Momentum is building in Jacksonville after a long stretch of ineptitude. That's thanks to a very busy offseason in which Gus Bradley's crew turned over the roster and brought in a slew of new players via free agency and the draft. It should help turn the Jaguars into a contender ... eventually.
The biggest splash was the drafting of quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the draft. The Jaguars insist they'll bring him along slowly, so his impact might not be felt until the second half of the upcoming season. But the impact of veteran rusher Toby Gerhart and rookie wideouts Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee should be felt much sooner. Jacksonville also beefed up its offensive line with the signing of guard Zane Beadles. Defensively they brought in ex-Seahawks Red Bryant and Chris Clemons along with Steelers castoff Ziggy Hood to help re-populate the defensive line. Linebacker Dekoda Watson also should help.
But not everything is coming up jaguar-spotted roses. Justin Blackmon, arguably the team's top weapon, remains suspended for a substance abuse violation. Even though he sat out the final eight games of last season, Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell has said he does not expect Blackmon to contribute this year. He backed up that statement by drafting a pair of receivers within his first three picks. But only one selection was made to help a slumping secondary that ranked 25th against the pass and 21st in passing touchdowns allowed last season. That suggests that the Jaguars are hoping that coaching can help turn an inexperienced secondary around.
So it's probably going to be another year full of growing pains. Worse yet, the team might finish in the basement of the AFC South this season -- last year they finished in third (thank you, Houston). That difference meant games against the Chargers and Dolphins instead of the Raiders and Bills this season. Would have helped this growing team.
Late-round flier ... Cecil Shorts
As prepared as we might be to say something strong on Toby Gerhart, our focus here is on Cecil Shorts. He's become sort of an afterthought after tanking last season despite posting a career-high 66 catches. Should he be? If the Jaguars can cultivate outside receivers then Shorts could move into the slot, or at least move all over the field. We've always fancied Shorts as a Victor Cruz clone and if the team can get him in a position to be that guy then he'll perform well, if only because he's the most reliable outlet for the quarterbacks. A calf injury continues to hamper him, but assuming he heals up and participates in training camp, he'll be worth a pick as a capable reserve and Top 50 Fantasy receiver.
Late-round flier ... Allen Robinson
If you're in a dynasty league, Allen Robinson should be on your rank list as a potential second-round choice in your rookie-only draft. If you're in a more traditional Fantasy league, Robinson should be on your late-round pick wish list. As the roster stands now in Jacksonville, Robinson will be the only receiver with size -- he's 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, the same height and nearly the same size as Houston's Andre Johnson. He doesn't have bursting speed but he's got hops (42-inch vertical) and enough muscle to box-out smaller defensive backs for end-zone jump balls and third-down seam routes. Playing in Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense at Penn State last year, Robinson caught 97 passes for 1,432 yards, setting Big Ten Conference records. He's a perfect target for an inconsistent quarterback like Chad Henne or an inexperienced passer like Blake Bortles to target. Expect him to start right away.
Dynasty-league target ... Marqise Lee
|Maurice Jones-Drew||277 (234 car., 43 rec.)||38.1%|
|Jordan Todman||80 (76 car., 14 rec.)||11.0%|
|Cecil Shorts||66 rec.||9.1%|
|Ace Sanders||53 (51 rec., 2 car.)||7.3%|
Lee is a polarizing Fantasy rookie. In 2012 he was a monster for Southern Cal, posting 1,721 yards on 118 catches (14.6 avg.) with 14 touchdowns. In 2013 he had 57 catches for 791 yards (13.8 avg.) and four touchdowns along with a left knee injury. Which Lee will show up in Jacksonville? Might depend entirely on the kind of playing time he earns in training camp. If Lee can stay healthy and show he can get what's being asked of him, he definitely has the potential to help Fantasy owners out this year. But it's probably more likely that he struggles this season and doesn't play as much as his rookie counterpart does. That's why we're not expecting Lee to be worth taking in a 2014 Fantasy draft. But if we're talking long term, it's clear Lee has major potential, making him worthy of an early-round pick in rookie-only formats.
The first five games the Jags have are against strong offenses. That's bad for the defense but it should force the offense's hand to throw the ball. That might mean competitive games or it might mean garbage time, but that's the kind of stuff that leads to good in-game experience for a team with young receivers. Matchups that might better benefit Gerhart come right after that with the Titans, Browns and Dolphins on the slate around the halfway point. Their Thursday game comes in Week 16 vs. Tennessee, a late-season tilt that should make for a huge game for Gerhart, assuming he's healthy and productive that late into the season. Two showdowns against the Texans in their last four (including at Houston in Week 17) punctuate what is otherwise a tough but not unbearable schedule for the Jaguars.
Training camp battles
Can Bortles win? We know the Jaguars' plan is to let Blake Bortles watch Chad Henne play quarterback and develop slowly. But we're not buying that Bortles will sit for the entire season. Remember, Jags coach Gus Bradley was with the Seahawks when Russell Wilson catapulted from third string to starter in one camp, and general manager David Caldwell was an executive on the Falcons when they drafted and started Matt Ryan and a scout for the Colts when they made Peyton Manning their starter right away. Maybe it's not fair to put Bortles in the same class as Wilson, Ryan and Manning, but the team has enough brains to know that if the rookie is legit they might as well start him.
Who's backing up Gerhart? The Jaguars asked for Denard Robinson to put on weight this offseason and he has. But the Jags also have Jordan Todman coming back and drafted a nice runner in Storm Johnson, who played with Bortles at Central Florida. This competition should not only bear out who's backing up Gerhart but who also can work third downs, which is a role many anticipate the Jaguars filling so that Gerhart's not on the field for every down.
Who's starting at receiver? As intriguing as the rookie wideouts are, neither one is promised anything in terms of work. Cecil Shorts is still the best receiver on the team, Ace Sanders is a good slot option and Mike Brown showed some flashes as an outside receiver last year. The Jaguars are going to use training camp to figure out who will play where.
There's a lot of skepticism about Gerhart becoming a capable, productive starting running back after being a backup behind Adrian Peterson for four seasons. But the guy is a human bowling ball, knocking over defenders and running with the fierce, violent style that fans love to watch. The coaching staff has stuck behind Gerhart since signing him and envision him as their primary workhorse. Judging by the lack of other backs they brought in, Gerhart should get a great opportunity in Jacksonville. Moreover, the team finally has a back they trust at the goal line -- last year they called just 12 handoffs from inside the 5-yard line out of 35 opportunities. Gerhart will be gone before the middle of Round 5 and get over 1,200 total yards and score at least seven times.
Cecil Shorts (calf), probable for start of training camp. ... Clay Harbor (leg), questionable for start of training camp. ... Luke Joeckel (leg), questionable for start of training camp. ... Roy Miller (shoulder), questionable for start of training camp. ... Geno Hayes (knee), probable for start of training camp. ... Mike Brewster (leg), probable for start of training camp.