Could the Jacksonville Jaguars be a surprise team to football fans in 2013? I think the answer is a near definitive ...
Yes. Just not in the way that you would normally expect.
In the standings I would be hard-pressed to believe that the Jaguars are better than being the third-best team in their own division and unlikely to secure a wild card berth, but in Fantasyland, it could be a huge step forward for Jacksonville. The 30th-ranked scoring offense of 2012 may be on the verge of a very impressive turnaround.
- The Jags spent ten games last year without their best player, Maurice Jones-Drew.
- The offensive line struggled to protect Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne.
- Cecil Shorts didn't start to catch on consistently as a starter until the second half of the year.
All of those things should be different in 2013.
Jones-Drew is back, immediately giving the team one of the best backs in the NFL. He should also have better blocking after the team drafted Luke Joeckel to upgrade the offensive line. Joeckel should hopefully also give the QB more time to throw the ball, which means more time for the receivers to run their routes and get open. Good, because Cecil Shorts may be one of the most promising young wide receivers in the league, not to mention that Justin Blackmon enters his all-important second season.
And of course, the team is under new leadership with first time NFL head coach Gus Bradley (defensive coordinator of for Seahawks in 2012) and first time NFL offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch (Miami Hurricanes offensive coordinator in 2012.)
I don't know if that all adds up to more than six wins (in the AFC, everyone is very much alive) but it seems like it should add up to more relevant fantasy options in Jacksonville this year than the team has had in a very long time. No Mo' one man show.
Blaine Gabbert, 23
2012 stats: 10 starts, 162-of-278, 58.3% for 1,662 yards, 9 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 6.0 yards per attempt, 40.94 QBR, 32nd in DYAR, 3 fumbles lost
It's easy to hate on Downton Gabby, the free-spirited quarterback with all the physical tools that haven't translated to the NFL yet, but it's too early to give up. Gabbert has been dogged on by fans (myself included) and the media (also me?) since he entered the league but he was also drafted into a bad situation.
The team took a raw QB prospect and thrust him into the starting role of a bad offense in Week 3 of his rookie season. This came after the Jags had cut David Garrard and named Luke McCown the starter that nobody who has ever watched football expected to last. Lucy in Peanuts did not expect McCown to start past the first month of the year.
To nobody's surprise, Gabbert struggled, completing barely more than half of his passes. However, he opened up his second season with 260 yards, two touchdowns and no picks against the Minnesota Vikings.
Unfortunately, he needed 39 pass attempts to get there. Gabbert's hair-less-than-six yards per attempt last season is not the quality of a starter, but luckily for him, Henne was still worse and is still older and the team needs to find out whether or not it should extend Gabbert next year.
I don't know if he'll play that well, but he's in a better position now than he ever was in his two first years in the league. If the Jags succeed or struggle this year, it might be safe this time to finally blame it on the Blaine. Playing four times against the Titans and Colts defenses should help inflate his stats a bit.
2013 Prediction: 14 starts, 60% completions, 3,200 yards, 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
Chad Henne, 28
2012 stats: 6 starts, 166-of-308, 53.9% for 2,084 yards, 11 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 6.8 yards per attempt, 29.9 QBR, 33rd in DYAR, 2 fumbles lost
Nearly every statistic other than yardage points to Gabbert as the better QB. If asked to come in and start again, Henne has a habit of going off for a game or two, and he'd also get to play the defenses of the Colts and Titans (they're bad) if he ends up winning or taking over the starting job, so a spot start in fantasy for Henne is not out of the question.
But "spot starts" are about all Henne's been able to put up in his career.
Ricky Stanzi, 25
Considering the Jaguars don't know what they have with Gabbert or Henne, maybe Stanzi can work his way in. For now, you better not have him on your team.
