What’s In Store For The Big Cats 2015?

photo: Fran Ruchalski

As the Jaguars enter the 2015 regular season this Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers we here at EU have worked up an offensive preview which will be followed by a defensive and special teams preview to be released before this weekend.

The first position group we will discuss is without a doubt the most important to any NFL franchise and especially the most key to a successful campaign here in Jacksonville. The reason, Blake Bortles, the Jags first selection in the 2014 NFL Draft had an up and down rookie campaign and a stellar 2015 preseason that has him primed for a breakout second year. Just take a look at Blake Bortles 2015 preseason numbers which compare favorably with the regular season numbers of perennial Pro-Bowler Phillip Rivers. Rivers, whose QBR of 93.8 over the 2014 campaign is identical to Bortles preseason QBR and his yards per attempt and average yards per pass are extremely close at 66.5% to 65% and 7.52 per pass to Bortles 7.7, and that doesn’t factor in Bortles running ability that had him in the top five of quarterbacks last year and this preseason he had five carries for 42 yards and a touchdown. That is an 8.4 yards per carry average. If you are a Jaguar fan you have to be excited by those numbers, but if you think the comparison to Rivers is too much of stretch remember Bortles faced mostly first team defenses throughout the preseason, while missing his starting All-Pro tight end Julies Thomas, and starting wide out Marquise Lee and rookie starting tailback T.J. Yeldon who missed the first two preseason games. The Backup QB will be Chad Henne once again this year and by all accounts he has settled into to the role of mentor for Bortles while still posting great numbers against second team defenses. Henne’s QBR of 92.8 and his 70.6% completion percentage signal to me that we have a top flight backup QB.

The half-back situation is a bit murkier as the coaching staff and front office surprised many by keeping a total of five running backs on the 53 man final roster. The running back committee is headlined by former University of Alabama star T.J. Yeldon who was chosen in the second round of last May’s NFL Draft. A star from his freshman year with the Crimson Tide, Yeldon has been billed as a complete back; a dynamic one-cut runner, a competent receiver out of the backfield, and a good pass-blocker. The second back on the depth chart is former Michigan Wolverines Quarterback and Running back, Denard “Shoelace” Robinson who showed flashes of brilliance last season before injuries cut his breakout season short, but so far he has had little trouble picking up where he left off, especially in the passing game where he shines in space. Another great runner-receiver follows Robinson in the depth chart, Toby Gerhart who starred at Stanford, and in backup duty to Adrien Peterson in Minnesota before signing a nice deal with the Jags before last season. Gerhart has his fair share of detractors after an injury riddled 2014, but I am not one of them. I believe Toby has a lot to offer this offense not just catching passes out of the backfield but also in the short yardage game as either a halfback or fullback. All three I predicted before the preseason to be on the team and I also thought the team would try to retain former Temple standout and Baltimore Raven Super Bowl Champion Bernard Pierce, who was released by the Ravens last March following a DUI arrest. Although he has a very similar skill set to Yeldon his prior experience is a huge plus, and the fact that he led all Jags runners in the preseason made the teams decision to keep him that much easier. The real surprise of this unit has been the emergence of former Auburn Tiger/War Eagle Corey Grant. Grant has been nothing short of electrifying this preseason and his 4.28 40yd dash time he clocked at the NFL Combine has translated exceptionally well to the next level in both the running and return game. Grants 8.2 yards per carry leads the team and his 28.8 kick return average dwarfs the second leading kick returner. He could prove to be the steal of the 2015 undrafted free agent class and is one of my potential breakout players of the 2015 campaign.

The Wide-Receivers are a definite question mark heading into week one with oft injured 2014 second round pick Marquise Lee, who flashed some serious play-making ability last year before going down to injury, continuing to battle a nagging hamstring which has him listed as questionable for week one. New Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson has gone so far as to compare Lee to an Albino Tiger, in that he is a rare breed of playmaker but one that is rarely seen in action. Allen Robinson on the other hand has been steady this preseason and leads the team in yards per catch at 14.7, he is the teams number one receiver with a bullet and another guy I believe is poised for a breakout year. Allen Hurns will get the call as the number two receiver this week and if he can improve upon his terrific rookie season of 2014 it could be his spot for years to come. Hurns was third in the NFL in rookie receiving yards last season and has the lone touchdown reception from Bortles on a beautiful throw and catch two weeks ago against the Detroit Lions at home. Rashard Greene the former FSU standout takes over the third receiver spot and he has earned every snap he will see this Sunday, not because of his numbers five catches for 39yds but because he passes the eyeball test. The kid does all the little things that make a receiver great in this league, he runs great routes and he knows how to find space in zone coverage. He is also a dynamite punt returner and a guy who could be the steal of the 2015 Draft’s fifth round. Bryan Walters rounds out the team’s receiver core and he, just like Corey Grant earned his spot by being just too darn good to let go this preseason. Walters led the team in catches with 15 and yards with 144, and even more importantly, when the team was plagued with drops, Walters made the catch.

