Sometimes the NFL can be really confusing. We are now in such a period. It seems there are 2 Jacksonville Jaguars. One of them is covered by those who actually do their homework and visit practices at Everbank Field and a slightly progressing young group with several growing pains. And there is the main stream media, who try to convince everybody that the franchise is a mess these days. The good news is, very soon the truth will be revealed. The first preseason game of the ’12 season is just hours away, and finally the players can silence their critics – or be proven wrong. The Jaguars are facing 4 very challenging tests, starting with the current Super Bowl champion New York Giants visiting Jacksonville on Friday night. That means Tom Coughlin, the very first head coach of the franchise is returning once again to Jacksonville. But what can we expect on the field? And where should we focus our attention? Well here’s a little guide to help you out.
Pass protection: The Jaguars will see premium rushers in the first weeks of the regular season (Jared Allen, Connor Barwin, JJ Watt, Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney, Carlos Dunlap – and that’s just the first 4 games), so the offensive line must be ready to protect Blaine Gabbert. Sadly injuries are a consistent problem here, especially at the LG position. Starter Will Rackley is out for 2-3 weeks, and his backup Jason Spitz was injured during last Friday’s scrimmage. It seems the Jaguars will start RT EBen Britton at LG again, and Cameron Bradfield will play at RT. The position is so thin, that the Jaguars now asked UDFA rookie DT Drew Nowak to switch from defense to offense, and play guard instead of defensive tackle. Also they moved the two backup centers, John Estes and Mike Brewster to the guard position.Not the best signs against one of the best pass rushing units in the league.
Eugene Monroe also sat out several practices with a leg injury. Brad Meester has been given some extra rest, because this will be his 13th season, so the Jaguars want to keep him as fresh as possible. The only good news is the return of Eben Britton who is finally 100% healthy after a back injury.
One of the area where Gabbert needs to silence his critics is pocket presence, but he needs to get better protection compared to last year. For the tackles (including Cameron Bradfield and Guy Whimper) it will be quite a challenge to handle Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Matthias Kiwanuka. The interior O-line will be more interesting to watch (mostly because I have no idea who will play at LG…). They will face Linval Joseph, Rocky Bernard, Shaun Rogers, and Marvin Austin. At least Gene Smith can really evaluate the backup guards…
Rookies: Finally Justin Blackmon signed his rookie deal, but we will not see him play on Friday night. But don’t worry, there will be plenty of rookies to watch still. Since Austen Lane’s injury is keep him from action for the next couple of weeks, it is more and more likely that Andre Branch will start on Week 1 opposite Jeremy Mincey at the other DE spot. He will most likely face David Diehl. This could be a great matchup too see if Branch is really as good as advertised by D-line coach Joe Cullen.
Bryan Anger can salso start to silence those who criticized the surprise decision by the front office from last April to draft the punter at 3/7. Jaguars fans who watched him punt during training camp are already calling him “Legatron”. Let’s hope he can prove it 1 or 2 times. Of course I want to see the rest of the draft picks (LB Brandon Marshall, CB Mike Harris, & DT Jeris Pendleton) performing, but the players I really can’t wait to see to play are among the undrafted rookies. WR Kevin Elliott and LB Julian Stanford are looking more and more like locks in the final 53 roster. Elliott is maybe the 3rd best WR after Robinson and Shorts based on training camp practices. Stanford could easily be a new Russell Allen. Other than these two look for Ryan Davis (DE from Bethune Cookman), Antonio Dennard (CB from Langton), J.K. Scheffer (LB from Cincinnati), Matt Veldman (TE from North Dakota State), and Mike Brewster (C/G from Ohio State). Most likely all of them are long shots (besides Davis & maybe Veldman) to make the final cut, but with good performances in the preseason they can all made that decesion much more difficult.
Wide receiver battle: Besides the improvement of Blaine Gabbert, everybody is focusing on how the receiver group will improve. Last year they were clearly the worst unit (again) in the NFL. But this offseason Mike Mularkey asked proven WR coach Jerry Sullivan to join his staff and he immediately became the offensive version of D-line coach Joe Cullen. His diligence, work ethic, league-round respect, and charisma all make him likable to players, coaches, and fans. However despite the new faces in the receiver group (Laurent Robinson, Lee Evans, Kevin Elliott, Mike Brown and now Justin Blackmon) the group is still very inconsistent. The dropped passes are a consistent problem since OTAs, and not so long ago offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski even told reporters that “the passing game is not very good”. Laurent Robinson after a slow and rough start is slowly starting to get on the same page with Gabbert. And Cecil Shorts already overtook Mike Thomas on the depth chart. Kevin Elliott said before OTAs he will make the team, just based on his receiver skills. Well back then everybody thought he was overconfident, now people are starting to realize that actually might happen.
