Top 10 Questions for Jaguars

Gus Bradley smiling
Will this man still be smiling at the end of the 2013 season?

by Cole Pepper

With training camp right around the corner the main theme with the Jaguars is new.  As in, new coach, new GM, new schemes on offense and defense, new uniforms, helmets and logos.

While much is new, one thing that is not is that the Jaguars must find a way to return to playoff contention. They haven’t played a post-season game since 2007 and haven’t hosted a playoff game in 14 years.

With camp about to open, here are the top 10 questions facing the Jaguars:

  1. The Quarterback-It’s a question that has been asked by the Jaguars since Mark Brunell’s last year. Some years, they knew who the quarterback would be, but not if he was THE guy. Heading into 2013, Blaine Gabbert has the inside position, but is certainly no lock for the starting job. This season will either be the first of Gabbert’s reign as THE guy, or the last before the Jaguars draft THE guy (or at least, the guy they hope will be THE guy).
  2. Pass Rush-The Jaguars have lacked a consistent pass rusher since Tony Brackens’ retirement. Can Jason Babin be a double digit sack man for the Jaguars? Can they develop a pass rush from other sides of the line. Gus Bradley wasn’t a big proponent of the blitz in Seattle. It comes down to the Jaguars getting pressure with the front four.
  3. Gus Bradley’s impact on approach-Bradley’s energy and enthusiasm are obvious. Will that translate into results? Also, how will Bradley’s positive vibe hold up if the Jaguars struggle early (a possibility with four of the first six games on the road)? My guess is that it will still be there, because Bradley isn’t faking the positive attitude, but he’s never lost a game as a head coach, and things can change when you are in the big chair.
  4. Will Justin Blackmon’s suspension hurt the offense? This is almost a given that it will, in some way. Cecil Shorts will see more double teams as Blackmon misses the first four games of the season for violating the league’s policy on controlled substances. Part two of this question is whether the suspension will affect Blackmon’s game when he comes back. Year two is usually an important one for highly regarded young receivers.
  5. Is Luke Joeckel for real? All indications are that he is, but we haven’t seen him against NFL defenses in pads. There will be a spotlight on Joeckel for each of his preseason games. But when the regular season begins, we’ll be able to judge where he is as a rookie.
  6. Can Denard Robinson and/or Ace Sanders make a difference? If I was pinned down, I would bet that Robinson would have more “WOW” plays, but that Sanders would make more plays. Still, Robinson has the kind of speed and obvious athletic ability to make jaw dropping plays, if he stays healthy. He’ll also be learning a new position and new responsibilities like pass protection and catching the football.
  7. Will Maurice Jones-Drew return to form after foot surgery? Eventually, I think the answer will be yes, but since Jones-Drew didn’t participate in team drills during the off-season, it’s tough to predict that he won’t have any rust as the preseason begins.
  8. Can Marcedes Lewis be a factor in the passing game again? Part of this equation is Luke Joeckel. Lewis was the de facto second right tackle last year. If Joeckel lives up to expectations, Lewis should absolutely be a bigger factor. If the pass protection is better, and if the Jaguars quarterback (whoever that is) plays better, Lewis can still be a valuable weapon, especially down the seam and in the red zone.
  9. Is Cecil Shorts for real? I think the answer to this is yes, but we’ll certainly have a good litmus test in the first four games when Justin Blackmon is serving his suspension. Shorts has the kind of attitude that will fit perfectly with Gus Bradley’s “get better every day” credo. As a former quarterback, Shorts has made learning the wide receiver position a central tenant of his approach to the game. Perhaps the better question here is not whether Shorts is for real, but how good will he be?
  10. What will it take for this season to be a success? Ask 100 people, you might get 100 answers to this question. Is it a matter of the win/loss record? What about just showing improvement? Or figuring out whether Gabbert is the quarterback to take your team to the post-season in the future.  I asked someone this question the other day and they said 6-10 would be a success. My follow up was “so winning three more games than the previous year isn’t a success?” He scratched his head and then admitted that it would be. What about 4 wins? 3 wins? Tough to call those a success, unless that allows you to draft your quarterback of the future in the first round.

These questions won’t be fully answered when training camp begins, but we will get the first hints of the answers very soon.

Gus Bradley Looks at QBs Differently

Gus Bradley minicamp

by Cole Pepper

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said something interesting after the final mini-camp practice that I have long suspected, but haven’t heard many coaches admit publicly: as a defensive minded coach, he judges quarterback’s differently than the offensive coaches.

