Hard to Find Competition for Jaguars Starters

After spending most of last year on the Jaguars practice squad, wide receiver Mike Brown (above) has been a pleasant surprise for Gus Bradley in training camp. (photo by Bobby King)

by Cole Pepper
August 7, 2013

Despite a roster made up of more new players than returners, despite a team that won just two games last year and despite a new head coach and general manager, the number of starting jobs that are truly up for grabs in Jaguars camp are few and far between.

Yes, there is a quarterback competition underway, but day by day, it appears that Blaine Gabbert is seizing that job, as most thought he would. On offense, the only other starting job that is undecided is at fullback, where Will Ta’ufo’ou and rookie Lonnie Pryor are competing. Then again, the fullback does not appear to be a major part of the Jaguars new offense. The other positions on offense are pretty much set: Eugene Monroe and rookie Luke Joeckel will be the tackles with guards Will Rackley and Uche Nwaneri flanking center Brad Meester. Marcedes Lewis is the incumbent at tight end and Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon are the wide receivers.

The receivers have a good battle going for playing time behind Shorts and Blackmon and the likes of Mike Brown, rookie Ace Sanders, Mohamed Massaquoi, Jordan Shipley, Toney Clemons and others will have ample opportunities to impress the coaches because neither Shorts (calf) nor Blackmon (recovering from groin surgery) are going to play in the preseason opener Friday against the Dolphins.

Of that group, Brown and Sanders have been the most impressive so far. They figure to play a lot with the starters on Friday.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” Brown said. “You are always one play from playing so you have to be prepared.”

Brown was a college quarterback at Liberty and last year, he was just an athlete playing the wide receiver, but he has worked to become a wide receiver.

“I try to pride myself on catching the football and having good footwork, being able to separate,” Brown said. “Obviously there is a ton of room for improvement in all areas, so I’ll keep working on it.”

On defense, the questions are more about who will be involved in the defensive line rotation and whether second round pick Johnathan Cyprien will be back in time to be up to speed on the defense. Cyprien strained a hamstring before camp and hasn’t worked in any drills yet.

In his stead, Chris Prosinski has been working at strong safety with the first team.

On the defensive line, Tyson Alualu appears to have locked up the starting job at left defensive end with Sen’Derrick Marks and Roy Miller inside and Jason Babin at the LEO position as the top pass rushers. Behind them, veteran Jeremy Mincey, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, massive rookie T.J Barnes (364 pounds), Andre Branch, Ryan Davis and

Paul Posluszny will be flanked by Russell Allen and Geno Hayes at linebacker. Alan Ball and rookie third round pick Dwayne Gratz will start at cornerback with Dwight Lowery at free safety and Cyprien (if healthy) at strong safety.

Perhaps there will be more competition at the kick and put return spots, but the smart money is on Denard Robinson to handle kickoffs and Ace Sanders to return punts. Once they start tackling in preseason games Friday, we should have a better handle on that competition.

New Rules Emphasis

photo by Cole Pepper
photo by Cole Pepper

by Cole Pepper
August 4, 2013

There is no dramatic change to the rules this year. No implementation of instant replay, no elimination of the “in the grasp” rule. But most of the rules changes are focused on one thing: player safety.

That’s the league approved phrase. Some would call it another step toward turning the sport into basketball on grass. I’m not going there, but the NFL is certainly taking steps to take big collisions and plays that could lead to concussions out of the game.

19-year NFL veteran referee Ron Winter addressed a group of writers and broadcasters after a league produced video that outlined rules changes include one notable change that will be most obvious to fans.

A player on offense or defense cannot hit another player with the crown of the helmet outside of the tackle box if three things occur: the player must line up the opponent, lower his head and then deliver a forceable blow with the crown in order to be flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness and would face potential league discipline.

Picture an Adrian Peterson bulldozer run that was finished with Peterson lowering his head to bowl over a defender in a one-on-one scenario.

Other rules changes:

  • On field goal attempts, the defense can not have more than six players on one side of the center, cannot push down linemen into offensive line, and may not block below the waist on punts, FG or PAT.
  • Peel back blocks are not longer legal anywhere on the field.
  • All non kickers/punters must wear knee and thigh pads.
  • The tuck rule has been modified. Now, forward passing motion ends as the quarterback begins the tuck.
  • Plays can still be reviewed after a coach erroneously challenges the play (remember the Lions and Texans last Thanksgiving).

Other points of of emphasis:

  • Increased focus on penalizing players hitting opponents late around the pile or on the ground
  • Facemask by a runner: if the runner twists or grabs the facemask, without immediately releasing (runners, tacklers, players treated the same way) it is a penalty. The runner cannot strike defender with a forceable blow.
  • Taunting–throwing the ball, spiking or spinning the ball are considered taunting.

One final note on the read option. Winter clarified how the rules would be interpreted in regards to protecting the quarterback who is running the trendy play.

“A quarterback is a runner until after he’s cleared the handoff,” Winter said. “He can be hit, then, once he clears the handoff, he becomes a quarterback with protection, almost like a defenseless player.”

