Sharks Preview: Defense Reigns

by Cole Pepper

Cole and Jerry pregame

The Jacksonville Sharks host the Pittsburgh Power at 7pm on Saturday night at the Veterans Memorial Arena. I’ll be on the call on channel 4 with Jerry Odom (above right).

Here are some of the story lines that we’ll be following for the game:

  1. What’s Changed? The Sharks easily defeated the Power in week 2 of the season, 61-35. The Power has used three different starting quarterbacks this year, including former LSU Tiger Jordan Jefferson. They’ve settled on Steve Sheffield for now. Will Jacksonville be able to dominate again or has Pittsburgh, winners of two of their last three, found their footing?
  2. Sack Attack. The Sharks lead the league in sacks with 29. They are on pace to shatter the AFL record of 42. The two top sack men in the AFL both play for the Sharks (DE Jerry Turner and MLB Aaron Robbins). The last time the Sharks faced the Power, Jacksonville totaled seven sacks. For the season, Pittsburgh has allowed 30 sacks in nine games, the most sacks allowed in the AFL. On paper, this looks like a major advantage for Jacksonville.
  3. Getting Defensive. Both teams have been impressive on defense this year. Jacksonville is the #1 scoring defense in the AFL while Pittsburgh is #1 in total defense and pass defense. The passing defense is particularly impressive considering that they have only 14 sacks and seven interceptions as a team. Expect a lower scoring game.
  4. Which Bernard Morris shows up? At times, Morris, the Sharks quarterback, has looked like an MVP candidate. At other times, he’s struggled to the point where Sharks head coach Les Moss sat him down for a game this year. If Morris plays as he did the first month of the season, this should be a relatively easy win for the Sharks. If not, anything is possible.
  5. Fudging the numbers. Former Jaguar Jamaal Fudge rejoined the Sharks mid-season and has suddenly found himself thrust into the starting lineup at Jack linebacker. He’s been productive recovering two fumbles and forcing three fumbles. He’s been a defensive back all his life, and while the Jack has some DB fundamentals, there is also a demand to play physically at that position. If Fudge can continue to create turnovers, it would be a major positive for the Sharks.

NFL Draft vs. The Players Championship

by Cole Pepper

The NFL announced today that the 2014 NFL Draft would be held May 8-10.

The Players Championship is already scheduled for May 8-11.

Uh, oh, Jacksonville.

Or is it?

Examining this from three different standpoints, we get three different perspectives.

As far as sports fans are concerned, the first round of the draft is really the one that matters. Only the hard core fans tune in to the second and third days of the draft. With the first round televised on Thursday evening, local fans can still attend the first day of the Players and then catch the draft. In fact, the Jaguars have a good relationship with the Players and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some kind of cross promotion or NFL Draft viewing party at the players.

17hole
Wouldn’t this be a memorable spot for an NFL Draft party? (photo: PGA Tour)

The parties in the Lot were fairly successful this year. If they really wanted to make a splash, the Players could line up a viewing party around the 17th hole using the big screen scoreboards. Now that would be memorable.

As far as the media is concerned (and you probably don’t care too much about this, do you?), the week will be a logistical challenge.

Typically, the Jaguars hold their pre-draft luncheon on the Monday before the draft. This is the last opportunity for the local media to collect the thoughts of the Jaguars’ decision makers. That means that it is the last chance for fans to hear those thoughts before the draft.

Why should that be a problem?

I’m going to go a little “inside baseball” here. Monday is also the day that the passes are typically picked up for TPC. There are usually a few golfers at the course and its early enough in the week that it usually offers a good chance to talk to some of the golfers on the range. This means that local media will have to allocate their resources properly.

But Monday isn’t the biggest issue. It’s Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The days of the actual draft. Let’s say that the Jaguars win six games and pick 10th. Maybe in the best case scenario (at least from a local story angle) they pick Florida corner Loucheiz Purifoy. As mentioned, Thursday night, if there is a draft party at TPC Sawgrass, its easy enough to cover there. But then you need to have a camera, reporter…something…at EverBank Field to capture the comments from Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell, plus the first round pick’s conference call.