“The things that I’m looking for offensively from the quarterback are probably different than what Frank (quarterbacks coach Scelfo) and Jedd (offensive coordinator Fisch) are looking for,” Bradley said. “My mindset for the quarterback is that I want him to be the leader. I want him to compete play in and play out and demonstrate his belief. That simple. The other things, I know the other coaches will take care of, but that’s what I know we need as a team.”

It makes sense, but its not something you hear very often.

As a coach who cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball, Bradley isn’t as concerned with the quarterback’s progression through the route tree, or the depth of his drop or if he looks off the safety. At least, not yet. No, at this point in the off-season, Bradley is looking for quarterbacks to move, act and behave like a quarterback should.

He’ll leave the other analysis to his offensive coaches.QUOTE Bradley on QB minicamp

Bradley’s coaching approach is beginning to emerge with each practice session. It’s clear that, as it comes to offense anyway, he’s going to look for the higher level issues like leadership and approach and not be as concerned with the tactics and the day to day operational issues that the offensive coordinator will deal with. It does not appear that he will take that same approach with the defense where he has been more hands on.

Fisch told me last week that the best thing the quarterbacks have done this off-season, as a group, was protect the football. That can lead to confidence which can show up with some of the things that Bradley is looking for. It will be interesting to see how much he weighs those factors in the final analysis. At some point between now and opening day, Bradley will have to make the decision on who his starting quarterback is going to be.

Handicapping the race, based on Bradley’s criteria

If you simply use Bradley’s criteria, here’s how I believe the quarterback competition would look as of now. And note that both Gabbert and Henne have worked with the first team, although Gabbert has taken far more snaps with the ones.

Leadership – To this point of his career, Gabbert has not been as comfortable playing the role of leader. Last year, there were some Jaguars who privately questioned Gabbert’s leadership. According to a story by Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports, one former Jaguars assistant called him “Blame Gabbert” because nothing was ever his fault. Gabbert is still young, but that excuse is running out of steam. Henne, I’m told, just acts more like a quarterback in the meeting rooms and on the field. Advantage: Henne

Competitiveness – Both Gabbert and Henne are competitive. Neither likes to lose, but so far we’ve not seen either of them “will their team to a win.” Gabbert played with some injuries each of his two seasons in the NFL. Advantage: Push.

Belief – This is a tougher category to handicap. How much will either quarterback believe in what they’re doing in the system. Based on Gabbert’s self-assured nature, you would have to give him the edge here, but Henne has much more of a “don’t sweat the small stuff” approach. That can be good and it can be bad. Advantage: Gabbert

So what’s this all mean? Gabbert has more physical skill than Henne: Taller, better arm, faster, more athletic. Henne has the edge in intangibles: maturity, leadership, etc. If Gabbert wins the job (and he’s the early favorite to do so) we won’t truly be able to gauge the choice until the season is well underway.

 

 

Jaguars Off-Season Analysis: Quarterbacks

Gabbert Henne Fisch minicamp
Jaguars quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne with offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch (right).

by Cole Pepper

There is no one position that has been under more scrutiny in Jacksonville for the last decade than quarterback.

While that statement may be true for most losing teams (and some winning teams, too), the Jaguars don’t appear to be any closer to knowing if they have the guy or not. That may be good.

It’s roundly agreed that this is Blaine Gabbert’s last chance to prove himself in Jacksonville. Is three years enough time to show if you are a franchise quarterback? Maybe. It’s certainly enough time to show that you aren’t and Gabbert hasn’t shown enough in his first two years to merit the benefit of the doubt. However, his physical skills merit another chance.

He’s being given that chance this year. While everyone says he is competing with Chad Henne for the starting quarterback spot, all indications are that Henne will have to clearly outplay Gabbert to get the job. Both quarterbacks are downplaying the competition and seem to be reading from the same talking points when it comes to their approach.

“The competition brings out the best in all of us,” Gabbert said. “There’s competition every year, whether it’s said or not. You have to earn your pay every day.”

Henne, echoing the same sentiment, and the same approach that is being preached by new head coach Gus Bradley, says he’s using himself as the barometer for improvement.

“I just try to go out there every day and compete against myself, rather than against other quarterbacks who are here,” Henne said. “Just trying to get better everyday, improving on my craft instead of worrying about somebody else.”

