Jacksonville Jaguars 2014 Season Preview
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's been a long time, Jaguars fans.
Seven years since your team was relevant on a postseason stage, and even longer - 15 years, in fact - since it managed playoff appearances in consecutive seasons, completing a four-year run in 1999.
And no, no one in their right mind is suggesting the drought ends in 2014.
But happy days may indeed be on the way to northeast Florida.
With the selection of University of Central Florida stud Blake Bortles at No. 3 overall in this spring's draft, Jacksonville locked in what it anticipates will be the foundational piece of a return to the pre-millennium glory of Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli and Jimmy Smith.
Coach Gus Bradley is prudently determined not to rush his new 6-foot-5, 230- pound prize into the fray too soon, so veteran Chad Henne will get the nod as the starter to begin the season. But again, no one in their right mind should expect the former Miami Dolphins castoff to still have that tag come December.
"For our team, Chad's playing well, really well," Bradley said. "He's playing really fast right now. He's showed it all during training camp and during the preseason games, so we're really excited about him."
Outside of the quarterback slot, though, the rest of the unit reeks more of 4-12 than 12-4.
The offensive line was in flux last season after rookie Luke Joeckel's debut was scrapped by a broken ankle, and it'll need to solidify both to guarantee Henne's safety and to clear lanes for incoming running back Toby Gerhart, who arrives to replace Maurice Jones-Drew after caddying for Adrien Peterson in Minnesota for four seasons. Gerhart himself might have a dynamic counterbalance in former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who's made progress in his transition to NFL ball-carrier.
The secondary will need to be better to contend with two meetings per year with the AFC South likes of Andrew Luck. And, thanks to Justin Blackmon's recurring off-the-field issues, someone else is going to need to provide a second-tier pass-catching option alongside Cecil Shorts - who's blossomed in anonymity since he was plucked in round four from the tiny University of Mount Union back in 2011.
So clearly, it's not a finished product just yet. But while they're not exactly Apple at $1 dollar a share and Bradley is no Steve Jobs, if the Jaguars were a stock, the prudent broker would be suggesting a bulk buy.
"We really strive on getting better, and I know that seems like a cliche," Bradley said, in a preseason visit to the Dan Patrick Show. "It's hard in the NFL. College coaches are seen as developmental coaches and that's taken away in the NFL. But that's what we want our coaches to do - develop players. Where that takes us, I don't know. I think we're seeing really good improvement with that mindset."
2013 RECORD: 4-12 (3rd, AFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2007, lost to New England Patriots in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Gus Bradley (4-12 in one season with Jaguars)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jedd Fisch (second season with Jaguars)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bob Babich (second season with Jaguars)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Blake Bortles (first round, Central Florida), RB Toby Gerhart (from Vikings), G Zane Beadles (from Broncos), DE Red Bryant (from Seahawks), DE Chris Clemons (from Seahawks), DT Ziggy Hood (from Steelers), LB Dekoda Watson (from Buccaneers).
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: RB Maurice Jones-Drew (to Raiders), QB Blaine Gabbert (to Niners), C Brad Meester (retired), DE Jason Babin (to Jets), LB Russell Allen (retired)
QB: Let's face it. No team entering a season with Chad Henne as the No. 1 signal-caller on the depth chart is already printing playoff tickets. But in a role as seat-warmer until the heir apparent - Blake Bortles - is deemed fit for full-time NFL play, he's hardly the worst option in 32 cities. The seventh-year pro made 13 starts last season in the dying days of the Blaine Gabbert experiment and completed better than 60 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and 3,241 yards.
Henne's success will determine exactly how long Bortles, the highly drafted young gun from Central Florida, will stay on the sidelines. The 6-foot-5, 232- pounder has the frame of an NFL start and his performances early in preseason have many assuming that the future in northeast Florida will arrive sooner than later.
Veteran Ricky Stanzi is No. 3 on the depth chart, but only a disaster would have him possessing anything more than a clipboard in 2014.
RB: The backfield is more noticeable for who's no longer there than for who is. Longtime stalwart Maurice Jones-Drew is wearing the silver and black in Oakland after eight seasons and more than 8,000 yards in Jacksonville. His No. 1 running role will be assumed by free-agent acquisition Toby Gerhart, who arrived from Minnesota after gaining 1,305 yards and scoring five touchdowns in four seasons as a caddy for Adrien Peterson.
Second-year man Jordan Todman and former University of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson are other ball-carrying options, while third-year man Will Ta'ufo'ou is again the top man at fullback.