Then, usually, the next day around noon, the first round pick comes to the stadium for a press conference.

How much cooperation will there be between the Players Championship and the Jaguars? It’s interesting to ponder a situation in which the Jaguars, who are usually the biggest story in town when there is something “big” going on, may need to recognize that the Players may actually trump the Jaguars for that week.

I would love to see the Jaguars reach out to the Players to hold a Friday press conference at the media center with the first round pick. For starters, its easier for the media to get there because just about all of the local sports media will be at the Players that week.

Second, you may bring in some out of market, or even foreign media (think BBC Radio, etc.) who would want to cover the press conference. That’s exactly what Shad Khan is talking about when he says he wants to expand the brand of the Jaguars.

Third, its a great way for the Players to tie into Jacksonville and vice-versa on a national scale. It’s been a problem in past year (although getting much better of late).

Okay, so that’s my inside baseball talk.

The third perspective is that of the NFL.

Aside from terrorist attacks and presidential assassinations, the NFL stops for nothing. I applaud NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for not just assuming that because things have been done a certain way in the past, its the right way to do them now. However, that doesn’t mean that all change is good.

I’ll be interested to see how the ratings are affected (if at all) and if the coverage is affected by the change of date.

Jaguars Off-season Analysis: Running Backs

by Cole Pepper

Cole interviews Mojo cropped

For starters, there is the question of just how valuable a running back is in today’s NFL. Here is a list of the top 10 rushers from the 2012 NFL season:

  1. Adrian Peterson-Minnesota
  2. Alfred Morris-Washington
  3. Marshawn Lynch-Seattle
  4. Jamaal Charles-Kansas City
  5. Doug Martin-Tampa Bay
  6. Arian Foster-Houston
  7. Stevan Ridley-New England
  8. C.J. Spiller-Buffalo
  9. Chris Johnson-Tennessee
  10. Frank Gore-San Francisco

Among that list, six running backs led their teams to the playoffs. It can be argued that only Foster and Peterson truly “led” their teams. New England was more pass oriented teams and San Francisco, Seattle and Washington had running quarterbacks to bolster the running games.

It also should be pointed out that the top three rushers all made the playoffs with first or second year quarterbacks.

That’s doesn’t mean that a great running back doesn’t help, but unlike 10 years ago, it’s much less of a guarantee of team success. It wasn’t that long ago that having a top 10 rusher all but assured a team of being a playoff contender.

There are many studies about how running backs tend to do as they age. This one has a rather startling breakdown. Running backs under 27 tend to improve, running backs over 27 decline.

Which brings us to the Jaguars most recognizable player, 28 year old Maurice Jones-Drew. Not only is Jones-Drew beyond the age barrier, but he’s also coming off surgery on his foot. What does this all mean for the Jaguars? It means that while they need to find some young legs to help in the running game, they also need to find some consistency at quarterback (more on that in a later post).

There has rarely been a player more explosive on the field or more controversial in a Jaguars uniform. Not controversial like Terrell Owens or Randy Moss (although the recent incident in St. Augustine may suggest otherwise, let’s see how it plays out), but Jones-Drew has been outspoken from the beginning. He chose the uniform number 32 to remind him and anyone else who would listen that 32 teams passed on taking him in the first round.

Jones-Drew may be one of the five greatest players in Jaguars history already, but Gus Bradley can’t expect a 1,500 yard season out of Drew at this point in his career. So where will the yards come from?

It’s too early to predict how Jones-Drew will play after recovering from the surgery, but I expect that he will still be a effective, if not explosive player with the ball in his hands.

The Jaguars signed former Texan backup Justin Forsett in free agency. He has shown the ability to be a solid contributor in certain roles, but he’s never been the lead back and he’s not expected to handle that role this year.

