• They’ve hit on free agents. They’ve done pretty well developing their own draft picks. That’s why, after the quarterback’s summer of struggles, the end of the Blake Bortles era is imminent
By Robert Klemko
August 23, 2017

JACKSONVILLE — Blake Bortles is on the ropes. He’s fighting for a starting job with journeyman quarterback Chad Henne, and according to some, the third overall pick of the 2014 draft is losing that fight.

It’s a reality that became obvious to numerous members of the Jacksonville Jaguars offense after joint practices with the Buccaneers. Before Bortles’ dismal performance in a preseason game against Tampa over the weekend, he was struggling similarly against their defense without the threat of a true pass rush. He missed reads, he missed throws, and it hurt the confidence of numerous players who have otherwise applauded the direction of the football team.

His lack of progress this summer is why I believe the team will announce this week that Chad Henne will start Thursday’s preseason game against the Panthers, and ultimately the Week 1 opener at Houston.

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This is a team that recently hit paydirt with free agent Malik Jackson, signing him away from the Broncos and watching him ably anchor the defensive line in 2016. They spent big money in free agency for defensive lineman Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye, who have given management no reason to doubt the investment so far. Wide receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee have long been a strong group, and the offensive line, anchored by the underrated Brandon Linder, has no obvious weak links.

But for this team, as always, it all comes down to the quarterback. For all the gains Jacksonville has appeared to make in free agency and in developing its own draft picks, the quarterback is treading water. He’s performed abysmally this preseason, generating three points over six drives. Nathaniel Hackett, the former quarterbacks coach who is in his first full season as Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator, has taken a back-to-basics theme as opposed to expanding, as Bortles regressed considerably in 2016 after finishing ’15 with a 35-to-18 TD/INT ratio. Last year, it fell to 23-to-16 as the Jaguars went from 5-11 to 3-13 despite the improvement on defense.

“I think we’ve paid more attention to figuring out what we’re good at,” says veteran wide receiver Arrelious Benn. “Instead of doing so many things, just figuring out the 10-15 plays we’re good at.”

This is pretty basic stuff for a quarterback entering his fourth season.

Players say that this summer, the wide receivers and quarterbacks have spent more time meeting as a group, reviewing practice film and working to identify various looks and how they might translate to pressures and coverage schemes, so receivers and quarterbacks are speaking the same non-verbal language. For a group of starters that has been together for more than three seasons, it could be too little, too late.

“We’re trying to see everything through the same set of eyes,” says Robinson. “I’d say there’s more work with the quarterbacks in meetings than before.”

Adds Benn: “It’s about being more aware of the down and distance and really knowing what’s going on at any point in the game.”

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All the work these starters have done with Bortles could be moot if the Jaguars go with Henne, who once had a small army of believers scattered across NFL coaching staffs. Many who scouted him in 2008 as an incoming rookie came away thinking the Dolphins got a steal in the second round. A fervent minority believes Henne, 32, had his career and a promising set of physical tools stunted by the Dolphins and former head coach Tony Sparano, and that signing with a moribund Jacksonville franchise in 2012 was the final nail in the coffin.

Giving the job to Henne would all but guarantee Bortles plays elsewhere in 2018, given his scheduled $19 million salary in the final year of his contract. The Jaguars picked up Bortles’ fifth-year option in May, but it’s only guaranteed for injury, which means the only way Jacksonville would have to pay up before moving on is if he failed to pass a physical next year. A Henne promotion might also spell the end of the line for general manager Dave Caldwell, who drafted Bortles and whose role has shifted with the addition of Tom Coughlin as Executive Vice President.

For now, Coughlin, Caldwell and head coach Doug Marrone have a decision to make (if they haven’t already made it): Stick with Bortles, and risk further damaging team morale, or go with Henne, and hope for a Rich Gannon-like career reclamation.

Both options are bleak. Either could lead to another top-three pick in the 2018 draft, and another shot to draft a potential franchise quarterback.

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