JACKSONVILLE — During free agency frenzy in March, Suzy Bortles’ cell phone buzzed frequently, updating her with push notifications specifically personalized to Jaguars news. After each free-agent signing, she quickly texted her son Blake to alert him about his team’s latest move and ask if this new Jaguar had any talent.
“My mom is my ESPN ticker,” Blake says, after a walkthrough at Jaguars’ facility on the day of the team’s open scrimmage at EverBank Field. “She gets all the updates and she was like, ‘You guys just signed Tashaun Gipson, you got Malik Jackson!’”
Blake doesn’t pay nearly as close attention to the offseason moves as Suzy does. “If she never told me,” he says, “I’d probably eventually see it on Twitter. But she is the one who is always like, ‘Hey! You guys just signed so-and-so. As soon as we signed Kelvin Beachum, she was like, ‘Oh my god, I love this guy.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t even know him!’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, but he does so much charity work!’”
As Suzy Bortles could tell you, these Jaguars are a totally different team than a year ago, and not just on the scale of charitable donations. On defense, Jacksonville added defensive lineman Malik Jackson, cornerback Prince Amukamara, safety Tashaun Gipson, and top draft picks cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack. That’s five new players, who all should start at some point this season. And that’s not including defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick of the 2015 draft who is back from an ACL injury that sidelined him for his entire rookie campaign. On offense, Julius Thomas is healthy entering the season and the Jaguars added left tackle Kelvin Beachum to protect Bortles and running back Chris Ivory for depth at running back.
While there is plenty of excitement when it comes to the influx of talent and the ascent of Bortles, the third-year quarterback, the storyline of these 2016 Jaguars centers on the defense. Jacksonville lost games in which they scored 25, 27, 31 and 39 points last season. Can the defense catch up to progress the offense made in 2015? Bortles, who lines up across from this remade unit every day in training camp, says he sees a huge change compared to last season.
“I think the most obvious thing I’ve noticed is that it just looks better,” he says. “Malik Jackson looks like a dominant defensive end in the NFL. I don’t think we’ve always had that. When you get off a bus, Malik Jackson is one of the guys you want getting off first.”
The 6-5, 293-pound Jackson certainly cuts an imposing figure, but he’s actually slimmed down this offseason to better face double teams as a three-technique tackle. He started working out harder and cutting back on treats, like his favorite Carvel ice cream sandwich. “I had to put those down,” Jackson said. “They’re just sitting in the back of my freezer.”
Playing primarily three-technique is an adjustment for the ex-Bronco, who played the three-, four-, and five-tech in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 system. “It’s not engrained in me yet right now,” he said. “But the three-technique is never wrong, so as long as I can play freely and create disruption, I’ll be great.”
Behind the line, Bortles has noticed even more disruption. On one of the first days of OTAs, he threw a familiar route on a double move by Thomas. “I think we probably threw this route 50 times on the defense last year for 50 touchdowns,” he said. Not this time; free safety Gipson picked it off. Last season, Jacksonville did not get a single interception from the free safety spot and finished 26th in interceptions, with just nine for the year. “A year ago, we didn’t have a free safety that could make that play,” said Bortles. “Now we’ve got a guy that can roam around back there and run end line to end line as fast as anybody in the league.”
Bortles sees a difference in his unit as well. He’s feeling much more comfortable in his third year in the NFL, and second year in Greg Olson’s offense. “In my rookie year, I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “I was trying to figure out where to park in the parking lot and those were my problems at the time.” Last year, with a new offensive staff, things started to click, and Bortles had a breakthrough season. He set franchise records with 35 passing touchdowns and 4,428 passing yards. With receiver tandem Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns each recording 1,000-yard seasons, Jacksonville’s offense put up gaudy numbers.
This season, Bortles will be helped by Thomas, whose performance was hampered by a broken hand in 2015. “Julius being healthy is huge,” Bortles said. “There are not a whole lot of guys who can do what he does to defenses. He really presents a problem because you have to decide whether you are going to treat him as a tight end or a receiver and what personnel you are going to put out there defensively. He creates some mismatch problems.”
Coaches think that having Thomas healthy to start the season is going to increase Bortles’ accuracy because he didn’t have a consistent short to intermediate threat last year. His 18 interceptions led the league. And on this night at EverBank Field, Bortles threw a short touchdown pass on a fade to Thomas. The crowd erupted in cheers, eager to see more from the tight end.
The pressure is on in Jacksonville, and the clock is ticking on GM Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley. On paper, the Jags have all the pieces in place to compete, and Bortles said he feels a difference around town. “In the three years I’ve been here, it is the most excited this town and fan base has been. I think the town is dying for a successful Jaguars team because that is really all there is here.”
And just think of the nice change it would be for Suzy Bortles to receive phone updates that notify her of Jaguars victories.
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FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT JACKSONVILLE
1. I saw two players who missed their 2015 season with ACL injuries in two consecutive days: Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin and Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. I thought it was interesting to compare their contrasting attitudes towards wearing a knee brace. Benjamin does not wear a knee brace, while Fowler wears a camouflage one.
Benjamin: I won’t wear a knee brace because I feel like once I wear that knee brace, it will be in my mind and it will be on my mind that this knee has a brace on it, so I better be careful. And I don’t want to treat it like that, I want to treat it like a regular knee and trust the work that I put in.
Fowler: My brace is camouflage. I try to make it cool to the point so that it looks nice when I put it on. Nobody wants to think about it, but it’s protection and I put it on and I feel protected. I’ll probably wear it this season until I really feel like there is no need. I am really going to wear it until I get my explosiveness back. I have everything back, just that last part, you get your explosiveness back and once I know that I have that, I’ll take it off. But I’ll probably wear it the majority of the season.
2. Speaking of Fowler, he looks really good. Besides the camouflage brace, it’s hard to tell he’s 14 months removed from ACL surgery. He is fluid and fast, making plays at LEO, the pass rushing defensive end spot. During Friday night’s scrimmage he stood out in two plays during the five-play opening drive. He tackled running back T. J. Yeldon for a 1-yard loss and then got up in Blake Bortles’ face to cause a fourth-down incompletion. “To me, he is very Von-esque,” Malik Jackson says of Fowler, referring to Jackson’s ex-teammate Von Miller. “I was able to see Von for the past four years, and you see some of that in Dante. He can definitely be the same player. Lot of potential.”
3. Hey Giants fans, Prince Amukamara lined up with the first unit at left corner, Jalen Ramsey on the right side.
4. Rookie linebacker Myles Jack is slotted behind veteran middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, but if Jack masters defense he’ll compete with Posluszny for the Mike spot or play weakside linebacker, which is also in Jacksonville’s plans.
• THEY DIDN’T KNOW JACK: Thirty-one teams passed on UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, at one time a surefire top-10 pick. Here’s how Jacksonville decided to take a chance on the most talked-about knee in the NFL.
5. The feel around the Jaguars in the last four or five years has been one of if everything goes right we have a shot to be .500. This year, particularly in a weak AFC south, the locals are not going to stand for a record of less than .500.
5a. A huge thank you shout out to Fields Merdeces-Benz. They got us in and out in 20 minutes, in a time crunch to get to our Jaguars interviews. PSA: Do not ignore low Diesel Exhaust Fluid warnings. They will not go away. On Friday morning, an error message alerted us that we only had 14 starts left. Best MMQB Instagram comment of the trip so far: “More starts this year: The van or Sam Bradford?”
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