With a rookie quarterback who struggled more than any other in the league, an offensive line playing a complicated game of musical chairs from Sunday to Sunday, a star running-back coming off offseason surgery, a primary pass rusher struggling with serious health issues, a number one cornerback missing almost half the season and a new head coach taking the reigns before the season’s close, the Jacksonville Jaguars still managed a 5-11 record in 2011.
Yet, there is a significant amount of pessimism engulfing the Jaguars entering this offseason. At least, pessimism from outside observers.
For the casual fan, it is easy to write off the Jaguars. The team hasn’t been relevant in some time. Their quarterback showed very little promise as a rookie and they compounded their dysfunction by selecting a punter in the third round of the draft.
If you don’t pay enough attention to the Jaguars, as many don’t, you will completely overlook the fact that the Jaguars have a significant amount of talent on their roster.
At this time of the year, analysts and non-analysts alike publish their predictions for the coming season. The likelihood is that most of those people writing power rankings or recording predictions will place the Jaguars among the bottom-feeders of the league.
Teams like the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are the teams typically populating the lower sections of power rankings.While cases can be made for most of those teams that they will be better than expected, none of them appear so out of place as the Jaguars.
The Jaguars are not a guaranteed Super Bowl contender, in fact they may not even compete for the AFC South, but they should at least be an average football team this season. They are more likely to acquire the number one pick in next year’s draft through a trade than by earning it with their performance on the field this year.
Most of the pessimists will point to Blaine Gabbert’s performances as a rookie in protest. Gabbert’s performances as a rookie were by no means impressive, but he still went 4-10 as a starter, which is not horrific.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and rarely do teams succeed by carrying a signal-caller even though it can be done, but the quarterback position is also one that develops more from year to year than any other. It is very unlikely that the Jaguars get the same Blaine Gabbert who they saw on the field last year.
Gabbert either improves or gets even worse. Considering the team no longer has the head coach who drafted him, it wouldn’t take too long for the team to switch to Chad Henne if Gabbert isn’t doing enough to justify his starting spot. Henne may have been let go by the Miami Dolphins, but he showed some ability before he was and would be a nice fit in the team’s offense. The Jaguars had very limited options at quarterback last year, that is not the case this season.
The Jaguars don’t have as much talent at quarterback as most of the other projected bottom-feeders, but having a full offseason to work with the talent at the position and having a roster better equipped to compensate for any struggles should see better production on the field.
The Jaguars will enter this season following the blue-print laid out by last year’s San Francisco 49ers.
Just like the 49ers, the Jaguars will rely on a very strong defense to carry their offense. Despite not receiving too much help from the offense last year, the Jaguars still ranked sixth in total yards, eighth against the pass, ninth against the run and 11th in points allowed on defense.
When you factor in the losses of Aaron Kampman, who has also struggled for the two previous seasons, and Rashean Mathis during the season to go along with Tyson Alualu’s playing through pain, the context of the Jaguars’ performances on defense makes their results even more impressive.
Even though the Colts have Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Browns have Joe Haden and D’Qwell Jackson, the Raiders have Richard Seymour and the Vikings have Jared Allen, none of those team’s defenses have the all-around talent that the Jaguars have.
The team’s secondary is very strong with Dwight Lowery, Dawan Landry, Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis starting, while Paul Posluszny, Clint Session and Daryl Smith form a decent linebacking corps. Smith and Cox are two of the most under-appreciated players in the whole NFL as both are excellent performers who would start on most defenses. What the defense has lacked in recent years is a decent pass rush.
Offseason issues with their defensive tackles, Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton, won’t help the team’s preparations, but shouldn’t be severe enough to impact the regular season. Knighton is recovering from a serious eye issue still, but Alualu is healthier than he has ever been after offseason surgery.
Along with promising defensive ends Jeremy Mincey, who had eight sacks last year, and Andre Branch, the team’s second-round pick this year, Alualu and Knighton are still developing and should improve.
That improvement would have a serious ripple effect on the rest of the defense. The team’s secondary would have more opportunities for turnovers and Mel Tucker would have more freedom with his linebackers. The defense should also benefit dramatically from the team’s recent investments in special teams.
Quality kicker Josh Scobee, was re-signed to a big deal, but it is punter Bryan Anger who should give the Jaguars’ a bigger boost.
Drafting a punter in the third round may seem foolish to some, but anyone who watched the impact of David Akers and Andy Lee in San Francisco last year understands the importance of special teams. Having a quality punter is like having an extra quality defender. If you can consistently pin offenses deep in their own territory and win the field position battle, you put your team in a position to win football games.
The impact a quality punter can make is exasperated when you pair him with a quality defense.
While the Jacksonville Jaguars defense is not on the level of the San Francisco 49ers just yet, it’s not impossible to think that they could take that leap. Mel Tucker is a quality defensive coordinator who is carrying over from the Jack Del Rio era into the Mike Mularkey reign as head coach. Tucker is the primary reason the Jaguars defense is so impressive and should allow Mularkey to primarly focus on developing the team’s offense.
Mularkey comes to Jacksonville carrying a repertoire of offensive experience. His work with Matt Ryan when he was a youngster earned him a lot of praise as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator. While getting better performances from whoever is under center will be important for the Jaguars, Mularkey has plenty of other pieces on offense to be excited about.
Even though Maurice Jones-Drew is currently threatening a holdout, it is very unlikely that he misses any time with the team. Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last year behind an ever-changing offensive line. This year the line is expected to be healthy and remain in tact.
Obviously, that can’t be guaranteed, but it is unlikely that they struggle as much as they did last season. In particular having Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton available at 100 percent would be a major positive for the Jaguars.
The Jaguars line is easily better than the Colts and Vikings’ lines, while it is about on par with the Browns and Raiders’ groups when fully healthy. When you pair each line with their respective running back, taking into consideration the durability of Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden with the unproven element of Trent Richardson, the Jaguars have easily a better rushing attack than those other teams.
Drafting Justin Blackmon and signing Laurent Robinson in free agency doesn’t give the Jaguars one of the better arsenals of receivers in the NFL, but it does vastly improve the unit over last season. Robinson and Blackmon complement each other well, as Robinson should stretch the field for Blackmon to work the underneath while Mike Thomas will excel as moving down on the depth chart.
When you throw in the talented, but inconsistent, Marcedes Lewis, there are more than enough receiving options in Jacksonville for Blaine Gabbert to develop without restricting the team’s ability to compete.
Competing is all that the Jaguars are looking to do. In the AFC South, it is not completely out of the question that they could compete for the division. The Houston Texans had a phenomenal year last year, but prior to the season all the talk was of how they would struggle implementing their new defense.
With significant offensive line alterations and greater expectations, their dominance of the division is not guaranteed even if expected. The Tennessee Titans clearly have a better offense than the Jaguars, but their defense has a lot of question marks while the Colts are entering a season devoted to rebuilding the roster.
Five wins in the NFL generally guarantees that you won’t be the worst team in the league. Considering the Jaguars won five games last year and have seemingly improved this year, it’s baffling to understand how they could be predicted as one of the worst teams in the league for 2012.
*This article was written during the NFL off-season, it was not updated once republished on this blog.
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian and Irishcentral. You can find him on twitter @Cianaf