Posted January 17, 2013

Gus Bradley facing tough climb to improve Jaguars’ outlook

Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL Coaches
Gus Bradley had been with the Seahawks since 2009. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Gus Bradley had been with the Seahawks since 2009. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Potential.

That’s what we are talking about with the Jacksonville Jaguars and their new head coach, Gus Bradley. Is Bradley the right guy to finally tap into the Jaguars’ talent base and deliver a winner?

Jacksonville has not seen an above-.500 team since 2007, and the wheels fell off completely during the 2012 season — Jacksonville limped to a 2-14 mark, while losing 12 of its last 13 games.

There were massive issues on both sides of the ball, but Bradley’s main goals out of the chute will be two-fold:

1. Toughen up the defense.

2. Find a quarterback.

Let’s start at the top, though Blaine Gabbert’s issues have been synonymous with the Jaguars’ struggles over the past two seasons. Jacksonville was a mess against the run in 2012, allowing more than 2,200 yards and 19 touchdowns, both stats that landed it near the bottom of the league.

That inability to hold the line encouraged the opposition to grind it out against the Jaguars — only one other defense (Arizona) joined Jacksonville in facing more runs than passes this season. Bradley’s Seattle defense finished 10th against the run and fourth in total yards allowed, so the expectation will be that he can fix Jacksonville’s issues in a hurry.

How quickly that process actually goes will depend a lot on what Jacksonville does with its cornerbacks.

Bradley built much of his Seattle defense around Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, two physical and aggressive cover men. Their presences out wide allowed Bradley to play man-to-man, even against the best receivers in the league — see Sherman’s effort last week against Atlanta’s Roddy White as an example.  By doing that, Bradley had nine other defenders at his disposal to close off the rest of the field.

Bradley’s arrival in Jacksonville coincides with the possible free agent departures of starting cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, as well as William Middleton.

The good news, then, is that Bradley and new GM David Caldwell have a chance to mold the secondary the way they want. But the challenge will be finding the right pieces, whether it’s Mathis and Cox (who are each a couple inches shorter than either Sherman or Browner) or some other options.

Jacksonville does have the No. 2 pick at its disposal, and what it chooses to do there depends on that issue of potential. The linebacking corps, particularly if Daryl Smith leaves, could use a boost; and the defensive line, despite the presences of 2011 first-rounder Tyson Alualu and 2012 second-rounder Andre Branch, failed miserably in 2012.

Does Bradley have any tricks up his sleeve to make those underachieving units reliable?

The same question will be asked of Bradley with regard to the offense — and, in particular, as it relates to Gabbert. While many Jacksonville fans may be ready to move on from the two-year flop, this year’s draft brings a disappointing crop of QBs to the table.

Finding a go-to guy via free agency could be tough, too, so it looks close to certain that Gabbert will have at least a chance to compete for the starting job (possibly alongside Chad Henne, who replaced him this season).

The pieces around whomever becomes Jacksonville’s quarterback are enticing: Maurice Jones-Drew, who is an elite back when he’s healthy; first-round pick Justin Blackmon and 2012 free agent signing Laurent Robinson at wide receiver, plus the emerging Cecil Shorts; Marcedes Lewis at tight end; and a solid left tackle in Eugene Monroe.

Without improved quarterback play, though, the Jaguars’ ceiling on offense can only rise so high.

So, Bradley’s tasks are monumental: Turn the Jaguars around and coax better performances out of a bevy of players who have disappointed in the past.

This probably will not be an overnight fix, so much as a two- or three-year project. Bradley’s pedigree and the existing roster parts, however, could combine to make 2013 a lot more tolerable than 2012.

That is, if everyone — Bradley included — lives up to his potential.

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