WR: Justin Blackmon's repeated encounters with the NFL's substance-abuse policy have landed him an indefinite suspension, so it's unlikely either Henne or Bortles will be relying on his as a target anytime soon. Cecil Shorts was hampered in training camp by a hamstring issue, but should be good to go in September after hauling in 66 passes for 777 yards last season. The prospective No. 2 behind him is rookie Marqise Lee from USC, who caught 57 passes and scored four times in his final year as a Trojan.
Ace Sanders is also out for the first four weeks of the season thanks to a substance-abuse policy suspension, so remaining pass-catching options include a slew of unproven commodities like second-year man Mike Brown and rookie Allen Hurns. Another rookie, Allen Robinson, is sidelined with a lingering hamstring injury.
TE: Nine-year veteran Marcedes Lewis caught 25 passes for 359 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games last season, a precipitous drop from 2012 and an even larger fall-off from the career-best numbers he'd compiled in 2010 en route to the Pro Bowl.
No. 2 behind Lewis is Clay Harbor, who caught 24 passes and scored twice last season, which was his first in Jacksonville after three years and 39 games with the Philadelphia Eagles.
OL: Luke Joeckel's rookie season was aborted thanks to a broken ankle, but he'll get a do-over as the No. 1 left tackle this season with another chance to justify his No. 2 overall draft selection. Alongside him at left guard is free-agent pick-up Zane Beadles, who arrives from Denver. Mike Brewster enters the season as the No. 1 center after starting 10 games in two seasons, while the right side of the line is occupied by third-year man Jacques McClendon at guard and Austin Pasztor at tackle.
Rookie third-round pick Brandon Linder is next in line behind McClendon, while other second-tier options are Cameron Bradfield, Drew Nowak, Luke Bowanko and Sam Young.
DL: Coach Gus Bradley used Seattle connections to lure a pair of former Seahawks, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, in as free agents to bolster his defensive line. The two will start at left and right end, respectively, and should provide upgrades against both the run and pass. The tackles are Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, who combined to make 30 of a possible 32 starts last season.
Ziggy Hood was signed away from the Steelers and is another possibility at tackle, while the arrival of Bryant means a slice into the playing time of former first-round pick Tyson Alualu, now in his fifth season. Abry Jones and Andre Branch are supplemental players at tackle and end, respectively.
LB: Dekoda Watson was another defensive-side signee in the offseason, but he missed a chunk of training camp after sports hernia surgery and finds himself chasing LaRoy Reynolds for starting time at one outside linebacker position. The other side is manned by Geno Hayes, who could be pushed down the line by incoming rookie Telvin Smith from Florida State. Veteran Paul Posluszny returns to the middle after making the Pro Bowl for the first time after an 162-tackle performance in his seventh pro season.
The group can be spelled by depth players Nate Stupar and Marcus Whitfield.
DB: Because the Jaguars chose not to go this route in the draft, cornerbacks Alan Ball and Dwayne Gratz return to the fold as presumed starters for the second straight season after combining for 23 starts and four interceptions in 2013. Johnathan Cyprien made 87 tackles and intercepted a pass as a rookie strong safety last year, and Winston Guy is No. 1 on the depth chart at free safety after he was cut by the Seahawks at the end of 2013 training camp and latched on with the Jaguars, ultimately playing in 14 games.
Will Blackmon and Demetrius McCray are the top backups at the cornerback slots, while Sherrod Martin, Chris Prosinski and Josh Evans are depth safeties.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Josh Scobee and Bryan Anger form the placekicking and punting duo for another season. Scobee made 23-of-25 field goals last season and has missed just three of 15 attempts from 50 yards and out in four seasons. Anger was seventh in the league in both net punting and kicks inside the 20-yard line.
Will Blackmon handles punt-returning duties and Jordan Todman runs back kicks.
COACHING: It's difficult to fathom how a four-win season could translate into a positive job review in most cases, but considering what Gus Bradley was up against in his first year in Jacksonville, it's a fair assessment. The Jaguars were the NFL's laughingstock while losing eight straight to begin the season - bringing a winless year into clear focus - but they subsequently rebounded for four wins in the next five games and played two close ones (losing by seven and four points) in the final three weeks.
The talent upgrade hasn't been massive since then, but it's earned Bradley a little more rope as he begins year two of the significant rebuild.
THE SKINNY: No one is confusing the Jaguars with the Seahawks, Broncos or Patriots, but they also won't go into the 2014 season as the odds-on choice to end with the league's worst record.
The early season schedule is brutal, with trips to Philadelphia, Washington and San Diego sandwiched around visits by Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, so another 0-5 start is a real possibility. What Bradley is able to do after that point, with Tennessee, Cleveland and Miami arriving before the midway mark, will essentially determine what'll occur for the season overall.
The guess here is for two wins in the first eight and three in the back half, meaning a one-game improvement and a 5-11 finish.
08/25 12:20:36 ET