Jaguars want ground gains despite failing to improve O-line
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Jacksonville Jaguars spent the last seven months trying to create an identity as a tough, physical team that could run the ball with authority.
Smash-mouth football designed by two old-school coaches.
The idea was simple: Improve the rushing attack in hopes of easing the load on flawed quarterback Blake Bortles, who averaged 39 passes a game in 2016. It sounded like a solid plan, especially after drafting LSU star Leonard Fournette fourth overall.
But the Jaguars seemingly botched the execution.
Decision maker Tom Coughlin and new coach Doug Marrone failed to adequately address the team's offensive line, a miscalculation that could lead to less-than-ideal results on the ground and in the win column this season.
''It's a constant battle,'' said Coughlin, hired to head Jacksonville's turnaround after the franchise went an NFL-worst 17-63 the last five years. ''Can you improve radically overnight? We'll see. I think you can say that at any position. We wish we perhaps were better. At this point in time, it is what it is.''
It wasn't good enough in the preseason.
Even though the Jaguars ranked second in the league in preseason rushing, they were mostly ineffective against starters. Left tackle Cam Robinson played like a rookie at times. Brandon Linder looked unworthy of being the league's highest-paid center. Right tackle Jermey Parnell was far from the road-grader they want. And the guards were so inconsistent that Marrone had them playing in the preseason finale.
''We've got a lot of work ahead of us,'' Marrone said.
A lot of missteps behind, too.
General manager Dave Caldwell whiffed on Luke Joeckel with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, and grossly overpaid free-agent guard Zane Beadles in 2014.
After strangely deciding not to pursue center Alex Mack (Cleveland) or guard Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore) in 2016 and then struggling to run the ball again, the Jaguars probably should have been significant players in March. They had about $70 million in salary cap space at the time, but didn't land guards Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati) or Larry Warford (Detroit).
Instead, they traded for 32-year-old offensive tackle Branden Albert, who had missed 20 games over the previous five seasons. Albert skipped most of the team's offseason program, was admittedly out of shape when he arrived, and left training camp after three practices. That forced Robinson into the starting lineup, which might be beneficial down the road but likely will create growing pains early.
And no matter who ends up at guard - A.J. Cann, Patrick Omameh, Tyler Shatley and Earl Watford are possibilities - the starting line will lack much-needed continuity before the season opener Sunday against division rival Houston.
''Everybody knows what to do,'' veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis said. ''It's about trusting each other and understanding that the guy next to you is actually going to do his job and you don't have to do extra. That's really what it comes down to up front. ... Hopefully we'll get this thing on track in the next couple of weeks.''
Here are some other things to know about the Jaguars heading into the season:
BACK TO BORTLES: Bortles lost the starting job briefly and now has it back, but for how long? The Jaguars picked up a fifth-year option in his rookie contract, but probably will part ways after this season unless he has a big year.
Of course, if Bortles sustains a significant injury, the team would be on the hook to pay him $19 million in 2018. So it's quite possible the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft could get benched for good in Jacksonville if he's not considerably better than he was in 2016.
DEFENSIVE UPGRADES: The team guaranteed $68 million to cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Barry Church in free agency. Bouye and second-year pro Jalen Ramsey could be one of the league's top tandems. Campbell's leadership should help. And Church should be a calming presence in the secondary. But the key to Jacksonville's defensive improvement will be edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler. The Jags have to create more pressure and turnovers to make strides.
ROBINSON REBOUNDS? Receiver Allen Robinson, whose 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown campaign in 2015 earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, is entering a contract year and eager to rebound from a disappointing season. He caught 73 passes for 883 yards and six scores last season.
LOSING WAYS: The Jaguars have finished with double-digit losses in six straight seasons, the first streak they need to break to show progress.
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