Jacksonville Jaguars: Questions That Still Must Be Answered This Preseason
One pretty big question is beginning to loom large for the Jacksonville Jaguars this preseason. It concerns who exactly should be starting under center once the real action begins.
Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, has been making fans and pundits take notice with a pair of strong performances. They've been good enough to have many believing starting the rookie is the better option over going with barely steady veteran Chad Henne.
Whatever decision is made at the principle position on the team, the Jags will still need significant improvement up front. The offensive line has muddled its way through two exhibition games, providing brief moments of encouragement alongside as many reasons to be concerned.
At least the defense looks strong. But the revamped unit must continue to show improvement, specifically in creating pressure. The strong form needs to carry over into when the games count.
Here's a closer look at the main questions still facing the Jaguars this preseason.
All statistics via NFL.com.
Are the Jaguars Making the Right Call at Quarterback?
Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley has been fairly clear for most of this offseason that Henne will be the team's starting quarterback. He made that declaration back in March, per Jaguars.com writer John Oehser.
Despite it only being exhibition stuff, Bortles is already drawing favorable comparisons to a current Super Bowl-winning signal-caller, as well as posting some great numbers.
NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling offered this breakdown:
Playing like an evolutionary Ben Roethlisberger, Bortles impressed for the second consecutive week, showing pocket poise, command of the offense, ideal size, mobility and a cannon arm that allows him to make even the toughest NFL throws. His skills are a perfect match for offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's scheme, which relies heavily on boot-action.
Bortles finished 11 of 17 for 160 yards, bringing his two-game total to 18 of 28 (64.2 percent) for 277 yards (9.89 per attempt).
Meanwhile, CBS Sports reporter Will Brinson stated that Bortles is putting pressure on Bradley's immediate thinking:
But Bortles showed Thursday precisely why there's so much chatter about him not needing the 2014 season to sit.
The biggest concern with Bortles was lobbing him into the fire as a rookie, but he appears to be handling it just fine, with the added bonus of not generating unnecessary hype.
Bortles, who finished 11 for 17 Thursday, didn't force the Jaguars hand. But he's putting some serious pressure on them to expedite their plans for when he's going to become the starting quarterback.
It's always seemed like a strange decision to go with Henne and leave Bortles prowling the sidelines as a rookie. The Jags are a young team that will be improved this year but are still essentially in rebuilding mode.
That's the ideal time to play a first-year passer. It's also more pertinent when considering the team used consecutive second-round picks on wide receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson.
Why not let Bortles develop alongside his eventual supporting cast? As NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah tweets:
It's going to be fun to watch JAX offense grow together. Rookies Bortles, Lee, Robinson & Hurns should play together for a long time.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 15, 2014
But it's not just developments on offense that make starting Bortles seem like the smarter choice. The defense should be much better this season and will likely be the driving force of the team.
Defense-led teams are exactly the ones that can protect rookie quarterbacks and absorb their mistakes. Sitting Bortles now just seems like it's needlessly delaying the inevitable.
Of course, starting jobs and pro-ready bona fides aren't always established in preseason. In fact, they hardly ever are.
However, with a strong defense acting as a safety net, along with an experienced backup in Henne, Bortles could learn at his own pace while gaining that precious on-field experience.
Sooner rather than later, the Jags are going to have find out if Bortles is worth the investment of a draft's third pick. Why bother waiting?
Can the Offensive Line Improve?
It won't matter who's under center if the Jaguars aren't a lot more solid up front. That requires major improvement from an O-line that surrendered 50 sacks a year ago.
Surprisingly, reinforcements have been minimal. Left guard Zane Beadles was snared from the Denver Broncos during free agency, while unheralded rookies Brandon Linder and Luke Bowanko were added via the draft.
The rest of the proposed solutions are going to be of the in-house variety. One such move involves shifting 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel back to his natural left tackle spot.
His performances have been a rare bright spot of encouragement at this position so far during preseason. CBS Sports' Brinson noted how Joeckel more than competently handled veteran marquee pass-rusher Jared Allen against the Bears:
Luke Joeckel went one-on-one with Jared Allen early in the game and handled him pretty well. At one point he straight tossed the veteran onto the ground.
If Joeckel can develop into a franchise left tackle this season the Jaguars are suddenly staring at a really nice left side of the line with him and Zane Beadles.
Yet when casting a glance away from the left side, you'll notice significant question marks at every other line position. The most obvious is at center, where the Jags are using the preseason as a revolving door of auditions for potential candidates, per ESPN.com Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco:
The Jaguars continue to tinker with the center position, rotating players by quarter. Mike Brewster started and had an up-and-down first quarter. He didn't have any errant shotgun snaps but he was late with one snap that resulted in a false start penalty and he also got bulldozed by defensive tackle Stephen Paea on a play that resulted in a sack. Sixth-round pick Luke Bowanko played the second quarter. He left the game with an injury to his ankle and knee while playing right guard in the third quarter. Third-round pick Brandon Linder snapped in the third and fourth quarters.
