JACKSONVILLE – Eight days away.
The Jaguars' veterans report to training camp on Wednesday, July 26. And as the countdown to 2017 Jaguars Training Camp continues, we turn our attention away from rookies and newcomers to a few familiar faces.
That's because while the team's rookie and free-agent classes figure to have a huge impact on the 2017 season, the role of returning players will be just as critical.
This is a team with a young core of talented players, many of whom have shown flashes and potential early in their NFL careers. The next step for many of these young players is putting together a consistent, productive season to show they are capable of being long-term, front-line players at the NFL level.
Chief among those players, of course, is Blake Bortles. The fourth-year quarterback is the Jaguars' most important returning player – and their most important player overall. But we've talked about Bortles all offseason, and he's far from the only returning Jaguars player who must improve on his 2016 season and make a key contribution in 2017.
Here are four other returning players who must contribute in a big way – bigger, in some cases, than last season – for the Jaguars to contend in 2017:
*Allen Robinson, wide receiver.Robinson's storyline is intertwined with that of Bortles, and it's essential that the duo recapture at least some of their 2015 production. Robinson caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015, but with Bortles struggling at times in 2016, Robinson caught 73 passes for 883 yards and six touchdowns. The primary difference here from 2015-2016 was the reduction in big-play 50-50 balls to Robinson. A staple of the Jaguars' offense in 2015, such plays were far rarer in 2016. Robinson's touchdowns dropped as a result, as did his yards per reception from 17.5 in 2015 to 12.3 in 2016. It's not fair to say Robinson slumped last season. It is fair to say the Jaguars must find a way to get him closer to his 2016 level.
*Tashaun Gipson, free safety.Gipson signed with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent before the 2016 season. A Pro Bowl selection for the Cleveland Browns in 2014, Gipson had 14 interceptions in four seasons with the Browns – including six in 2014 – but just one last season. The Jaguars plan to use Gipson and strong safety Barry Church in closer to interchangeable roles compared to last season, when Gipson primarily played back with strong safety Jonathan Cyprien primarily in the box. Gipson expressed dissatisfaction with his role in the scheme following last season, saying he was asked to essentially always play the middle of the field 15 yards off the ball. His role this season could allow him to be more of a playmaking, aggressive safety.
*Jermey Parnell/A.J. Cann, tackle/guard.This has been an area of focus for many Jaguars observers this offseason because both players struggled at times last season. Parnell played through a groin injury much of last season, and the team believed he played far better at the end of the season as he worked through the injury. Cann, after a promising season as a rookie in 2015, wasn't believed to have played as well as last season – though the Jaguars expressed belief throughout the offseason that they believed Cann can be a strong starter. Parnell appears the certain starter this season at right tackle, while Cann is one of several players who will contend for a starting positon at guard. The guess here is he will start, but he must improve on last season.
*Jason Myers/Brad Nortman, kicker/punter.This duo is locked in as the kicker/punter, and both figure to be key to a special teams unit that will be critical this season. The Jaguars focused heavily on the special teams throughout the offseason, hiring Joe DeCamillis as the unit's coordinator and signing veterans such as Lerentee McCray, Josh McNary and Audie Cole largely for their special teams ability. DeCamillis praised Myers during the offseason, saying the kicker's reputation doesn't yet match his ability. Myers registered touchbacks on 60 of 76 kickoffs last season, and was 29 of 32 on extra points and 27 of 34 on field goals. Nortman had a strong start last season after signing as a free agent from Carolina. He finished with a 39.5-yard net average – eighth in the NFL – with 27 punts inside the 20-yard line, but needs to be more consistent this season than he was late last season.