Maurice Jones-Drew, 28
2012 stats: 6 games, 86 carries for 414 yards, 1 touchdown, 4.8 yards per carry, 14 catches for 86 yards and 1 touchdown, 1 fumble
MJD is another example of a running back that led the league in carries and yardage one year and was out the next. Jacksonville has some salary cap issues right now and would save a good chunk of dough by releasing the veteran running back, but is doen't have the depth at running back to do that unless it wants a potential disaster on its hands.
(If you think I just advocated for releasing Jones-Drew, please save me the hate mail. Of course the idea of cutting MJD is a hypothetical one, but what's going to happen after 2013? Even if he stays healthy for the entire year and plays well, a 29-year-old back is still a 29-year-old back. The Seahawks once made the mistake of giving Shaun Alexander a big free agent contract despite his age, and the Jaguars and Jones-Drew might not be on the same page after this year. They won't release him, but there's plenty of reason to think that when it comes to years in Jacksonville for Jones-Drew, eight is enough.)
Last year in only six games, Jones-Drew led the team in rushing yardage. They're hoping the new backups change that but they still want them to remain as backups for now. If he slides down draft boards because of his missed time last year, then bully for the guy that gets him. There's no reason to think he's not the same player he's always been.
2013 Prediction: 300 carries, 1,400 yards, 4.7 YPC, 8 touchdowns, 35 catches for 300 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Justin Forsett, 27
2012 stats: 63 carries for 374 yards and 1 touchdown, 5.9 yards per carry, no fumbles
The long-time effective backup moves on from a highly-successful season in Houston to a new opportunity with Jacksonville. Still only 27, Forsett is one of the best change-of-pace backs in the league but not ideal as a starting option. He's not necessarily the guy you handcuff with Jones-Drew even if he's the main backup.
His 2013 stats should reflect what he did last year. If Jones-Drew goes down, then it might be a surprise rookie taking over main duties instead ...
Denard Robinson, 22
Rookie, 5th round pick out of Michigan, 6,250 passing yards in career for 49 touchdowns and 39 interceptions, 4,495 rushing yards, 6.2 yards per carry and 42 touchdowns, 4.43 40-yard dash
The "Offensive Weapon" is expected to be all over the field next year getting "10 to 15 touches per game" and kick returning duties. That all sounds very exciting, but the talk of the former Michigan QB is growing so loudly that he might not be much of a sleeper, technically.
And 10 touches in a game wouldn't be very much.
If he earns more playing time, and coaches have only praised his "burst" at RB thus far, then he could turn into the steal of the 2013 draft. Nobody doubted his athleticism, but Robinson makes the rare switch from QB to RB (or whatever he is) and we won't know for sure how valuable he becomes this year until the season really gets underway. Denard ran it nine times for 32 yards in the preseason opener against Miami.
Don't get caught up too much in offseason coach talk. Play is what matters. It seems like Robinson can play, and that might be worth a late round draft pick. Especially if you draft Jones-Drew.
Justin Blackmon, 23
2012 stats: 64 catches for 865 yards and 5 touchdowns, 48% catch rate, 77th in DYAR, 132 targets, 1 fumble
As the top pick in 2012, Blackmon had to become the go-to guy for the Jaguars and whatever QB was starting that day, but overall he struggled. Though he finished with a very good 865 yards, 236 of those yards came in a single game against the Texans. That leaves him with only 42 yards per game in his other 15 games. That's backed up by a 48 percent catch rate and ranking as one of the least-valuable receivers in the NFL with 6.55 yards per target.
Still, he was only a rookie and the Jaguars had many other issues besides Blackmon. If the running game improves and the offensive line improves, then his catch rate should hopefully rise just by getting better passes to catch. Plus, getting a full season opposite of Shorts could also have positive effects.
My biggest concern with Blackmon is the negative press surrounding his attitude. Blackmon had to be escorted off of the field in the preseason game against the Dolphins for getting into an argument with Nolan Carroll, and also apparently arguing with teammate Jason Babin. I think that Blackmon is very talented, but being athletically gifted is only a fraction of the battle in being an all-around good athlete.