Right now I see 3 clear locks on the final roster (If no injury happens) – Robinson, Blackmon and Shorts. Mike Thomas is a lock because of his contract, but his effort was often simply not enough in a couple of practices (although to be fair, he had a couple of good ones too). After these 4 I would list Elliott as the 5th, partly because he can be an effective special teams player as well. I expect the Jaguars will keep a 6th WR and that is wide open. Brian Robiskie, Lee Evans and Taylor Price all can make their case for themselves starting with Friday’s preseason game. I see almost no chance for Chastin West and UDFA rookie Mike Brown to make this team (although Brown can be a practice squad player later).
Running game: Of course the big national storyline is the holdout of Maurice Jones-Drew. But while everybody else thinks that the absence of last year’s leading rusher is a major blow for the Jaguars, the front office is still satisfied with the back currently practicing. So far Rashad Jennings is possibly the best offensive player in camp. He can run, catch and lately he is improving in pass blocking as well and performed really well in last Friday’s scrimmage. Behind him there is a brand new face in Jalen Parmele archived little so far in his career, but right now he is the Nr. 2 RB behind Jennings, ahead of last training camp’s sensation DuJuan Harris, and Richard Murphy who spent last year on IR. So far everything is pointing toward Parmele as the 1st backup after Jennings (and he could be the 3rd option if Jones-Drew returns). It will be interesting to watch if he can keep this status as the preseason progresses.
With the injuries along the offensive line, it is tough to predict how effective the running game will be no matter who is carrying the ball. Can the Jaguars still run the ball well? I also wonder how many backs Gene Smith and Mularkey want to keep on the final roster. If that number is 5, that could mean Brock Bolen might not make the team this time – Montell Owens, and the expensive, yet excellent blocking FB Greg Jones are my candidates for the other 2 RB/FB spots.
And finally a few words about the QB: I wrote an article a couple months ago about bashing Blaine Gabbert becoming a new sport among some people who cover the league. That has gotten worse in the last few weeks, and I just don’t get why. Yes, the 2nd year QB had some bad practices early in camp, but he became better and better with almost every practice. He was (along with Jennings) the star of the scrimmage. He is starting to built chemistry with his receivers, especially Laurent Robinson. His mechanics are better, he is now taking charge of the offense. But all these improvements don’t seem to bother many members of the media, who still think that it’s just matter of time until Chad Henne will replace last year’s 10th pick of the draft. Well the good news for Gabbert is that he can now quiet his critics by showing his improvement in decision making, footwork, pock presence and accuracy. Based on the scrimmage we can expect short range passes from him to boost his confidence, which is okay early, but sooner then later Bratkowski must let Gabbert use is cannon arm for deep passes as well.
The Jaguars plan to let Gabbert and the 1st team offense play throughout the 1st quarter, maybe early in the 2nd as well. I hope the promising improvements of the offseason will be recognized by everybody- Also this will be the first big test about how the young QB can handle the pass rush of the powerful Giants D-line. I expect some QB runs (Mularkey often asked former Steelers QB Kordell Stewart to plays like that that, while he was Pittsburgh’s OC) but Gabbert must handle the rush well in these preseason games because he will face a lot of good pass rushers early in the regular season.
There is another reason why he must perform particularly better than Henne on Friday. On Wednesday Tony Boselli, Jeff Lageman (and basically Jaguars fanbase) called out Michael Lombardi about his negative comments toward Gabbert. If Gabbert starts to perform well “experts” like Lombardi (and the rest of the bunch who can’t stop bashing the 2nd year QB)will look really stupid really fast. However if Gabbert’s recent development does not show in the upcoming weeks and Henne outperforms him (I don’t think that’s realistic right now), the problems and perception of the Jaguars get much, much worse.
I can’t say how exited I am, that football (even preseason football) is back, and finally we can watch real games instead of playing the guessing game. The season opener against the Minnesota Vikings is less then a month away. Let’s hope we will know a lot more about the ’12 Jaguars in the upcoming 4 games and hope that these revelations will be more postive then negative. Some people think Jacksonville is a mess, others (like me) think something promising and powerful is developing in North Florida. The preseason starting with this Giants game will bring us closer to the truth about which concept is more valid.
– Zoltan Paksa
Tags: Andre Branch Antonio Dennard Austen Lane Blaine Gabbert Brad Meester Brandon Marshall Bryan Anger Cameron Bradfield Carlos Dunlap Cecil Shorts III Chad Henne Chastin West Connor Barwin DuJuan Harris Dwight Freeney Eben Britton Eugene Monroe Guy Whimper Jacksonvile Jaguars Jalen Parmele Jared Allen Jason Pierre-Paul Jeremy Mincey Jeris Pendleton JJ Watt JK Shaeffer John Estes Julian Stanford Justin Blackmon Kevin Elliott Laurent Robinson Lee Evans Linval Joseph Matt Veldman Maurice Jones-drew Mike Brewster Mike Harris Mike Mularkey Mike Thomas New York Giants Osi Umeniyora Rashard Jennings Robert Mathis Rocky Bernard Ryan Davis Taylor Price Tom Coughlin