Perhaps no player has generated as much buzz this off-season for the Jaguars as Denard Robinson. The former Michigan quarterback will be used as a running back, but don’t be surprised if he lines up all over the field from time to time: as a wide receiver, in the slot, even taking snaps from center. His speed is tantalizing. The question mark is whether he’ll become the kind of impact player with 10-12 touches a game that Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch envison. Robinson will also be tried out returning kickoffs.

One of the many veteran departures is Greg Jones. Let go by the Jaguars this off-season. He was a reliable a blocking back as there is in the league.

In Jones’ place, the Jaguars will insert another former Florida State Seminole, Lonnie Pryor. Unlike Jones, who was a featured runner in college, Pryor was a blocker first, runner second. The Jaguars like what they’ve seen from him so far, but my expectation is that we’ll see fewer snaps with a fullback on the field this year than in the past.

Defining Success: For this position group, success is going to be measured largely on two points. First, how close is Maurice Jones-Drew to his “old” self? If he plays like he did before the injury, that will be a big boost for the Jaguars. If not, they’ll have to find someone to run between the tackles. Second, how much of a factor will Robinson be as a rookie. If the Jaguars get three or four explosive plays a game from Robinson, consider it a success.

Jaguars Projected Running Backs Depth Chart:

RB Depth chart

 

 

 

 

What is Success for Jaguars in 2013?

by Cole Pepper

Dave Caldwell Gus Bradley
Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley (left) and general manager David Caldwell take over a team that won just two games last season.

For every team, success is not the same. In 2013, its doubtful that a 6-10 season would be viewed as a success for many fans of the Denver Broncos or the San Francisco 49ers. But I believe that is the minimum requirement for success for the 2013 Jaguars. However, there is more to it.

Why? First, let’s agree (begin to nod your head now) that success and improvement are two different things. I know that Gus Bradley has talked about improving every day as his credo, but if the Jaguars win one more game this year than last, will you think its a successful season? I won’t.

Two years ago, the Jaguars won five games and most of the local media (myself included) assumed that through the off-season moves and the expected improvement of Blaine Gabbert that the Jaguars could contend for a wildcard spot. And, in fact, early on in training camp, it looked like everything was on track. There was a real “feel good” vibe with the team. But it didn’t last.

Now with the franchise’s third head coach in three years, once again, that “feel good” vibe is starting to build around EverBank Field. That’s as it should be in the off-season. If there is an NFL team that doesn’t feel like they have improved right now, they’re in big trouble.

So back to the question about success. Can the Jaguars have a season that is considered successful without quantifying it with wins? Yes, but it will be hard to sell to fans if the team is picking in the top three again next year (although, the opportunity to select a top quarterback or Jedeveon Clowney might make Jaguar nation feel a bit better about it).

A six win season would not give the Jaguars optimum drafting position, but it would mean that the quarterback position would have shown growth. Whether that’s Gabbert or Chad Henne, that remains to be seen. Just as an aside, I expect that Gabbert will be the starter on opening day, but I’m not ready to bet the farm on that.

However, if Gabbert falters and Henne doesn’t show any more than he has to this point as a Jaguar, Dave Caldwell will be in the position to draft a potential franchise quarterback and will have a need for one.

And that’s when the clock starts ticking on the new regime. As soon as you draft your quarterback, you are on the clock as a GM. Ask Shack Harris. Ask Gene Smith. Ask the guys who drafted any of the unsuccessful top 15-pick quarterback over the past 20 years. Get the right guy and you win. You win, and you keep your job. It’s a simple formula.

What is success for the Jaguars in 2013? Ultimately, that will be judged on opening day 2014 when, one way or another, they should be able to answer this simple question: Who is your franchise quarterback.

Jaguars Off-season Review: Offensive Line

Second overall pick, Luke Joeckel, figures to start for the Jaguars at right tackle in 2013.
Second overall pick, Luke Joeckel, figures to start for the Jaguars at right tackle in 2013. (photo by NESN)

by Cole Pepper

Each week during the off-season, I’ll break down a position group for the Jaguars. This week, it’s the offensive line.