Tight Ends are also a bit of a mystery going into the regular season with questions surrounding the availability of newly acquired pro-bowler Julius Thomas, who broke his hand on his first catch of the preseason against the Pittsburgh Steelers and may not return until week four. That leaves recently named Team Captain and long-time Jag, Marcedes Lewis as the starter. Lewis looks like he has regained a step this preseason and looks like the main beneficiary of Bortles all-around improvement. Lewis has always been a standout in the running game and now looks poised to become a factor in the passing attack with Thomas’s unavailability in the first few contests. Clay Harbor will get the role of primary back up again this year, at least until Thomas returns, and he has had a decent preseason leading all the teams tight ends in receiving yards and average per reception. He is however, not among the most consistent targets and his inexcusable drop of a perfectly placed Bortles pass in the opener against the Steelers still haunts me at night. Nic Jacobs will be the third man up and he is primarily a blocker with limited athleticism in the passing game but has shown improved hands.

The Offensive Line continues to be the biggest unknown however, despite the team’s overhaul at right tackle and center. The reason, embattled left tackle Luke Joekel, the former second overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft has been consistently inconsistent this preseason and the stakes could not be higher. Joekel has beefed up this offseason along with the rest of the unit, under the watchful eye of former Buffalo Head Coach and O-line guru Doug Marrone, but has still been made to look foolish by opposing pass rushers this preseason. Overall the verdict is still out on Joekel, but the team has to feel nervous going into the season with a guy who should be ascending to the top of the NFL’s left tackle heap, but is instead just looking to earn a second contract and to keep his starting spot. The next guy up is not too far off from Joekel in the inconsistent/disappointed category, and that is big money Zane Beadles, the left guard who cashed in on the success of the 2013 Denver Broncos by signing a very lucrative free-agent deal with the Jags, only to struggle mightily in his first year with the team. These two players should have been the strength of this o-line with all that the team has invested in them, but yet we all sit and wonder what we will get from them. The bright side with Beadles at least is the fact that we drafted A.J. Cann out of the University of South Carolina where he started over 50 games and was an Academic All-American. Cann’s transition has not been the smoothest so far as he has had his struggles, especially in pass protection, but his physicality and leadership lead me to believe that he will find his stride sooner rather than later.

The rest of the unit is however, much improved and therefore much easier to write about. The offseason acquisition of Stefan Wisniewski, the former Oakland Raiders Center, who signed a team friendly deal with the Jags this offseason, because of a torn labrum that seems to have healed nicely. Wisniewski was able to take over for Luke Bowanko the former sixth rounder from the 2014 draft who I believed played well last year and comes into this year as a key cog on the depth chart. Wisniewski beat out Bowanko due to his ability to run block which he does very well, and because he played for OC Olson in Oakland. That fact is huge when it comes to centers as they are considered the QB’s of the o-line due to their responsibility in making the line adjustments, which are key to any pro offenses success.

Next up is Right guard Brandon Linder, who is without a doubt the best offensive lineman in teal and a steal out of the third round of the 2014 draft from the U. Linder can do it all at guard and he is my pick as the lone pro-bowler from this year’s offense, barring of course the rise of Bortles. Free agent acquisition Jeremy Parnell who the team signed away from the Cowboys this offseason takes over as the right tackle and has looked dominant in the run game so far. Parnell and Linder could be one of the league’s most dominant right sides if they can stay healthy.

This is an offensive unit that has boom of bust written all over it. Will the line keep Bortles upright for four quarters? Will the receivers get the drops that plagued them throughout the preseason behind them and can they stay healthy? Who will take over as the bell cow running back this team has lacked since the departure of Maurice Jones-Drew? Most importantly, will a Bortles led offense be able to take some of the pressure off of a good defense and thereby make this team a dark horse contender for at least a wild card playoff berth? I think they can, and I believe it starts and ends with Bortles who has answered all my questions and then some!

