The season is hopefully right around the corner (if we can trust the news coming out of those “secret meetings”). The advent of a new season begets the need for improvement and growth. The Jaguars have a some areas that are more pressing than others. Let’s dive in and take a look
We’ll start with the less obvious one first . . .
Stabilization of the offensive line.
This may not seem exactly imperative, but it is definitely important. Last year, the Jaguars saw many different line-ups along the offensive line, with starts coming from Jordan Black, Justin Smiley, Uche Nwaneri, Vince Manuwai, Brad Meester, Guy Whimper, Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton. Granted one of the position switches came with the injury to Britton, but the impact was big nonetheless. Manuwai started the season riding pine, but when the injury bug bit Justin Smiley, Manuwai stepped in and provided a spark that pushed the Jags rushing attack to nearly the top of the league. This year, the Jaguars need to hope that their starters stay healthy. A healthy Manuwai is an All-Pro caliber guard. Monroe is a physical talent who needs to play more consistently and up to the level that he is capable. Nwaneri is an ascending guard who (paraphrasing from a quote I read from Nwaneri himself) lead the team in knock-downs (either last year or the year before). Meester is older but according to GM Gene, Meester had a nice bounce-back season after a sub-par 2009 season. Britton’s return should have the biggest impact. He had shoulder surgery to repair damage that he sustained early in the season, but not only that, the surgery repaired an ailment that had been affecting him since his high school days. Add 2011 Draft pick Will Rackley into the mix and you’ve got the recipe for success. If the offensive line can stay healthy and return the lost starter, the Jaguars passing and running game should improve. For an example as to what could happen if the offense is clicking, look back to the 2010 season, starting with the Dallas game.
Sharing the load at RB.
Another of the less obvious ones, though its obvious in retrospect. Maurice Jones-Drew, as great a player that he is, must have his work load lessened next year. Last year, Jones-Drew ran on a gimp knee for fourteen games. He was replaced by Rashad Jennings who did an admirable job in his place. Next year, if the Jaguars, as they believe they will be, are in the playoff race, they’ll need a healthy and rested Muarice Jones-Drew for the stretch run and playoffs. A more seasoned Deji Karim and a battle tested Jennings could provide the 1-2-3 punch that could carry them to the playoffs. As a side note, a more focused and effective running game could take the pressure off of the next group that needs to prove something, the wide receivers.
Improvement of the WR core.
This one is pretty obvious, but still needs to be talked about. The wide receivers have two returning starters in Mike Thomas and Jason Hill, although Hill was a late addition to the starting line-up. Thomas and Hill both possess great speed and hands, however the diverge in terms of the routes they run. Thomas is thick-bodied receiver who can take a hit and create the yards after the catch necessary to spur a quick hit offense. Hill is more of a burner who can create separation deep. That’s where the receiving core strengths end. Thomas is the only proven veteran on the team and there have been arguments that he can’t be a number one (I disagree and definitely think he has the skills necessary to handle that role), also Hill is basically unproven and has only showed off glimpses of his talent. Behind them the stable is packed, but nothing is certain. Dillard could easily be the best of the bunch, but he can’t seem to shake the lower leg injuries that have been dogging him since he was drafted in 2009. Cecil Shorts has the skill set to be a good number three and potentially more, but this is the NFL, not D-III and he will have to prove that he can hang with the big boys before he can be included in the starting line-up discussion. Behind them are Kassim Osgood, Nate Hughes, John Matthews and Tiquan Underwood. The team will most likely only carry five receivers, so the last position could potentially be filled by Osgood. However, the Jaguars might consider him a special teams player only and reserve another spot for a more talented wideout. The Jaguars running game should be up and … running … once the season begins and should be depended on more especially if there is a shortened offseason/season, however, with the growth of the running game there should be more opportunities to get open for the receivers and hopefully their improvement should allow them to take advantage of that. A less dire, but just as important piece to the receiving core are the tight ends. Marcedes Lewis, Zach Miller and Zach Potter all showed improvements last year and if the season is delayed, they’ll be expected to provide even more support in the running and passing games than is usually expected of them.
Filling in the holes at FS, LB
Finally, the most obvious key to success. The signing and growth of the linebacker and safety groups. The Jaguars are extremely thin and undermanned at both positions. If they Jaguars are to make any progress on defense, these holes will have to be addressed. If the safeties perform better, the corners and linebackers should find an easier time of covering and the team should find it easier to rush the quarterback. If the linebackers play better, there should be less YAC obtained off of missed tackles and the tightend outlet should be stymied, allowing again for the pass rush to improve. Just to come full circle though, defense is the most obvious example of a team game. Each position plays its part and the better it plays overall, the more deficiencies it can hide or cover in the grand scheme of things.
More Obvious stuff, critical but obvious
The Jaguars need to do the small stuff, like maintain gap integrity on defense and play until the whistle. They also need to wrap up and stop giving up big YAC. They need to create more turnovers and turn the ball over less. The pass rush needs to improve.
If the Jaguars can accomplish these things, you’ll see them in the thick of the playoff race. However, if they holes aren’t filled or the team continues to struggle in technique, this could be a long year for the Jags, as the schedule looks to be brutal.