The Jacksonville Jaguars enter training camp on July 19, with a slew of unanswered questions. It’s been exactly a decade since the Jags have tasted a winning season, and the fans in Jacksonville are hungry, nay, starving for something positive. Though far from anyone’s national radar, the city of Jacksonville still strongly supports the team, and if the Jags can come out of the gate strong in 2017, they’ll likely get the fan support they’ve been missing in recent years. But to do that, they’ll need to find an identity on both sides of the ball. They’ll also need to answer critical personnel questions before week one. Key indicators of success should become evident in training camp, so as Jaguar fans turn their eyes to the opening practices of the 2017 season, here’s what they should focus on:
Offensive Line: Pro Football Focus recently ranked the Jaguars offensive line as number 13 in the NFL. Are they the best in the league? No. But if they can gel early, and play well, the Jags offense has a chance. The Luke Joeckel experiment is officially over in Jacksonville, and new head coach Doug Marrone is relying on A.J. Cann, Brandon Albert, and Patrick Omeameh to open running lanes and keep the quarterback out of trouble. The Jaguars invested the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft to take Leonard Fournette, a running back that they have to believe is a franchise player. And with Blake Bortles entering into the fourth year of his rookie contract, his play will determine whether the Jaguars pick up his 5th year extension, or if they’ll be forced to go back to the drawing board. But it all starts up front. Marrone and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett want to run a vertical passing attack, which means deep five and seven step drops while the receivers get downfield. Without a play action threat and a line that can hold their pass blocking, this offense can implode quickly.
Quarterback: If you look only at his stats, Bortles didn’t have a terrible 2016 season. With 3,905 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, he wasn’t Tom Brady, but he wasn’t exactly Ryan Leaf either. But what really killed the Jags last year was the way that Bortles turned the ball over. Blake Bortles has already racked up 11 interceptions returned for a touchdown in just over 50 games. Bortles has to take better care of the football in critical situations if the Jags have any chance of surviving the 2017 season. One would hope the young signal caller has spent his offseason watching film, and learning from his mistakes. It will be interesting to see if Bortles comes into training camp with improved decision making. Will he stare down receivers? Will he force throws? Can he look off the safety? Can he throw the ball away? As an interesting side note, the Jaguars aren’t exactly marketing Bortles as the face of the franchise right now. Will he be splitting reps in training camp? Will the Jags look to trade for a veteran before the start of pre-season? Stay tuned.
Middle Linebacker: Paul Posluszny has been the Jaguars starting MLB since 2011, and has been relatively solid at the position. However, going into the 2017 season, the Jags are trying to move the ten year veteran to outside linebacker, where even by his own reports, Posluszny is struggling. In his place, will be second year linebacker Myles Jack, whose talent and production were enough to ensure a second round draft selection despite having a potentially career limiting knee injury. Jack played the 2016 season and strongside linebacker where he notched 24 tackles and half a sack. The move to middle line backer means that the second year player will essentially be the quarterback of the defense, responsible for calling the plays, making adjustments, and providing essentially leadership on the defensive side of the ball. After cleaning house late in the 2016 season, the Jaguars decided to retain defensive coordinator Todd Wash. While some may believe that Wash will continue to run the Gus Bradley defensive made popular in Seattle, by firing all of the other defensive assistants, the Jags sent a clear message to Wash that he’d better improve, and do so quickly. At this time, no one outside the walls of Everbank really knows what Wash has planned for the defense, so it will be interesting to see what his scheme looks like going into July and August.
Telvin Smith: If you follow four year starting linebacker Telvin Smith on Twitter, you’ll notice that he’s clearly developed a chip on his shoulder. He obviously feels slighted to not have been included on the NFL’s top 100 list, but it goes deeper than that. Smith seems to feel as if the Jags are being overlooked by the media, by opponents, and even by the fans. He tweets as a man with something to prove. His thumbs are writing a lot of checks, but can he cash them? I’ll be keeping an eye on Smith in training camp for a number of reasons. First, I want to see how he plays in Wash’s defense. Next, I want to see if his attitude can raise the level of play of those around him. If the team practices poorly, can he inspire his teammates to improvement, or will he turn negative, and undermine the psyche of the developing unit. Finally, I want to see how Smith plays. Is he playing lights out, all over the field, sideline to sideline…or is he overplaying, trying too hard to make a play. If we see the former, Telvin Smith is likely to put together a pro-bowl year. But if we see the later, the results of being caught out of position, overrunning plays, and blowing assignments could spell disaster for the Jaguars defense.