The Jacksonville jaguars’ defense enters the 2015 campaign with a lot of new faces and missing some key starters to injury. The defense  finished 26th out of 32 in points allowed, giving up an average of over 25 pts per game, but on a team that mustard just three wins; this defense was considered the strength of the team. So let’s take a look at the 2015 squad and we will start with the team’s strongest unit from a year ago, the defensive line. The line has lost some of its luster and potentially a lot of production with the ACL injuries to defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, a player that has blossomed into a potential pro-bowler when he suffered an ACL tear in the team’s final game last season,  and to make matters worse upfront the team also lost 2015 first round pick Dante Fowler Jr. a defensive end/leo to a season ending ACL tear In his first practice with the team back in May. Fowler Jr. was a star at the University of Florida and is considered the teams future at the leo position.

The leo is a pass rush specialist in Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme that requires athletes who combine speed and power and Fowler Jr. had an ample supply of both. His loss delays this defenses ability to continue its ascent and puts pressure on a stable of players that struggled to produce or stay healthy last season. Guys like Chris Clemons, Andre Branch , Chris Smith and Ryan Davis. Clemons is entering his 12th season and missed most of the teams offseason, dealing with personal issues. His production was limited last year and you have to wonder what he still has in the tank at 33. Andre Branch, the much maligned second round pick from the 2013 draft has struggled to stay healthy and more importantly to sack the quarterback. He is now out until week seven and the window for him to prove himself worthy of a second contract seems to be closing fast. Second year defensive end, Chris Smith, is an intriguing player who flashed some of that elite athleticism coveted at the leo position this preseason and could be poised for a breakout year. Ryan Davis is the most naturally talented pass rusher under the age of 30 in this group, and as s rotational pass rusher he collected 6.5  sacks with only a limited number of snaps and enters this season with everything to gain if he can bring that pressure consistently.

The other defensive end position has been upgraded by the addition of former Miami Dolphin first round pick Jared Odrick. Odrick received a nice paycheck from the Jags this offseason along with a position switch from defensive tackle to what the Jags call their strong end position. Last year the position was manned by Red Bryant, an absolute mountain of a man who played well against the run, but struggled to sack the quarterback. Odrick should improve on that this season as he is a much more athletic option at the position. The loss of Marks at defensive tackle is helped by the return of Roy Miller, who is himself recovering from an ACL. He is a force on the inside, but has had limited availability due to a myriad of injuries he has sustained since signing with the team prior to the 2013 season. The loss of Ziggy Hood to season ending IR is another huge blow to the depth and rotation however. Hood looked pretty good this preseason, and his unavailability hurts all the more when combined with the other injuries in this unit. Arby Jones out of the University of Georgia is back with the team this year after playing well last season, and rookie Michael Bennet who has surprised everyone with his ability this preseason must now be counted upon to provide significant playing time.

The linebacker corps made up of starters Telvin Smith, Dan Skuta and Paul Pozluszny have been somewhat of a surprise strength of the defense this preseason, and the depth at the position with Laroy Reynolds and Thirsten Armbrister makes this my selection as the strongest position group on the defense. Prior to the preseason  I would have had them behind both the defensive line and the secondary.  I’m not sure if that is a complement to the linebackers or an indictment of the other two units, but I digress. The continued development of Smith is really the number one storyline at linebacker. A fifth round pick out of Florida State, Smith worked his way into the Jags starting rotation around mid-season last year and the team has not looked back. Smith is the most athletic linebacker on the roster and it’s not even close. His ability to go sideline to sideline effects the game so much more than what is reflected on the his stat sheet. When you watch him play you see him in every frame either making the tackle or forcing the ball carrier into another hole where a Jag defender is waiting to clean him up. If Smith can continue to build on the level of play he achieved last year then he could be a sleeper for the pro-bowl.

Posluszny is back at middle linebacker after missing half of that year to a torn bicep and he has looked solid so far. I’m not going to say that we don’t lose something with him coming back and JT Thomas moving on, but let’s not forget that Poz was second overall in tackles his last full season of 2013, and he has shown this preseason that he still has a nose for the football.  At the otto linebacker spot is Dan Skuta who made a name for himself with the 49ers as a special teams ace who when forced into the starting lineup last year, played well. His skill set as a situational pass rusher and potential leo made him an attractive free agent to the Jags last offseason and he has flashed some of that pass rush ability this preseason, be it against second team offenses. He is certainly not a known commodity at this point, but the more I see him play the more I like the signing.