I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt for now, rating him as a WR3 once he is finished with his suspension.
2013 Prediction: 60 catches for 750 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Cecil Shorts III, 25
2012 stats: 55 catches for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns, 52% catch rate, 28th in DYAR, 105 targets, 1 fumble
If Blackmon is really lucky, he'll have the kind of improvement from year one to year two that Shorts had. A fourth round pick out of Mount Union in 2011, Shorts had 30 yards in his rookie season. He followed that up with nearly 1,000 yards in 2012, coming out of nowhere to post four 100-yard performances in his final eight games.
But that only puts him on the radar. Many will be skeptical of a repeat performance because they've been burned before, and VH1 could easily make a "100 Best One-Year Wonders at Receiver" series.
It's tough to say if Shorts will avoid that after only one good season, but fans can be hopeful that with the amount of athletic talent he has that it's not just a fluke. Shorts wasn't just consistent, he was consistent on a terrible offense. It might not be as terrible this year, and Shorts should be a big reason why.
Shorts, go long.
2013 Prediction: 65 catches for 1,150 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Ace Sanders, 21 - Rookie, 4th round pick out of South Carolina, career 99 catches for 1,230 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons, 4.58 40-yard dash
Stephen Burton, 23 - Third year, career 7 receptions, 73 yards, 1 touchdown
Mike Brown, 24 - Second year, no stats
Sanders could be interesting down the line, but probably not this year.
Marcedes Lewis, 29
2012 stats: 52 catches for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns, 68% catch rate, 26th in DYAR, 77 targets
Lewis had 700 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010, but apparently doesn't seem to get along well with Gabbert and Henne because he's had just four touchdowns in his last two years combined. Outside of that one outlier season, Lewis has been pretty consistent with his production.
A low-end fantasy option when you're out of options.
2013 Prediction: 50 catches for 500 yards and 2 touchdowns
At least this year with the Jaguars, he's not the only option.
Who you hire as your new head coach always makes some kind of statement about the direction that ownership wants to see the franchise take in the new era. So the hiring of Gus Bradley, the guy that helped the Hawks finish first in scoring defense last year, says a lot about the future -- or intended future -- of Jacksonville.
That makes sense. The Jags had fewer sacks last year than JJ Watt. With only 20 total sacks as a team, the Jaguars are going to rely heavily on improvements from Andre Branch (second round pick in 2012, one sack as a rookie), Jason Babin (1.5 sacks in five games with the Jaguars), and a productive year from Tyson Alualu as he makes the transition to defensive end. In the Jags first preseason game, it was free agent signee Sen'Derrick Marks getting the most pressure from the defensive line.
It's probably because of those players that Jacksonville did not draft a defensive end, passing up on the likes of Dion Jordan and Barkevious Mingo for right tackle Luke Joeckel, but there's a huge gap between "philosophy of defense" and a productive defense. You still need to have the talent to pull it off and when Bradley was with Seattle, they weren't good until players like Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner showed up.
The Jags did draft safety Johnathan Cyprien in the second round and cornerback Dwayne Gratz in the third, but otherwise they invested more on offense than defense. Cyprien missed two weeks with a hamstring injury, but all reports from practice on Monday were positive.
Oh, all of which is to say: Of course you won't draft the Jaguars defense.
The defense was terrible last year, finishing 29th in points allowed, 30th in yards allowed, 28th in DVOA and equal measures of being bad against the pass and the run. They didn't get sacks, interceptions, or touchdowns at a rate you'd hope for. That is, the Jags didn't have a single defensive touchdown.
And I'd hope for a lot more than that.
The Jaguars are a work in progress that I have some belief in. I think that on offense they've got more fantasy options than you'd expect, but still a lot of work left to do before they're successful in real life. You came here for the fantasy news though, and in that respect, unless we're talking about QB and defense, it's not all that bad.