I don’t trust the Jacksonville Jaguars.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the team is ready to piece together a winning season for the first time in a decade, but nope ... I’m not falling for that one again.
Not even if Todd McShay says they’re the most improved team of the offseason. Uh uh. Not happening.
After spending big to get Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Kelvin Beachum, and Chris Ivory, among others, they were a trendy pick to be a contender. Especially after drafting Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack in April.
And then they went 3-13.
This offseason, the Jaguars spent big in free agency again. And the team earned rave reviews in the NFL draft again. But Jacksonville fans have seen this before.
After six consecutive seasons with no more than five wins, I’ll be damned if I let myself believe the Jaguars are going to finally figure things out. But they’re trying to suck me in anyway.
The Jaguars will rely less on Blake Bortles
One of the biggest reasons so many were optimistic about the Jaguars in 2016 was that quarterback Blake Bortles actually looked good in 2015. With the one-two punch of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns at wide receiver, Bortles ended his second season in the NFL with 35 touchdowns and 18 interceptions — launching his passer rating to 88.2 after finishing his rookie season at 69.5.
But if there’s one reason not to believe in the Jaguars in 2017, it’s Bortles.
Despite better protection in 2016 — dropping his sack total from a league-leading 51 in 2015 to 34 in 2016 — Bortles regressed with 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
His 78.8 passer rating was near the bottom of the league, and the Jaguars’ offense averaged less than 20 points after scoring 23.5 points per game in the year prior.
The Jaguars aren’t moving on from Bortles and that leaves plenty of room to be skeptical. On the other hand, they used their first-round draft pick on Leonard Fournette, which suggests the Jags will emphasize taking the ball out of the fourth-year quarterback’s hands.
Fournette is a 6’0, 240-pound tank who is well-suited for a role as a workhorse running back. That would be a welcome change in philosophy for the Jaguars, who finished No. 4 in the NFL in pass attempts and No. 24 in rush attempts (although, being behind in most games contributed largely to that).
There’s a strong history of rookie running backs making an immediate impact ,too.
Ezekiel Elliott was a huge reason for the quick turnaround the Dallas Cowboys made from a 4-12 team in 2015 to a 13-3 powerhouse in 2016. He was also part of a larger trend of running backs drafted in the top five who helped their teams increase their win totals:
Since 2000, teams drafting RBs in Top 5 (2017 Jaguars) have improved by more wins the next season than teams to draft any other position pic.twitter.com/qpN9G4Bcpb— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) May 4, 2017
The last time the Jaguars had a winning season was in 2007. That year, the team leaned on the combination of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew to rush for the second-most yards in the league. Quarterback David Garrard wasn’t asked to do much and the Jaguars finished No. 27 in pass attempts.
Replicating that blueprint is a good way to hide Bortles’ propensity for providing blooper reels with content.
The Jaguars’ defense actually looks really good
Jacksonville only won three games in 2016, but don’t blame the defense for that. Only five teams allowed fewer yards than the Jaguars, and that’s despite the fact that the team was near the bottom of the NFL in time of possession and turnovers.
Basically, the Jaguars’ offense did the defense no favors and it performed well anyway.
The defense was helped by bringing Jalen Ramsey, Malik Jackson, and Yannick Ngakoue into the fold, but Jacksonville continued to add pieces this offseason. In free agency, the team signed three new defensive starters: Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Barry Church.
The Jaguars also moved Paul Posluszny to strong side linebacker, freeing up room for 2016 second-round pick Myles Jack to start in the middle of the defense in 2017. As a rookie, Jack saw limited time behind Posluszny, much to the frustration of Jaguars fans.
“I tried to show flashes when I could [last season],” Jack told Jaguars.com in April. “But I’m definitely looking forward to more opportunities just to show what I can bring to the table. There were a lot of learning situations out there.”
The mastermind who thought the Jaguars were better served with Jack on the sideline was fired before the end of the 2016 season.
Ding dong, Gus Bradley is gone
Addition by subtraction could be the biggest thing the Jaguars have going for them.
With Gus Bradley as coach, the Jaguars lost a lot. Like, a whole lot. In his 62 games on the sideline in Jacksonville, the team went 14-48. No other coach in NFL history has won fewer than a quarter of his games as head coach and received more than 60 cracks at it.
Statistically, there’s an argument to be made that Bradley is the worst coach ever.
He was fired after a Week 15 loss for the Jaguars, the ninth in a row. Bradley was then replaced by Doug Marrone, who immediately led the team to a 38-17 victory over the surging Tennessee Titans in Week 16.
Blowing a 17-0 lead in the season finale against the Indianapolis Colts slowed a lot of the Marrone hype train, but he showed enough to be retained as the team’s head coach for the 2017 season.
Marrone isn’t the most exciting hire, but the best thing about him for the Jaguars is that he’s not Gus Bradley. He’s also paired with new executive vice president Tom Coughlin. The three-time Super Bowl winner was the first coach in Jaguars history, and he has returned to help push the team back on track from an executive role.
An offense that redefines itself with a downhill rushing attack could complement an already strong defense that looks primed to be even better in 2017. And not having Bradley on the sideline can only be an encouraging thing at this point.
It was an encouraging offseason for the Jaguars.
But so was last year. And with so much hype derailed in 2016, there aren’t nearly as many ready to jump on the Jacksonville bandwagon again in 2017.
There are so many reasons to believe in the Jaguars now, but I can’t actually buy it. Bortles is still the quarterback and they’re going to have to prove things on the field first before I can trust that anything is different.