in the NFL—often the do-or-die season for young quarterbacks. The defense figures to be much improved after heavy investment through free agency and the draft. Can the Jaguars pull it off? Owner Shahid Kahn is often regarded as one of the NFL’s eccentrics, but he has revealed a touch of old-school sensibilities when it comes to head coach Gus Bradley, letting the former Seahawks defensive coordinator grow with a young team that has won only 12 games in Bradley’s three seasons. Kahn is betting on that continuity to pay off for Bortles, while Bradley may finally have a defense that can attempt to approach what he had in Seattle.
For Bortles, the counting stats were there last season—4,428 yards, 35 touchdowns—but the accuracy was not, as the QB completed only 58.6% of his passes. Bortles needs to take a significant step forward in that category to challenge the other young QBs in the division. Jacksonville’s defense has been revamped, with six defensive draft picks and the addition of veterans Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson. If all goes well in August, the Jaguars are lurking as a potential playoff sleeper in the AFC.
The Rookie: Myles Jack is an easy choice here. Jack was projected by many as a top-10 talent in the draft before he ultimately slid due to injury concerns. A player who some thought Jacksonville would take at No. 5 instead went at No. 36, allowing the Jags to add an extremely athletic linebacker to their front seven in addition to their first-round selection of defensive back. With those two rookies behind Dante Fowler on the defensive line, Jacksonville now has a trio of potential game-changers, one at each level of the defense.
Position Battle Spoilers: The battle at left tackle could have similar consequences to one of those loser-leaves-the-company WWE matches. Luke Joeckel, a former No. 2 pick, is expected to be locked in a tight competition with Kelvin Beachum, who signed a one-year deal (with a four-year option on the back end) with the Jags in March. Whoever loses the battle could slide over to guard, but he will also likely be dangled as trade bait for a team that suffers an inevitable catastrophic injury during camp. Whoever wins will be tasked with protecting the franchise’s blind side. Though he’s entering camp with an injury, on paper, Beachum seems to have the upper hand.
The Stat: 61.5%, the rate at which Bortles completed passes thrown less than 10 yards last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, good for 31st in the NFL. Bortles is already a prolific deep-ball QB, and if he can significantly improve the rate at which he completes what’s right in front of him, it will go a long way in improving Jacksonville’s offense.
Preseason Watchability Guide: The Jags don’t have a preseason game that leaps out as an obviously fun matchup, with Julio Jones unlikely to face the new-look secondary when the Falcons host Jacksonville in Week 4. The Week 3 date with the Bengals could be an (extremely) early measuring stick for the new defense, however.