The reserves,  Reynolds and Armbrister will have an opportunity to shine on special teams. Reynolds who has been on the team since 2013 played in all 16 games last season and  is a true utility linebacker who can play all three positions if needed. Armbrister an undrafted rookie free agent from the University of Miami has been a star of the second team defense this preseason showing a proclivity for making open field tackles.

Now on to the secondary where talent is plentiful but experience is limited. The starters are Davon house and Aaron Colvin, with Dewayne Gratz coming in on nickel assignments as an outside corner. The backups will be former starter Demetrius McCray and rookie free agent and former Auburn University star quarterback, Nick Marshall. House, acquired on a very lucrative free agent deal this offseason from  the Green Bay has apparently shown the coaching staff enough during practice to be listed as the number one guy, but he certainly has struggled in live action this preseason and all eyes will be on him this Sunday. Colvin, a former third round pick out of Arkansas is a great athlete with an even better story. He tore his ACL on his first practice at the Senior Bowl two years ago, and at the combine he was promised by the coach of that senior bowl that the team would not forget his tenacity in the upcoming draft. The coach was of course Gus Bradley, and the Jags now look to have gotten a steal in the third round, as Colvin has done nothing but improve every week since he’s been cleared to play at midseason last year. Colvin came into camp behind Gratz and McCray, but has wowed the entire staff from the first practice back, and I feel strongly that he could be a star for many years to come. Gratz who has had his share of injuries and questionable off-field decisions was selected ahead of McCray as well, and will take over the outside corner spot as Colvin will move inside to guard the slot receiver. McCray, a former seventh round pick of the team in 2013, has all the physical tools of a shutdown press corner which is what Bradley’s defense requires, think Richard Sherman in Seattle, but he has played poorly this preseason and has now played himself out of a starting role. Nick Marshall, takes the last corner spot and I’m glad he made this team. Marshall is an absolutely incredible athletic talent which was on full display in the kicking game this preseason.

The Jags have talented players at both the free and strong safety positions but they have underachieved so far. Will starters Jonathon Cyprien and Sergio Brown be able to form a lethal combination in the defensive backfield? Brown, acquired this offseason as a free agent from the Colts has been a bright spot on and off the field this preseason was mostly known as a special teams ace but has been solid at free safety where he has made several excellent tackles. His big personality made him a fan favorite from the day he signed with the team but his play on the field has really turned some heads and he could be a real strength this year. Cyprien who is recovering from a broken hand will get the start week one against the panthers and I think that his availability is huge for this team and for him personally. Cyprien was a star at lowly Florida International and when the Jags made him the first pick of the second round of the 2013 draft I was ecstatic, but he has failed to take the next step into stardom last season and he must be feeling the pressure to make big plays this season.

The overall depth at safety is a question, but the addition of 2014 fourth round picks James Sample bolsters this unit a great deal. Sample played strong safety at Louisville last year and was one of the surest tacklers in Nation, but it was just his first season at the position. Then the Jags selected him as a free safety a position he never played and then broke his arm during an offseason practice. He saw his first action last Thursday in the preseason finale against the redskins and played well. You have to wonder if both Brown and Cyprien are looking over their shoulders at him, which is a great situation for the franchise. The other safety is 2013 6th round pick Josh Evans, out of the University of Florida. Evans started several games his rookie year but has seen his playing time diminish since then.

When it comes to the Jags special teams we must start with the surprise trade of 11 year veteran and home town favorite kicker Josh Scobee to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Scobee selected in the fifth round of the 2003 draft out of Louisiana Tech, leaves Duval as the team’s all-time leading scorer. His replacement, 24 year old Jason Myers, from Marist, who was brought into camp after spending time with Arizona and San Jose of the Arena Football League in 2014. Myers had a terrific preseason and is bolstered by having one of the strongest legs I’ve seen in the league.

At punter, the team is fortunate to have Bryan Anger who has played in all 32 games after being selected in the third round of the 2012 draft. He already ranks first in franchise history in career punting average (46.7) and net punting average (40.7) and could be ready to make his first pro-bowl this season. The long-snapper will be Carson Tinker who just re-signed with the team this week. The third year LS was originally signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013. The kick-off returner looks to be Corey Grant, the rookie halfback from Auburn led the team with a 28yd average this preseason. On punt return we could see a platoon of players from rookie wide-out Rashad Greene to Denard Robinson and Nick Marshall.

So there it is and I hope you enjoyed this season preview of your 2015 Jacksonville Jaguars football team. One that feels like a 7-8 win ball club to me, and that may sound a bit pessimistic but remember seven wins would equal the total number of wins we have had since 2013.

About Woody Powell