JACKSONVILLE – We're almost there. At long last.
Jaguars 2016 Training Camp is scheduled to begin Thursday, July 28. Quarterbacks/rookies/first-year-players report Monday with other veterans reporting Wednesday. That means we're six days removed from the beginning of the most-anticipated Jaguars season in recent memory.
The talent is better than it has been in a long time. Hope for the future is high; expectations are, too.
But while the Jaguars appear vastly improved, they remain a team that will depend on young players to improve, and they remain a team with new faces in a lot of places.
As such, training camp and the preseason will be an important time – a time with more than a few storylines to watch. Here are the five most important:
1)Finalizing the offensive line.This is perhaps the biggest unknown entering camp – particularly on the left side. Jermey Parnell and A.J. Cann will start at right tackle and right guard, respectively, and the team is confident Brandon Linder's move from guard to center will solidify the position for the foreseeable future. The left side is less certain, with unrestricted free-agent signee Kelvin Beachum competing with 2013 No. 2 overall selection Luke Joeckel for starting left tackle. Beachum starting is far from a foregone conclusion, but the guess here is Beachum – who is returning from an anterior cruciate ligament tear – starts there sooner rather than later. Whichever of the two does not start at left tackle almost certainly will start at left guard. That conclusion isn't forgone, exactly, but it's not far off.
2)Developing at quarterback. Blake Bortles made enormous strides last season, but needs to reduce interceptions and become more efficient. That's key to the offense's becoming more efficient – and becoming less dependent on big plays. Pocket presence and improved accuracy are also key for Bortles. His progress last season indicated that he has a real chance to be an elite quarterback. The progress he must make this season is tougher and more important. If he improves in the needed areas, the team has a chance to push above .500. If he doesn't, that becomes a lot tougher.
3)The growth of Dante Fowler Jr. and Yannick Ngakoue. Fowler and Ngakoue, neither of whom has taken an NFL snap, don't bear the entire responsibility of improving the Jaguars' pass rush. Pressure must come from defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Sen'Derrick Marks – and other spots of the defensive line, too. But make no mistake: the Jaguars do need Fowler and Ngakoue – particularly Fowler, the No. 3 overall election in the 2015 NFL Draft – to provide pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They don't necessarily have to produce double-digit sacks, but they must disrupt the opposing quarterback. The Jaguars got good news on this front when Fowler, after missing his rookie season with a torn ACL, agile, quick and healthy throughout offseason, non-contact workouts.
4.Finding roles for the rookies.Cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack, the Jaguars' first two selections in the 2016 NFL Draft, both have elite skill, and both have potential to contribute immediately. Can they make immediate impact? That's historically difficult for even the most talented rookies. Both missed most of the offseason – Ramsey because of a knee injury, Jack because of an NFL rule prohibiting rookies to participate in the offeason until their schools finish the spring semesters. Because of that, Priority One is figuring out what roles they will play. Look for Ramsey to get an extensive look at nickel early – partly because nickel Aaron Colvin will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season. Still, it may not be long before Ramsey's talent finds a spot in the starting lineup. As for Jack, look for him to start out working at middle linebacker during training camp. He may not start early, but he almost certainly will have an extensive role in passing situations. That will get him on the field where his elite speed and coverage ability could make an immediate difference.
5.The continuing progress of Marqise Lee.Wide receivers is an intriguing position. Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson made the position a strength last season, but there remains potential for the area to improve. One reason is second-year veteran Rashad Greene, who the team believes could soon be very reliable as a slot receiver. Another reason is Lee, a third-year veteran with momentum-changing potential. Lee struggled with injuries during his first two NFL offseasons, but he was healthy throughout this past off-season's on-field workouts and showed the big-play ability that made him an early second-round selection in 2014. Can Lee parlay that offseason into a regular role on offense? The team is beginning to be optimistic that he can. If he can stay healthy, he could be a major factor in an improving young offense.