Breaking Down Jacksonville Jaguars 5 Biggest Training Camp Projects
The Jacksonville Jaguars boast a young roster full of potential impact players. They have done a good job over the past two seasons scouting talent to bring into the organization through free agency and the draft. With this infusion of talent, hopes are high in Jacksonville that their fortunes will finally be turned around.
However, there are a number of players who must prove themselves in order for this turnaround to happen. The pressure is on these younger players to perform with training camp under way, and success in doing so will just add to the optimistic outlook in Jacksonville.
These "project players" will have to earn the coach's attention by standing out in practice. Many of the players on this list will be expected to have a substantial impact this season and for many seasons to come. If they can earn their keep this year, it will significantly impact the growth of this team.
Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, Wide Receiver
Many analysts believe the Jaguars hit the jackpot in the second round of the most recent draft by drafting receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. Lee had a nightmarish fall out of the first round after preseason predictions had him going in the top 10. Robinson got lost in the shuffle of a deep wide receiver draft but was an underrated talent who can be a game changer.
Lee and Robinson both had high expectations of turning around one of the most lackluster receiving corps in the league. Both players bring an explosive dynamic to the team. Lee is an exceptional route-runner and possesses spectacular after-the-catch ability with enough shiftiness to easily juke around defenders.
Robinson, on the other hand, is a big target (6'3", 220 pounds) who has a knack for coming down with contested balls. Despite his size, he has deceptive speed and amazing after-the-catch ability as well—just ask Ohio State. He is a sure-handed receiver who can box a corner out to make difficult catches.
Both players were expected starters this year along side fourth-year pro Cecil Shorts III. Unfortunately, the start to their respective NFL careers has been bumpy so far. Both Lee and Robinson have dealt with injury issues that have limited their availability during OTAs and mini camp.
This inability to take the field and form a rapport with starting quarterback Chad Henne has limited their ability to reach peak form by the time the season starts. Training camp, which started July 24, will be crucial to the development of both players. The pressure is heightened even further by the hamstring injury to Shorts.
If this offense is to reach its peak potential, Lee and Robinson must develop quickly during training camp. They have the potential to give the Jaguars their most dynamic receiving corps since Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell donned the black and teal in the early 2000s. Now is the time for them to prove it.
Denard Robinson, Running Back
The Jaguars are in unfamiliar territory this year at the running back position as they waved goodbye to three-time All Pro Maurice Jones-Drew and welcomed in free agent Toby Gerhart. While the focus will be on Gerhart, another running back is feeling the pressure to perform and stake his claim on this team.
Denard Robinson was an electric quarterback for Michigan in college and ended up as a fifth-round pick for Jacksonville in 2013. Robinson had a lot of expectations due to his athleticism and was labeled "OW" (offensive weapon) due to the versatility he was expected to bring. Unfortunately, he ended his rookie year with just 20 carries for 66 yards, including a 24-yard run ending in a fumble at the 1-yard line.
Since the end of the season, it has been revealed that Robinson was suffering from nerve damage to his arm following a hit to his elbow in the 2012 season against Nebraska. According to Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union (h/t Big Cat Country), Robinson had trouble keeping his hand open, impacting his ability to carry and catch the ball. O'Halloran disclosed some of the details of the injury, saying:
He didn’t have full strength in his hand and he couldn’t keep it open....
With nerves, you never know when they’re going to re-generate – it could be a day, two days, a year, two years, three years. With the time off this off-season and a lot of work, it came back for him.
He has completely healed from his injury and will now be focusing on just learning the running back position. This is a move that should significantly help him take advantage of his incredible combination of speed and agility.
He must be able to break away from the rest of the running backs, which include Jordan Todman and seventh-round rookie Storm Johnson, in order to establish himself as the No. 2 running back on the roster. The main way he can do this is to show that his turnover issues are a thing of the past now that his arm is healed. If he can do this, there is no telling what the combination of him and Gerhart could do to opposing defenses.
Demetrius McCray, Cornerback
The Jaguars hit the cornerback position three times in the 2013 draft with McCray being the final of the three picks. McCray is a bigger cornerback that fits the mold of the tall, lanky corner that head coach Gus Bradley covets, coming in at 6'0" and 185.
In his rookie year, McCray saw very limited action, totaling only 96 snaps (compared to 1,020 snaps for Alan Ball). However, he showed enough potential to have Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union expecting McCray to push for starting time this season. He has been practicing with the first-team defense as Ball recovers from an ankle injury.
The Jaguars are banking on Ball, Dwayne Gratz and Will Blackmon to spearhead the corner position for the team this year but McCray could very well take snaps from them. He needs to continue impressing at camp and make the most of the opportunity presented by Ball's bum ankle. If he continues to grow, it will give the Jaguars multiple options when it comes to selecting specific players for certain coverage schemes.
Josh Evans, Free Safety
Last season, the Jaguars had multiple rookie starters on defense, including Johnathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz. One player they didn't expect to see serious starting time was sixth-round free safety Josh Evans. Evans started 11 games in relief of Dwight Lowery, who was lost due to injury.
Evans played admirably after being thrust in as the starter but, as expected, still needs work refining his game. He needs to work on his coverage skills, having received a minus-7.9 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in pass defense. Still, According to The Florida Times Union, (h/t Rotoworld.com), the Jaguars were happy with Evans as an option for them and envisioned him as the starter for the 2014 season.
Things have hit different tune lately as Evans has missed all forms of team workouts while recovering from surgery on his foot. In his place is Winston Guy, who has taken full advantage of the extra reps. This inability to take the field has severely hindered Evans' growth.
He is a young player with his whole career ahead of him so this shouldn't affect him in the long run. What it does hinder is his ability to make the impact he was expected to make this season. The coaching staff really liked what he brought to the team and envisioned him as their long-term starter alongside Cyprien.
If Evans can recover quickly enough from the injury and show an amazing grasp of the playbook, he may just get himself back into the starting position. Otherwise, he will have to sit behind Guy for the season and wait until next year to make the leap.
Marcel Jensen, Tight End
Marcel Jensen is a bit different than the others on this list because, out of all of them, he is not really fighting for a starting role or even significant playing time. Jensen was an undrafted rookie free agent who is still fairly raw. However, the potential is there having been a capable receiver in college and having the size you want at the position (6'6", 259 pounds).
His natural ability has started to shine through as Bradley was quoted as saying, via John Oehser of Jaguars.com, "We knew he had athleticism to be able to catch the ball...Some of the skills we saw on tape are what we are starting to see now."
Jensen has been one of the most impressive rookies in camp so far. He has played himself into the position of being considered their third, and likely final, tight end. He now has a chance to solidify this as second-string tight end Clay harbor will be out for a month with a calf injury.
Jensen has the physical tools to succeed at the position but he needs to refine them and work on the mental aspects of the game. It is early but he can be looked at as a possible successor to ninth-year pro Marcedes Lewis. He needs some time to develop but it is time the Jaguars are willing to take.