Although trying out different options is essentially what preseason is for, it's a worry that the Jags still don't know who will anchor their line this close to the start of the new season.
Just as concerning is how successfully this front will knock open holes in the running game. That's something that didn't always go well against the Bears, per the same report from DiRocco:
The first-team offensive line still struggled to create space on the outside zone plays. The breakdowns aren't all from the middle of the line, either. Left tackle Luke Joeckel got knocked on his rear by Bears linebacker Jon Bostic, who ended up tackling [Toby] Gerhart for a 4-yard loss.
That's not great news on a scheme level. Since taking over, Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch have been determined to make a zone-based system work.
That even came at the expense of making previous workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew happy. But no zone scheme works if linemen aren't winning against second-level defenders. That's one of the key principles of outside zone runs.
The Jags averaged a dire 3.3 yards per rush last season. That number has to improve, otherwise the win column will again make for depressing reading once the season concludes.
Who Will Emerge as the Complementary Running Back?
Toby Gerhart is the unquestioned starter in the backfield. That's what the bulldozing runner was signed from the Minnesota Vikings to be.
However, the Jaguars still need a supporting back. Ideally, that back will be a complementary runner who can add some speed and shiftiness to go with Gerhart's power.
One prime candidate for that job is Denard Robinson. The onetime utility player has dedicated himself entirely to playing running back this offseason.
Some positive early results were evident against the Bears. ESPN.com's DiRocco dubbed Robinson's six-carry, 34-yard effort a "statement to be involved in the offense."
Robinson has the elusiveness and quick-cutting style to be an asset in this scheme. In particular, he looks like he could be a threat running out of spread sets.
Yet that's all conjecture at this point. The Jags still have Jordan Todman and rookie Storm Johnson vying for carries.
Preseason should offer a good indicator of who will be chosen to ease the load on Gerhart by presenting defenses with a different challenge.
Can Toby Gerhart Fit the Zone Scheme?
Speaking of the running game, NFL.com's Wesseling made an interesting observation regarding Gerhart:
Toby Gerhart rushed six times for 19 yards and reeled in one pass for eight yards in his Jaguars preseason debut. Gerhart was exactly as billed, showing power and straight-ahead speed between the tackles. Hopefully Fisch learned not to try perimeter runs with Gerhart, who lacks lateral agility.
That last line has to make you wonder about how well Gerhart will fit the zone schemes favored by both Bradley and Fisch. This is specifically pertinent to the outside stretch plays that are such a staple of zone systems.
Those plays certainly didn't work with Jones-Drew running them last season. The problem is that the 6'0", 231-pound Gerhart is a runner of similar build and style.
He's also arrived in Jacksonville fresh off running in a power-based scheme for the Vikings. In fact, power-based blocking is something Gerhart even ran behind at the collegiate level during his time at Stanford.
That could lead to a slow start in a new scheme for a team counting on Gerhart to be a workhorse. Of course, no ground scheme is ever always just one thing.
Fisch can certainly incorporate some power concepts to help ease Gerhart's transition. He would perhaps also be wise to tweak things a little to include more inside zone runs.
Those type of plays still require the one cut-and-go style all zone schemes rely on, but they will at least let Gerhart attack more familiar territory.
It's worth keeping a close eye on exactly how Gerhart runs in this scheme during the remainder of preseason.
Can the Pass Rush Show Consistent Improvement?
The Jaguars tied for last in the NFL in sacks in 2013, registering a mere 31 quarterback takedowns. That number has to rise significantly. So far, the preseason has provided inconclusive evidence about whether or not it will.
The Jacksonville defense binged on Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown in the opener. The unit registered three sacks, with "Leo" pass-rushers Chris Clemons and Chris Smith both showing themselves as significant forces.
That level of pressure naturally led to big plays. The Jags forced three turnovers, including a pair of fumbles and a pick-six.
But the pressure was nowhere near as consistent against the Bears'. The Jags registered just one sack and managed just one turnover, an interception by safety Josh Evans.
Of course, sacks aren't always the truest indicator of how consistently a defense pressures the pocket. But they do represent a unit's potential for creating big plays and impacting the momentum of a game.
A home address in an AFC South that houses Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck demands the Jaguars get better at rushing the passer. So does a schedule also featuring games against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles, Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins, as well as Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers.
The Jags are welcoming new faces such as Clemons, Smith and Ziggy Hood up front. Bradley and defensive coordinator Bob Babich are also incorporating new schematic twists, such as a "lightning" package featuring as many as four Leos, per ESPN.com's DiRocco.
This much change should yield positive results, but it also means improvements will take time and will only come after some growing pains. Given how important the pass rush will be this season, how much pressure the defense creates during its final two preseason games bears close watching.
Some excellent work during the offseason has answered a lot of the questions that concerned the Jaguars at the end of Bradley's debut campaign. However, some of the new faces are posing different questions.
Gerhart's suitability for a zone scheme is something that needs to be resolved. So is how much Beadles and a healthy Joeckel can improve the O-line.
But it's the question mark at quarterback that will continue to grow throughout this preseason.