In an off-season of dramatic change, there may be more consistency on the offensive line than at any other position group for the Jaguars. That being said, it doesn’t take much to be more stable than the rest of this team.

There are questions–plenty of questions.  But let’s start with what we (think we) know. Eugene Monroe will start at left tackle, Brad Meester at center and first round pick Luke Joeckel at right tackle.

Much has been written about Gus Bradley’s plans for Joeckel. It flies in the face of traditional football logic to use a player at a “non-premium” position. But perhaps right tackle is beginning to join left tackle as a premium position in the current, pass-happy NFL.

There are more teams running hybrid defenses. There are more teams who put lighter, faster pass rushers on the field on 3rd down. It makes some sense. And with Monroe’s contract up after 2013, if the Jaguars don’t re-sign him, Joeckel can always move over to the left side, where he will see the opponents best pass rusher more often.

I’ll be interested to watch Joeckel’s development.

At guard, Uche Nwaneri has to get healthy. When he’s not injured, Nwaneri can be a better than adequate guard. He’s athletic for the position, but with the change in the run blocking scheme, it will be interesting to see what kind of guard is favored by the Jaguars going forward.

Left guard is going to be up for grabs. The Jaguars used 9 different players at that position last year (including preseason starters). Will Rackley is returning from a foot injury. Veteran Jason Spitz, Austin Pasztor, Drew Nowak and center-turned-guard (for now) Mike Brewster are also in the mix. The previous coaching and scouting staffs liked Brewster as a developmental center, Brad Meester’s heir apparent. If he is viewed the same way by the new regime, it might make sense to keep Brewster in the starting lineup. He’s not as powerful as Spitz or Paszstor, but he moves well and has a high football IQ.

And so we come to Brad Meester. Mr. Jaguar. Nobody has started or played more games in a Jaguars uniform. The 36-year old father of six girls told me at the end of last season that he only wanted to return as a Jaguar. He wasn’t going to shop himself to another team for a year, maybe two (even with six future weddings to pay for!). Whatever the football equivalent of a crafty left handed pitcher is, Meester is that. When his playing days are done (some thought that would happen years ago), he wants to open up a motorcycle repair shop. No, I”m not kidding. He’ll have to wait at least another year. Maybe his most signification contribution to the team will be as a leader.

What is Success for this group? Improving pass protection, adapting to new run blocking scheme, giving the quarterback (whoever it is) a chance.

Secondary success: Figure out whether Mike Brewster is Brad Meester’s heir apparent.

Projected Depth Chart:

OLine Depth Chart

On Fan-dom and Media

“C’mon, you can admit it,” said a friend of mine. “You’re a Jaguars fan.”

No, in fact I am not. At least, not the way he assumed. For some, it’s hard to imagine passionately covering or following a team without being a fan. But for me, there is a clear distinction. A fan has his emotions invested in the outcome of a game.  For me, the outcome of a Jaguars game doesn’t matter. It’s the story.

Okay, that’s the pure journalist side of the story. But I’ll be honest: sometimes the outcome of the game did matter. Or at least, I thought it did. I will tell you unabashedly, that I am a fan of the city of Jacksonville. Not a blind acolyte of whoever is currently in power, but I am an advocate for what Jacksonville is and what it can become. I’ve turned down jobs in other markets to stay here because I love what life can be like in Jacksonville.

When the Jaguars do well, its good for business. It’s good for the city. At least, it can be.

I don’t think we’ve done enough to really capitalize on the Jaguars, but that’s a topic for another time.

Back to the topic at hand. And really, it’s a question: as a fan, do you want another fan giving you analysis or do you want informed, opinionated analysis?  I suppose it’s the same question we should all be asking ourselves about political coverage.

For my part, I’ll continue to cover the Jaguars, not as a fan. In fact, because I no longer work for the organization, there may be more of an opportunity to serve as a watchdog. Afterall, the media’s most important roles are to disseminate truth and serve as a watchdog for government and business, and there is no more important business in Jacksonville than the Jaguars.