- The defense is back. So is Blake Bortles. Here's why Super Bowl dreams are legitimate in Jacksonville.
With the NFL season just around the corner, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Jacksonville Jaguars, who finished 10–6 in 2017.
1. Blake Bortles is better than his harshest critics claim, but his flaws are real. Many stem from simply not being a natural thrower. Bortles’s motion is slow and clunky, and his release point is low. The result is inconsistent precision accuracy. When that inconsistency accumulates for negative stretches, it spills into Bortles’s decision-making and pocket poise.
It’s so often forgotten that inconsistency means “bad AND good.” Bortles’s “good” can look great. He throws with velocity. He makes plays with his legs. And, last season, he proved that he can orchestrate a well-designed passing attack if built effectively off a power running game. The beauty of an offense that registers more rushing attempts than any other is defenses, anticipating those runs, become predictable. Down the stretch last season, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett masterfully manufactured downfield throws exploiting that predictability. He found the right blend of misdirection and play-action, often presenting Bortles with throws outside the painted field numbers, where there are fewer defenders (i.e. potential interceptors). And because those plays are innately slower developing, Bortles’s elongated throwing motion became less of a factor.
Jaguars management was encouraged enough by this to give Bortles a new three-year, $54 million contract. That’s a modest deal for a starter, sure. And the team can get out of it cheaply in 2020. But the deal was also made while Jacksonville’s Super Bowl window, thanks to an electrifying defense, is open wider than ever. And the deal came prior to an offseason that offered multiple free agent starting quarterbacks and half a dozen first-round rookies. The Jaguars’ controlled passing game suggests they don’t believe Bortles can be elite in and of himself. But the rest of their actions suggest they think he can help get them to where they want to go.
2. Running back Leonard Fournette’s rookie season revealed room for maturation (as a runner AND a professional), but he’s the right type of bull for head coach Doug Marrone and VP of Football Operations Tom Coughlin’s approach. No player finishes runs more authoritatively than Fournette. In the AFC Championship Game the Jaguars revealed a package that featured both Fournette and scat back Corey Grant. It presented significant dimension to the backfield passing game. That could become prominent in 2018. No. 3 back T.J. Yeldon is also worth playing. He has the patience and light feet to occasionally create his own yards. Factor in a serviceable fullback like Tommy Bohanon and you have the pieces for a smashmouth ground game.
3. What that smashmouth ground game lacked in 2017 was a road-grading offensive line. It’s actually remarkable the run-based Jaguars, given their front five, got as far as they did. Ex-Panthers guard Andrew Norwell was signed for $30 million guaranteed to improve things. Aligning outside of Norwell is Cam Robinson, a tantalizing 2017 second-rounder who, unlike most young linemen, is better in pass protection than run-blocking. If he can leverage his steady footwork and long arms in the ground game, the Jags O-line will be much more imposing.
4. This offense doesn’t have any formidable pass-catching tight ends. Some probably think the newly signed Austin Seferian-Jenkins can be that guy, but he never cashed in his talent for the Bucs and Jets. Backup Niles Paul is athletic, but more as an on-the-move blocker than receiver. The Jags could really use a poor man’s Jason Witten type underneath.
5. Don’t draft any Jaguars wideouts in fantasy; there are so many, it’s impossible to forecast who will get targets. Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, Rashad Green, ex-Colt Donte Moncrief and of course second-round rookie D.J. Chark can all contribute in this highly manufactured passing game.
6. The only gripe about Jacksonville’s star-studded defense is that it can’t always stop the run. But after trading for Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in Week 8, the Jags went from allowing 139 rushing yards a game to 99. Dareus is a powerful athlete, but it’s his versatility that’s key. Capable of aligning at nose tackle or 3-technique, he presents more options for deploying monster run-stoppers Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson.
7. You don’t become a top-3 defense without an unsung player skyrocketing to prominence. For the Jags, it’s Yannick Ngakoue. The 2016 third-round defensive end has exhibited better quickness and flexibility in each of his 35 NFL outings. On film he shines every bit as much as his 12 sacks and league-high six forced fumbles last year suggest.
8. Your best chance at beating this defense is on north and south designs, preferably between the painted field numbers, where blanket corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are lesser factors. Linebackers Myles Jack and especially Telvin Smith are simply too fast to challenge east and west. Because they have such great makeup speed, they play with greater depth in Jacksonville’s staple zone coverages. This makes them less vulnerable to downfield throws but, if an offense is willing, it can dink-and-dunk underneath, which negates Jacksonville’s potent pass rush. Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers had some success with this in their Christmas Eve win over the Jags.
9. Ramsey has more than enough physical talent to become the undisputed best cornerback in football. (Some would argue, reasonably, that he is already.) What’s most unusual is the combination of speed and lankiness that allows him to undercut seam routes and in-breakers. He’s the only NFL defender who can do that regularly.
10. The biggest (and maybe only) concern with Jacksonville’s D is its interior nickel coverage. Unrefined technique makes newly acquired slot man D.J. Hayden a marked downgrade from departed free agent Aaron Colvin. And with veteran Paul Posluszny retired, the Jags no longer have the linebacking depth that they called upon last year in Weeks 13-14 when Smith was out with a concussion.
BOTTOM LINE: It's mostly the same dynamic defense and what should be an improved offense in 2018. Super Bowl aspirations are legitimate.
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