By Ben Zani
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
If there is a team that embodies the NFL's vacuous middle, it is the Jaguars. Over the last five seasons, Jacksonville has posted a 39-41 record, with one playoff appearance during that time. The last two years have seen uninspiring 7-9 and 8-8 campaigns, in which the team did just barely enough to save coach Jack Del Rio's job, but not nearly enough to inspire any sort of hope amongst the dwindling Jacksonville fan base. The Jaguars are, quite simply, mediocrity personified.
2010 represented more of the same. Blowout losses were followed by surprise wins. Inspired play shared the field with embarrassment. Todd Bouman was oddly involved. Still, Jacksonville actually entered the homestretch at 8-5, but lost their last three games, including the last two to Washington and Houston. The final record read 8-8. Same old, same old in Jacksonville.
Even that 8-8 record should be seen as something of a mirage, as the team was, by most accounts, very, very bad. The Jags ranked 27th in the NFL in passing yardage, and were 28th in passing yards allowed. Their 26.0 sacks on defense ranked only ahead of Denver, and the team picked off only 13 passes all year. Their -15 takeaway/giveway rating was second-worst in the AFC. Teams scored almost at will on Jacksonville last year.
One thing kept the Jags afloat last season was the running game. Behind Maurice Jones-Drew, the team's only legitimate fantasy stud, Jacksonville ranked third in the league in rushing, with nearly 2,400 total rushing yards. MJD picked up 1,324 of those himself, though his seven total touchdowns disappointed some. Backup Rashad Jennings also looked promising in limited work, and QB David Garrard ran the ball well when necessary.
Jones Drew's touchdowns were limited by the emergence of tight end Marcedes Lewis as a legitimate red zone threat, catching ten touchdowns. Past Lewis, few pass catchers did much, with the 5-8 Mike Thomas taking over by default as the team's top wideout as Mike Sims-Walker disappointed any and all who wagered a fantasy selection on him. No Jaguar averaged more than 51 receiving yards per game.
However, a flickering light is on the horizon. Missouri gunslinger Blaine Gabbert was taken at quarterback in the first round, bringing with him a hope to drive the Jaguars from their home of mediocrity. He won't mean much to this season - he'll either spend the year behind Garrard or be desperately thrown into the fire without much help - but Gabbert should start to make a real difference in 2012 and beyond. This year however, Jacksonville fans should expect more of the same: another season stuck in the middle.
Round, Overall, Player
1 (10) Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
The QB of the future may become the QB of the present if Garrard struggles.
3 (76) Will Rackley, G, Lehigh
Could earn a starting spot on one of the best young O-lines in football.
4 (114) Cecil Shorts, WR, Mount Union
Jags hope he can be another Pierre Garcon.
4 (121) Chris Prosinski, S, Wyoming
Safety was a huge weak spot in Jacksonville last year.
5 (148) Rod Isaac, CB, Middle Tennessee State
Another small-school prospect at an area of need.
Paul Posluszny, LB (Bills)
Tackling machine when healthy, will provide an upgrade in the middle.
Dawan Landry S (Ravens)
Jags' secondary was among league worst last year.
Matt Roth DE (Browns)
Under-the-radar signing may provide the pass rush the team is looking for.
Mike Sims-Walker WR (Rams)
Huge disappointment last year when thrust into top role.
Derrick Harvey DE (Broncos)
Possibly the biggest draft mistake in team history finally cut loose.
Kirk Morrison (FA)
Posluszny's signing made him irrelevant.
THE FUTURE IS IN TOWN
Trading up to take Blaine Gabbert at the No. 10 pick was a clear sign that David Garrard is not in the team's long-term plans at quarterback. The question is, how long-term is long-term? It's apparent that coach Jack Del Rio's job is on the line this year, so if Gabbert looks remotely healthy and Garrard plays anything short of what he looked like in 2007, a midseason quarterback swap could be in the offing in Jacksonville. Gabbert brings more size (6-5), a cannon for an arm, better vision and accuracy, and is generally more of a playmaker than the incumbent. Garrard's showing up to training camp out of shape and with a balky back didn't help his cause either. That said, losing months to the lockout has hindered Gabbert's development and may have bought Garrard more time. Still, the question of whether Gabbert takes over isn't "if" as much as it is a "when."
IS MJD STILL ELITE?
From a yardage standpoint, 2010 and 2009 were nearly a wash - 1,641 yards compared to 1,765 last year, a 4.4 YPC average, and a similar number of carries and receptions. But Jones-Drew scored only seven total touchdowns last year, a plummet from his 17 in 2009, causing his fantasy production to dip significantly. Worse, MJD missed the final two games of last season with a knee injury that has yet to fully right itself, requiring surgery over the winter and limiting him through most of camp this year. These factors, combined with the emergence of backup Rashad Jennings, should make owners seriously reconsider Jones-Drew as one of fantasy's top 5, or even top 10 backs.
MARCEDES TD CLASS
On a team with little to no receiving options, Lewis, in his sixth year in the league, suddenly emerged as one of the league's top red zone threats, catching ten touchdowns and a career high 58 passes for 700 yards. At 6-6 and 275 pounds, Lewis is a big, imposing target for Garrard (or Gabbert). There are concerns however that 2010 was an outlier season for Lewis - he had never scored more than two TDs in a season in his previous five-year career - but the team's lack of other receiving options mean that Lewis should continue to at least see decent targets inside the 20.
When the 5-8 Mike Thomas and 49er castoff Jason Hill are your two top receiving options, passing isn't exactly your top priority. Still, it would be nice to have somebody to keep defenses honest and not stack eight in the box. Thomas, while diminutive, showed good speed last year, and while Hill isn't anything special, rookie Cecil Shorts has excited coaches in training camp. Still, if you're reaching for a Jags' receiver for your Sunday lineup, chances are you've reached the bottom of the barrel.
Rising: Rashad Jennings is expected to see more carries this season as the team tries to ease MJD's burden, and is only one Jones-Drew injury away from carrying the entire show.
Falling: David Garrard's days were numbered the second the team drafted Blaine Gabbert, and nagging back issues could further shorten his leash.
Sleeper: The team is high on rookie Cecil Shorts, as he possesses the size, speed and hands that the Jags sorely lack among their receiving corps.
Supersleeper: Tight end Zach Miller was relegated to spot duty as Lewis emerged last year, but if Lewis is hurt, Miller has shown excellent pass-catching ability in the past.
Paul Posluszny, LB
Can rack up tackles and should have freedom to do so with Jags.
Aaron Kampman, DE
Can still rush the passer, but will have snaps cut from 70 to 45 per game to preserve health.
Rashean Mathis, CB
Looks to be in best shape in years.
Rotowire Rank: 32