2013 record: 4-12 (3rd in AFC South)
Jacksonville closed out 2013 on a three-game losing streak, but won four of five before that, a stretch that accounted for all of the club’s victories. For the first time in years, the franchise appears to be headed in the right direction, although the teams the Jaguars defeated owned a combined 15-49 record (.234), so they haven’t arrived yet.
2013 stats: 15.4 points per game (32nd), 293.8 yards per game (31st)
The Jaguars took steps toward modernizing the offense during the draft, yet despite spending the third overall pick on Blake Bortles out of Central Florida, Chad Henne gets the nod at quarterback on opening day. Henne keeps the team in games by limiting mistakes (13 giveaways in 13 games in ‘13), which is more than can be said for his predecessor, but at 29 years of age, the 2008 second-round selection is firmly entrenched in mediocre QB territory (career 75.3 passer rating).
At least Henne should have more help. Jacksonville doubled down on wide receiver in Round 2 with Marqise Lee (USC) and Allen Robinson (Penn State). Lee enjoyed a productive preseason, catching eight passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns to lock up a starting job. Robinson’s role in the offense is a mystery after missing the preseason with a hamstring injury, but he is expected to be available on Sunday. Keep an eye out for Allen Hurns as well. The undrafted receiver out of Miami led the club with 14 receptions and 232 yards this summer. The rookie class joins Cecil Shorts, a capable No. 2 (66 REC, 777 YDS, 3 TD in ’13).
Now in his ninth season with the Jaguars, Marcedes Lewis can still create matchup issues for defenses in the passing game at 6’6”, 272 pounds, particularly inside the red zone. The tight end led the team with four touchdown catches in ’13.
The weapons are in place, but can the offensive line keep the quarterback upright? Despite one of the fastest releases in the NFL, Henne was sacked 38 times last season. 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel returns from a broken ankle to give the Jaguars some semblance of hope at left tackle, but overall, the unit remains a weakness. Sixth-round rookie Luke Bowanko out of Virginia has been elevated to starting center.
That doesn’t bode well for Toby Gerhart and the league’s 31st-ranked rushing offense. Upon fulfilling his rookie contract with the Minnesota Vikings, Gerhart was able to parlay four seasons as Adrian Peterson’s understudy into a feature-back gig. The 2008 second-round pick possesses the skills (4.7 career AVG) and has low mileage (353 career touches), but is a between-the-tackles runner that may have trouble finding holes behind Jacksonville’s line.
2013 stats: 28.1 points per game (28th), 379.4 yards per game (27th)
The unit is better than the numbers would indicate, as the ineffectiveness of the offense places added pressure on the defense. That being said, this side of the ball is very much a work in progress as well.
The Jaguars went the free-agent route to bolster an ineffective defensive line, adding Red Bryant and Chris Clemons fresh off their Super Bowl championship with the Seattle Seahawks. Both players were cap casualties and are on the wrong side of 30, but represent upgrades for Jacksonville. At 323 pounds, Bryant figures to improve a run defense that ranked 29th in the NFL. Clemons wasn’t the same last season after returning from a torn ACL (5.5 sacks in 17 games, including playoffs), although Andre Branch might be a better option anyway. The 2012 second-round pick recorded five of his six sacks over the final seven games.
Named to his first Pro Bowl last season, Paul Posluszny is a very good middle linebacker and a tackling machine. The Penn State grad’s 162 tackles in 2013 were second in the NFL only to Vontaze Burfict. Of course, Posluszny doesn’t have a whole lot of help to either side.
The secondary might be the strength of the defense. Taken in the second and third rounds respectively, safety Johnathan Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz are coming off of promising rookie seasons. Cyprien started showing ballhawk tendencies late in the year, registering six pass breakups and an interception to go with 42 tackles over his final five games. Gratz came up with picks in two of the 10 games he played, both wins. Alan Ball is an adequate corner with good size (6’2”, 197 lbs.) on the opposite side, and the same can be said for Will Blackmon (6’0”, 204) in the slot, although neither is special.
Then again, it won’t matter who lines up in the defensive backfield if the pass rush doesn’t improve. Jacksonville’s 31 sacks were tied for the least in the NFL last year.
Blackmon was a dangerous returnman in his younger days, but hasn’t taken punt or kick to the house since 2008. Josh Scobee has been one of the most reliable all-around kickers in the NFL over the past three seasons, while Bryan Anger is a quality punter—which he better be considering the Jaguars spent a third-round pick in 2012.
Gus Bradley (2nd season, 4-12)
Eagles fans are thrilled to have wound up with Chip Kelly, but Bradley wouldn’t have been a bad consolation prize. Obviously, Jacksonville struggled in his first season, but he inherited a roster that had nowhere near the talent Philadelphia’s did. Previously the defensive coordinator in Seattle, Bradley appears well on his way to assembling a quality unit to call his own in Jacksonville despite the front office’s much-needed investment in the offense—free agents Bryant and Clemons should help in the meantime. Overall, the team is on the right track and won’t go down without a fight on Sunday, but on paper, Bradley’s Jaguars look overmatched.