The State of the Jaguars Offense

Gabbert Mojo Kafka Forsett

by Cole Pepper

With the Jaguars getting a day off tomorrow from training camp, I thought this would be a good time to give a state of the union review, of sorts, of the Jaguars offense.

Let’s start at quarterback. It certainly appears that Gus Bradley is giving Chad Henne the opportunity to compete. Blaine Gabbert is getting the first reps with the first team, but he and Henne have basically split the snaps with the one’s during camp. Henne has been steadier, but Gabbert, when on, has been better. However, when he has been off, Gabbert has been much worse than Henne. The challenge for offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is to increase the frequency of Gabbert’s peaks and eliminate (or at least reduce) the valleys. Gabbert left Monday’s practice after getting tangled up on a pass play in 11-on-11 and was taken from the practice fields on a cart. He says he’s good to go, however, and he’ll have a day off Tuesday with the rest of the team to heal up.

Undrafted rookie free agent Cole McKenzie (85) makes an acrobatic lunging catch at training camp on Monday.
Undrafted rookie free agent Cole McKenzie (85) makes an acrobatic lunging catch at training camp on Monday.

It’s clear that Cecil Shorts is the star of camp. When he’s not on the field, the passing game just isn’t as good. However, a few receivers have flashed here and there. Mike Brown was singled out by Gus Bradley on Monday for his performance in this camp. Rookie Ace Sanders has shown that he has the ability to be a contributor at wide receiver. So far, Mohamed Massaquoi hasn’t been as much of a factor and Jordan Shipley has been just okay. One intriguing guy to watch is undrafted rookie Cole McKenzie, who put up huge numbers at Southern Oregon, an NAIA school, and who has made a couple of dazzling catches in camp.

The running back position has plenty of storylines. Maurice Jones-Drew is being eased back in. Justin Forsett has received most of the first team snaps, but figures to be the top backup when all is said and done. Of course, Denard Robinson is the most intriguing. Robinson has struggled with ball security, but was used in the wildcat formation on Monday, both running and throwing the ball. Anyone who has dreams of Robinson as the Jaguars quarterback can forget them, but it’s clear that Fisch is tweaking the package to see how Robinson can best be utilized. Bradley called it an ongoing process Monday.

RELATED: Jaguars Training Camp Photo Gallery

Joeckel blocking drill
First round pick Luke Joeckel works on his technique at Jaguars training camp. Joeckel has been quiet and steady at right tackle thus far.

The offensive line is difficult to judge so far, since the Jaguars haven’t been in full pads yet. Eugene Monroe looks very good and rookie first round pick Luke Joeckel hasn’t disappointed. Then again, neither tackle has worked much against the Jaguars best pass rusher Jason Babin, who has been limited so far in camp. So far, Will Rackley, Brad Meester and Uche Nwaneri have taken the bulk of snaps on the interior line. When Meester was given a rest, Mike Brewster spend some time with the first team at center.

Taken as a whole, the Jaguars offense has not been as impressive as the defense so far. There is a long way to go but it appears that the keys to the Jaguars offense this year will again be the pass protection and the quarterback play.

Jaguars Training Camp Photo Gallery

Some of the sights from Monday’s training camp session. Click on tumbnail to see the fullsize photo.

Jaguars Focus: The Best Guy Out There

Training camp legs

by Cole Pepper

The Jaguars quarterbacks, Denard Robinson and Maurice Jones-Drew may be getting the most attention at training camp, but through three days, one player has emerged as the most dominant on the field: third year wide receiver Cecil Shorts.

Shorts enjoyed a breakout season last year, when he caught 55 passes for 979 yards. He would certainly reach 1,000 yards if it were not for two games missed due to concussions. This year, Shorts is bigger and better than ever.

“I hop on the scale and it just says solid. No weight, just solid,” jokes Shorts who says he’s put on seven or eight pounds of muscle and says he feels faster than ever.

In camp so far, he has been tough to handle for any defensive back, but Shorts isn’t too impressed yet.

“I got a long way to go,” Shorts said. “When the ball comes my way, I have to keep making plays.”

This is a different kind of pre-season for Shorts. As a rookie from Mt. Union, little was expected of Shorts. Despite a strong training camp, he caught just two passes as a rookie. Some prematurely labeled him as a bust. Last year, he wasn’t expected to start, but his performance coupled with nagging injuries for Laurent Robinson and a delayed start to camp for Justin Blackmon gave shorts the opportunity to shine. He took full advantage.

Now, even though he’s just in his third season and is only 25 years old, some rookies have begun looking to him for advice.

“I get a lot of questions. Ace (Sander) is hungry. He wants to be good. He’s playing very well right now. Tobais (Palmer). They all ask a lot of questions,” said Shorts. “I try to lead by example. I’m not a hoorah-guy or a Ray Lewis-type of vocal guy. I just come out and work my hardest.”

Several times this week, Gus Bradley has marveled at Shorts’ approach, noting his competitiveness. That’s a trait that Bradley, a former defensive coordinator, values, but is not always easy to see in wide receivers.

Where does Shorts go from here? He continues to work with wide receiver Jerry Sullivan on refining his craft.

“Coach is big on ‘how you do small things is how you do all things.’ Little stuff like coming off the line, being careful where I push off, that sort of thing.”

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.