Offseason Breakdown: Jacksonville Jaguars
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Twelve quarterbacks were taken in the 2011 draft. Five started at least one game in their rookie year. The worst of the five was Blaine Gabbert.
While Cam Newton and Andy Dalton were dominating the rookie of the year race, and Christian Ponder and T.J. Yates gave fans something to feel good about at times, Gabbert struggled mightily. It got so bad that talk about cutting ties with the rookie began midway through his first season. But other than do-everything back Maurice Jones-Drew, Gabbert had no help on offense.
It’s a shame that side of the ball couldn’t pull its weight, because 2011 was an overlooked year for the team’s defense. Behind a strong class of new additions, the team finished sixth in overall defense a year after finishing 28th, and improved from 32nd in defensive efficiency to fifth overall.
So it was no secret coming into the offseason where the focus had to be, and the Jaguars are hopeful that a new coach with an offensive pedigree and some big additions can help.
2011 Record: 5-11 (third place, AFC South)
Key Additions: QB Chad Henne, WR Justin Blackmon, DE Andre Branch, CB Aaron Ross, WR Laurent Robinson, WR Lee Evans
Key Subtractions: None
Team Strengths: WR, CB, LB
Team Weaknesses: OL, QB
Three Things to Watch:
1. Is Blaine Gabbert the quarterback of the future?: Back to Gabbert. Again, it’s clear that he has to be better than he was last season. But the overwhelming negativity surrounding him should be put in perspective. He was thrown into the fire after the last-minute release of David Garrard (despite a brief buffer period with Luke McCown to start the year). He didn’t have the best group of pass-catchers around him. And he had to suffer from the comparisons to Newton and Dalton. But Gabbert’s season was much more indicative of what we should expect from a rookie quarterback, not the exception to the rule.
Enter new coach Mile Mularkey. The hire hasn’t inspired faith in some, given that Mularkey was close to being fired as Falcons offensive coordinator before taking the Jaguars job. But he’s known for developing quarterbacks. Even if that’s the sole reason for his hire, you have to credit the Jaguars for investing in Gabbert’s future.
There will also be a much better group of receivers. Jacksonville completely overhauled a roster utterly devoid of talent last year, bringing in Justin Blackmon, Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans to join the returning Mike Thomas in what is suddenly a pretty good top four. Add in probable bounce-back seasons from tight ends Marcedes Lewis (no touchdowns in 2011 after catching 10 in 2010) and Zach Miller, and the always reliable MJD (who, make no mistake, will play this year), and Gabbert doesn’t have many more excuses.
If all else fails, the team was wise to bring in Chad Henne, who is good enough to push Gabbert to improve. But reports from camp have Gabbert outperforming the veteran so far.
2. Can the team generate a better pass rush?: The Jags did their job against the run and in the secondary, but the one area of the defense that needs to be better is the pass rush. It improved in 2011, jumping from 30th (26 sacks) in 2010 to 25th (31) last year, but obviously more needs to be done.
Gone is the mediocre Matt Roth and injury-plagued Aaron Kampman. The emerging Jeremy Mincey was re-signed in the offseason, and Andre Branch was brought in in the second round to bookend the other side of the line. The 38th overall pick has impressed coaches in minicamp, leading to the release of Kampman.
With those starters and decent rotational rushers Austen Lane and John Chick, the team should improve getting to the quarterback.
3. Will high draft picks finally step up?: The Jaguars have not been good selecting first-rounders. Since 2000, only three Jaguars first-round picks have made the Pro Bowl (Marcus Stroud, John Henderson and Lewis). Things have been particularly bad since Lewis’ selection in 2006. A big part of the team’s success will come from finally getting consistent production from two recent high first-round picks: offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (eighth overall in 2009) and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu (10th in 2010).
Monroe has steadily gotten better playing the left tackle spot, and is entering his prime years. His improvement is tantamount to helping Gabbert’s progression, especially since the rest of the line leaves a bit to be desired. Alualu, the surprise pick, has battled injury woes in his first two seasons. Despite not missing any time, a knee sprain has hampered his ability. He had surgery in the offseason to finally fix the issue, though, and hopes to be able to pair with Terrance Knighton to form a formidable presence in the middle of the Jags’ defensive line.
Good teams are often built from the lines out, the cliche goes, so getting Monroe and Alualu to make significant contributions this year is key.
Outlook: This a tough team to pin down. The defense will be just fine. As for the offense, you’d think that the upgrades would make the Jags a team to watch this year. But there are serious questions, too.
What if Gabbert is no better than he was as a rookie? What if Mularkey is more the coach who almost lost his job in Atlanta than the guy pegged as a QB guru? And what if Maurice Jones-Drew holds out for some time, and comes back a shell of his dominant self? (That last question may seem absurd, but let’s not forget the lesson learned last year with Chris Johnson.)
Even if the offense is marginally better, the Jaguars should sniff .500. In fact, that’s exactly what I see happening. Gabbert will take steps forward (but not too many), and Jacksonville sees a two- or three-game improvement, something approaching 7-9 or 8-8.
– By Tom Mantzouranis