The Jaguars have three other quarterbacks in camp. Rookies Matt Scott (Arizona) and Jordan Rodgers (Vanderbilt and the brother of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers), and recently signed Mike Kafka.

That’s a lot of arms. Bradley said during mini-camp that he wouldn’t rule out taking all five to training camp, but I can’t imagine all five being around for long. It would take away too many snaps from the quarterbacks (especially Gabbert and Henne) who are not only competing for the starting spot, but also learning a new offense.

So why bring in Kafka? Will the Jaguars carry three quarterbacks on the active roster? Not likely. I think its more likely that the Jaguars carry two with a rookie on the practice squad. I’m looking at the competition this way: Gabbert vs. Henne, winner is the starter. If Henne wins, there is a chance that Kafka stays as the backup and the Jaguars move Gabbert. If Gabbert wins, I would suspect that Henne would be the #2, unless Kafka just lights it up in the preseason. The other battle is between the rookies for a practice squad spot, Scott vs. Rodgers. So far, Rodgers has missed time in the off-season with a sports hernia, while Scott has flashed at times, including Wednesday at mini-camp.

With all of the unknowns at quarterback for the Jaguars, we can safely say this: this time next year, the Jaguars will know who their quarterback of the future is. It will either be Gabbert or almost certainly someone they draft next April.

 

What Will Jaguars Offense Look Like?

Jedd Fisch2

(photo: Jaguars.com)

by Cole Pepper

If you are an NFL owner and you want a traditional NFL team, you hire a traditional NFL coach with experienced NFL assistants.

That’s not what Shad Khan did when he hired first time head coach Gus Bradley. And it’s conventional was certainly not what Bradley had in mind when he chose 37-year old Jedd Fisch as his offensive coordinator.

Bradley could have hired a former head coach looking for another shot or a retread offensive coordinator looking for another chance after being, say a quarterbacks coach on another NFL team.

Instead, he plucked Fisch from the University of Miami to install a more innovative offense in Jacksonville. So what will Fisch’s offense look like?

When I spoke with Fisch last week, he used several golf analogies to describe the process of building and installing the offense. Picture every player as a golf club and Fisch wants to find out who does what well.

“We treat it like a driving rang. Let’s try all of our different clubs out,” Fisch said. “Let’s put the flag at 150 and see what we want to hit. Let’s see if this guy can run this route, let’s see if this guy can handle this, let’s see if this guy can make this throw.”

The Jaguars have a number of players with quarterback experience on their roster. Cecil Shorts began his college career as a quarterback, rookie Denard Robinson spent most of his career at Michigan as a quarterback. Add to the list the quick-twitch ability of WR/KR Ace Sanders and speedy running back Justin Forsett and you have a lot of ingredients. The question is, how will they all work together?

“We have an athletic group of guys,” said Fisch. “We have a lot of different skill sets. Then you have to figure out what they do best.”

When I asked Fisch about the diminishing role of the fullback and the move to the smaller, more athletic tight end (unlike Marcedes Lewis, who plays a more traditional style of tight end), Fisch referenced some teams that had a great deal of success last year, and in the recent past.

“I do see New England using the tight end pretty well and I saw Baltimore and San Francisco use their full back pretty good, so I think that it’s just a matter of what you want to do,” Fisch said. “The way we run the football, the fullback is very involved. The way we throw the ball, the tight end is very involved. We’re excited to use these guys and most importantly, we want to take the mindset use whoever we have in the best possible position and not have one of the best 11 sitting next to us.”

Veteran center Brad Meester told me that the pace of the offense and the different looks they’ll be able to show defenses will be an advantage. Still, it all boils down to quarterback play. And in Jacksonville, the question is unanswered: who will be the starting quarterback? Perhaps even more importantly, how well will the quarterback play?

You can run all of the gadget plays, show multiple formations and run an up-tempo offense all you like, but if the quarterback doesn’t play at a high level, you aren’t likely to win the modern NFL.

For Fisch, innovation must be joined by execution. During the recent OTAs, Fisch said that the quarterbacks have been executing, throwing onl six interceptions in between 450 and 500 passes. He would take those numbers in the regular season.

So the answer the question: what will the Jaguars offense look like? We can’t say for sure yet, because Jedd Fisch is still determining that. But we can say this, it won’t look like the offense of the past several years in design. The Jaguars hope it won’t look that way in output, either.