AFC South: Are the Jaguars a beast to contend with?
The UK’s and more specifically London’s team, it is time to take a look at the team that finished 3rd in the AFC South but at times last season looked more like a team that deserved to finish 2nd, though that isn’t really saying much considering how poor the AFC South generally was last year. Their free agency pick ups have been generally met with approval and the consensus from other commentators of this wonderful game was that the Jags generally had a good draft. In what is likely to be Gus Bradley’s last year to prove that all the years of building a team and top 10 draft picks have paid off, I take a look at his and the Jags prospects for this season. Will they win in London again, when they play the Colts on October 2nd?
Like the Oakland Raiders, the Jacksonville Jaguars (or “Jagwah’s” as seems to be the way it is pronounced over the pond) are now a team players want to come and play for. They see the potential of an exciting team building up or possibly that the AFC South is the easiest division to get out of and into the post-season. I think last season, we saw a lot of potential: initially it was the defence that seemed pretty solid and the offence struggle (as exemplified in the opener against the Panthers, losing by only 11-points hid an impressive performance which contained the strong Panthers offence most of the game), then the offence came to life and the defence struggled (as seen in the win against the Bills). The Jags have a young and very exciting offence with the two Robinsons, Hurns, T.J. Yeldon, Julius Thomas (who missed a few games last season, hopefully will show he is worth the cap space) and their franchise quarterback who seems to be continuously improving, mobile when needed and not broadcasting his passes as much. Bortles reads defences better but really needed the o-line to protect him more, give him more time in the pocket, but he appeared at times more comfortable last season under pressure. Big turning point was thrashing the Colts, whose defence admittedly was weak, but it really showed what the offence could put together.
In January Gus Bradley got a one year extension and Todd Wash was promoted to defensive co-ordinator after Bob Babich was fired. I am not sure if this was a gamble but the change in focus on the defence was visible, with missing defensive pieces (more in depth terms) having been fitted in. I am going to start with the draft instead of their great free agency signings. As much as they had needs on defense, they also went with picking the best player (in their view) that was on the board. Yes Laremy Tunsil was probably the best player available on the board, but obviously not in the view of the Jags, Jaelen Ramsey was the best defensive player available, and they took him. Great pick. Will slot in nicely, is big, strong and quick could easily play as a back/safety hybrid. They could have just as easily traded away their no.5 pick but stuck with the sensible option. But the pick for me, exemplifying the best available over need (though linebacker was kind of a need) was getting Myles Jack in the second round. An outstanding prospect of an edge rusher, I think many of us were surprised he fell into the second round. He played as a running back before moving to linebacker, so his awareness of what an offence is going to do and his speed to act on it actually makes watching footage of him quite a challenge to pick out where he is and what he is going to do before he actually executes a run or tackle. He manages to stop plays at the line of scrimmage. Two starting picks in two rounds, which was then followed by a very defense building draft overall. Bradley is astute and defensively minded, very much aware that strong defenses win games, as long as they are not on the field all the time. He has young talent, adding depth across the board and who can learn behind good and experienced players, many of whom have been signed this year and last year.
I am sad that the Jags released Sergio Brown, he is a Gents favourite, a good player and a nice chap to round it off, but is a victim of the change in defence regime. Signing safety Tashaun Gipson as his replacement is an interesting and hopefully good move to help stop the run and provide some better deep field pass cover. The big secondary signing was Prince Amukamara, big more in the price tag than value for money. He brings a great deal of experience, though he may have lost some of his speed he still has that great ability to mirror and read passes, though always bordering on getting called for pass interference. Once he did have the ability to close on receivers, maybe not so much now but he is still a good player. Worth the price tag? Only this season will tell, but it is that experience which Ramsey can lean and learn from and he is certainly an improvement on what pass defence and press coverage the Jags have at times been able to muster. Along with Gipson will hopefully help take the pressure off and encourage Jonathan Cyprien to really show us what he can do. With Jaelen Ramsey that is a strong secondary and offers good pass coverage. The other big signing, and one I think is worth the money is Malik Jackson. The Jags now have a good strong and aggressive front 7. They have good pass and edge rushers and they have a big front three. Oh and let us not forget that Dante Fowler Jr. is due to make his return (or debut). After missing his first season due to an unfortunate injury picked up last pre-season, we will now get to see what this exciting defensive end brings. Along with Sen’Derrick Marks, Roy Miller and Michael Bennet, this defense on paper should quite easily put pressure on division rival quarterbacks and provide a more daunting prospect for other teams. These additions, if they work well as a unit should also improve on the points allowed per game, last season the Jags were 31st overall allowing a mean of 28 points per game.
Bortles was sacked 51 times last season, that was the highest number allowed in the league. Despite that he achieved a 88.2 rating and made over 4400 passing yards. He also made 52 rushing attempts for 310 yards. So he is highly mobile and looked to escape sacks when he could. This pressure would also explain the 18 interceptions made. But he connected well with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, totalling 2431 yards between them (Robinson lead with 1400 yards including 341yards after catch, 61 first downs and 14 touchdowns, Hurns made 343 yards after catch, 48 first downs and a tidy 10 touchdowns). However, Allen probably needs to work on his catching, though no fumbles he caught 52% of his targetted passes (80/153), and though Bortles certainly over threw some (which lead to the inevitable interception) Robinson is not entirely blameless. Hurns did not fair much better with two fumbles, one for a loss but he did pull in 62% of his targets. Even Julius Thomas didn’t fair much better only pulling 58% of his targets and averaging 9.9 yards per catch. It’s safe to assume all three will be working on connecting with Bortles better.
And for the first time in a long time, the Jaguars had a hint of a running game that didn’t rely too heavily on Bortles. T.J. Yeldon showed promise, trying to avoid contact and making the most of what gaps there were and mustering a healthy 4.1yds/attempt. Between him and Denard Robinson they managed 1006yds, adding Bortles that looks like 1316 yards or 4.4 yards per attempt. The addition of Chris Ivory is great, he will become the number one back and should help in Yeldon’s development. However, he is only very good if gaps are created, does well up the middle with a fewshort cuts and is hard to bring down. The Jags now have three serviceable backs and though this suggests a committee approach and I think we will see slightly different approach, making the Jags a bit harder to read, though if they line up in 21 personnel, they will most likely run the ball. The key problem was the o-line (something that seems to be endemic in the AFC South). They struggled to protect Bortles and struggled to create holes for the backs to run through. At the same time they did not help block for the receivers. In an attempt to improve the situation, they released Zane Beadles and signed lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau, tackle Kelvin Beachum and lineman Jeff Linkenbach. They are certainly something different and hopefully will give Luke Joeckel the encouragement he needs to show that he was worth a 1st round draft.
For all the positives the Jaguars have made on defence and weapons surrounding Blake Bortles on offence, for me the o-line is still the weak point, as much as I believe Chris Ivory will find a way through trash, I think the o-line will still get pushed back, will still fail to pick up the outside edge rusher, the pocket will collapse before Bortles or Ivory can do something and the Jags will probably win only 1 of their first four games (either the Chargers or Colts). Saying that, the o-line is better than they were in 2014. Their biggest strength is that people will still under estimate them, probably on defence, giving Bortles and co. good field position to work with. They are probably still a better team than the Titans, but have they done enough to over take the Colts and the Texans? Maybe, on paper at least they stand a chance and if anything they look far more competitive, the signings they have made in free agency and the draft certainly bolster the team. If anything, the AFC South is more of a three animal race with the Titans lumbering somewhere just behind.
As always thank you for reading and your thoughts are always welcome, on Facebook, on Twitter or by email.