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Looking ahead


The 2011 NFL season isn't exactly upon us, but with the lockout news a bit brighter in recent days, it may be coming up relatively quickly.

We're a bit less than a month from the scheduled beginning of training camp, and despite a lot of teeth-gnashing to the contrary, there appears a good chance it may open on schedule – or at least pretty darned close.

As such, it's time for to do a quick preview/look ahead to 2011. We'll do it with a series of four stories, each one breaking down five key elements to the 2011 season/training camp and preseason.

We'll start today with five key storylines, so let's get started:

1) When will Gabbert play?

This one's pretty obvious, but also pretty important, so it has to be the first.

The Jaguars with the No. 10 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft selected Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback from the University of Missouri.

As soon as the selection happened, When Will Gabbert Play became Storyline 1, 1a and 1b of the Jaguars' off-season. And rightfully so. A rookie quarterback, particularly one selected in the Top 10 of a draft, by definition is critical to the short- and long-term development of the franchise.

It has been suggested by observers and people within the team that the selection could define the tenure of Gene Smith as General Manager. That's almost certainly true.

That being said, there's no indication that there's a rush to play the rookie. The Jaguars, from Owner Wayne Weaver, to Smith, to Head Coach Jack Del Rio, have been pointed in their insistence that veteran David Garrard is the team's starting quarterback. There has been no word inside the walls that that won't be the case.

The plan entering training camp is to give Garrard about 40 percent of the repetitions, with Gabbert receiving slightly less and veteran Luke McCown about 20 percent. The idea is to give Gabbert adequate time to prepare and learn – and adequate time to show he is ready to play if that is indeed the case – while at the same time allowing Garrard the chance to prepare for the season.

It's a wise, prudent approach – one made more so by the lockout. Even if the Jaguars had been so inclined from Draft Day on, it would have been asking a lot of Gabbert to start immediately and lead the team to the playoffs as a rookie. With the lockout taking away the off-season, it makes it even more unlikely that Gabbert will be able to make a significant, positive contribution early.

Look for Garrard to start, and if the Jaguars can develop some consistency early, it wouldn't be surprising to see Garrard keep the job until that changes. If he's up and down – particularly if the downs come as often as they did at times last year – there could be a different storyline by season's end.

2) Will the defense have time to improve?

The off-season focus around the Jaguars understandably has been on a defense that struggled much of last season. Jaguars coaches understand this, and they expect it.

This is an area in which the lockout could play a role.

Smith has been candid in his assessment that the Jaguars will address defensive needs in free agency, with the plan to address safety and linebacker in that route. The hope is to acquire a starter at each position, with the idea to solidify areas that were weak last season.

Solidifying a roster in free agency is a difficult enough in a normal season. The ongoing lockout has made this route even tougher for the Jaguars this season.  Free agency won't begin until the lockout ends. Whatever happens, the players won't have an off-season with the team, and the longer the lockout lasts, the less time they'll have in training camp.

The Jaguars certainly will pursue free agents at those spots, looking for players who would be good fits. Such players certainly would seem to have long-term value, but given the circumstances adapting to their new surroundings could take longer than normal.

3) Is simpler better?

Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker throughout the off-season consistently has said he isn't thinking about free agency when it comes to improving the defense.

The reason is that free agency is the future and it's an unknown. During the off-season, Tucker's stance is that the Jaguars can, must and will improve with the players already on the roster.

With or without free agency, Tucker said a theme for the Jaguars' next season will be simplicity.

He has stressed throughout the off-season that the Jaguars' defense will be less complex, the idea being to allow young players and new players to learn the defense more quickly. The benefit for all players, Tucker said, will be playing faster, with more confidence. Tucker's belief is that players playing faster and thinking less also make fewer errors and tackle better.

Observers often equate simpler schemes with being vanilla, and easy for opposing units to solve. The reality is that more NFL games are lost than won, and for a young defense trying to improve, simplicity should be a good thing.

4) The injury issue

The ability to avoid injuries is a key to any team's NFL season. The Jaguars' 2011 season could turn on the ability of some key players to return from them.

Defensive end Aaron Kampman finished last season on injured reserve, the second consecutive season he has been sidelined with a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament.

Kampman is the veteran leader of the defense, and his ability to return and play at a high level is critical to the Jaguars on and off the field. The Jaguars' pass rush showed signs of improvement last season. Kampman needs to stay healthy for it to reach full potential this season.

Offensively, the Jaguars face a similar situation, with running back Maurice Jones-Drew missing the last three games last season with a knee injury that he dealt with much of last season. Jones-Drew has been durable and reliable in five NFL seasons, and his ability to stay on the field is critical.

The Jaguars are also counting on defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith, a third-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, to return from an Achilles injury that cost him last season.

The Jaguars need full seasons from the aforementioned players. If they don't get them – particularly from Jones-Drew and Kampman – the dynamic of the season will change drastically.

5) Continued development

The Jaguars are a young team with young talent, so development is obviously crucial on a lot of fronts. One front of particularly importance is the offensive one.

The team has been one of the best running teams in the NFL in recent seasons, in part because of the presence of Jones-Drew and in part because of a strong run-blocking line, but pass blocking likely will be an emphasis this season.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter recently spoke of the need to reduce turnovers and sacks, and with a young quarterback potentially getting time at some point in the near future, reducing last season's sacks total of 38 will be a focus.

In Smith's first draft with the organization, 2009, the team used its first-round selection on Eugene Monroe and its second-round selection on Eben Britton. Those two players have shown signs of developing into franchise, bookend-type tackles. Continued progress in that area is critical to the team's development in 2011 and beyond. 

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