STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Jaguars have long been known as a run-first team, but in 2011, things just got ridiculous. While star running back Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing by almost 250 yards, quarterback Blaine Gabbert ranked dead last among all qualified quarterbacks in virtually every passing metric. The result? A terrible record, a fired coach, and an entirely new offseason philosophy.
Not only were the Jaguars the worst passing offense in the league, it wasn't even close. Gabbert finished his rookie year with a league-worst 65.4 quarterback rating, a 12-11 TD-INT ratio, and a paltry 50.8 percent completion rate. The lack of a viable passing attack was the primary reason that Jacksonville, despite an excellent run game and an improving defense, finished 5-11.
Fixing that became the team's top priority in the offseason. Longtime coach Jack Del Rio was finally fired, with offensive guru Mike Mularkey replacing him, and Bob Bratkowski, who is credited for developing Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, stepping in as offensive coordinator. New weapons were added, as Jacksonville traded up to take wideout Justin Blackmon fifth overall, after having signed free agent Laurent Robinson. The cost may have been high – especially the $32.5 million for Robinson – but the intentions were clear. Blackmon, especially, has star potential written all over him.
New passing options or not, Jones-Drew remains the team's stalwart. His 1,606 rushing yards were best in the league, and were aided by 11 touchdowns and 374 receiving yards. However, those numbers came on nearly 400 touches, including 343 rushing attempts. In comparison, no one else in the league ran more than 301 times. Backup Rashad Jennings will also return this season after missing all of last year with a knee injury, which will allow the team to spell MJD every once in a while this year.
One bright spot for the Jags last year was their defense, which ranked sixth overall in yards per game, up from 28th in 2010. This, despite placing a whopping 10 defensive backs on injured reserve, and 18 defenders overall. Better yet, this seems to be a defense on the upswing, led by linebackers Paul Posluszny and Daryl Smith, safety Dawan Landry, and defensive end Jeremy Mincey.
The Jaguars don't expect to be a playoff team in 2012, but improvement is not only hoped for, it is expected. If Gabbert and the new wide receivers can even put together a semblance of an aerial attack, that improvement could come quickly.
Justin Blackmon WR, Oklahoma St. (Round 1, 5th overall)
Blackmon's best-case scenario, assuming no further off-field issues, sees him becoming the Offensive Rookie of the Year and the best Jags' wideout since Jimmy Smith. His worst-case scenario can be found in the graveyard of wasted first-round receiver picks the team has made. Whether it will be the former or the latter will depend largely on the development of Blaine Gabbert.
Laurent Robinson, WR (Cowboys)
Few players have parlayed one big season into as much money as Robinson (five years, $32.5 million, $14 million guaranteed) signed for this offseason. Can he live up to expectations, or was he a one-year wonder?
Chad Henne, QB (Dolphins)
The team has made it clear that Henne is viewed as a backup, but if Gabbert plays like he did last season, Henne may have to step in.
Lee Evans, WR (Ravens)
If he has anything left in the tank, Evans can provide the Jags with a downfield threat.
Aaron Ross, CB (Giants)
Provides depth at left cornerback.
Andre Branch, DE , Clemson (Round 2, 38th overall)
Branch has excellent height and speed, but may need to bulk up to realize his potential.
Deji Karim, RB (Colts)
Karim's 2.1 YPC and the return of Rashad Jennings made
Kassim Osgood, WR (FA)
Cycled out, as the team re-loaded at wideout.
CAN THE BLAINE TRAIN GET ROLLING?
One thing is for sure: Gabbert couldn't have been much worse in 2011, completing barely 50 percent of his passes and averaging only 5.36 yards per attempt. Gabbert only cracked 200 passing yards three times all year, with a season-high mark of 221 yards. In the end, he had nearly a fourth of the fantasy points of Aaron Rodgers. Still, some have hope for Gabbert, given that last year was a perfect storm of factors working against him, including a shortened training camp, a lame-duck coaching staff, and the fact that his top four wideouts last year were Mike Thomas, Jason Hill, Jarrett Dillard and Chastin West. This year, Gabbert won't have any excuses. Jacksonville spent heavily on new toys Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, and the re-tooled coaching staff has a distinctly offensive mindset.
MJD'S CONTINUED EXCELLENCE
There may be no more consistently great fantasy player over the last few years than Maurice Jones-Drew. For the last four years, he's been good for 1,700-2,000 total yards, double-digit touchdowns, and a top-10 fantasy ranking. Last year may have been the best of his career, as he led the league in rushing by almost 250 yards and ranked third among running backs in fantasy points. Still, MJD's workload should raise concerns. “Curse of 370” believers should take note that MJD's 343 carries were 42 more than anyone else in the NFL last year, and he combined that with 43 catches. Backup Rashad Jennings returns this year to lighten that load a bit, but probably not by much. Furthermore, Jones-Drew is holding out of OTAs this summer due to his contract demands. If that dispute continues into training camp, could Jones-Drew become this year's Chris Johnson?
WILL THE WIDEOUTS BE WORTH IT?
In Blackmon and Robinson, the Jags invested heavily in two players who have proven little in the NFL. Fifth overall selection Blackmon seems to fit the NFL wideout prototype in every way, but is still a rookie learning a new system. Robinson bounced around the league for years until catching on in Dallas last year, where he caught 11 touchdowns opposite Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. This performance somehow earned him $14 million guaranteed. The Jags are hoping that Blackmon can vacuum passes over the middle, while Robinson will become their deep threat. If that doesn't work, there isn't much else to choose from. Tight end Marcedes Lewis was an absolute bust last year after an excellent 2010. Lee Evans joins Mike Thomas, Brian Robiskie and Cecil Shorts in filling out the receiving corps – not exactly the type of players that strike fear into the hearts of defenders. It's quite apparent that the Jags' passing offense will hinge on whether Blackmon and Robinson can prove worthy of the assets that adding them required.
RISING: Blaine Gabbert now has a lot more help, a full offseason under his belt, and the training of offense-focused coaches who are firmly in his corner.
DECLINING: Laurent Robinson won't be able to sneak under the radar this year like he did last season, and won't have Miles Austin and Dez Bryant to draw coverage.
SLEEPER: Rashad Jennings is one Maurice Jones-Drew injury away from becoming the primary running back on a run-first team.
SUPERSLEEPER: Zach Miller has the look of a Mularkey-offense tight end, and starter Marcedes Lewis is coming off a zero-touchdown season.
Paul Posluszny, LB
He's a tackling machine, racking up 119 last season to go with two picks and two sacks.
Dawan Landry, S
He earns high tackle numbers to go with the occasional INT.
Jeremy Mincey, DE
Came out of nowhere to pick up eight sacks.
RotoWire Rank: 21