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Looking ahead after the Jaguars preseason


At last, it's time to look ahead – not that we weren't already.

That's not what Mike Mularkey and Gene Smith were doing in the wee hours of Thursday night and Friday morning, and it's not what they'll do much of Friday afternoon and early evening. The head coach and general manager have the unenviable task of reviewing the final three quarters of Jaguars 24, Falcons 14 and deciding the fates of many deserving people.

That's the story of who makes it and who doesn't, and there's time for that in the coming hours.

This editorial? This is about looking ahead, which means figuring out just where the Jaguars are after four preseason games. And where are they?

Honestly, about where we should have expected, and maybe a little ahead of it.

"I'm very proud of this bunch," Mularkey said late Thursday after the Jaguars came from behind to win for a third time in four preseason games.

He should be proud. In a little more than four months this has transformed from a team that knew little about Mularkey to a team in his image. They are buying in, and liking what they're purchasing. From the organization during pre-game warm-ups to the way starters cheered for backups as the Jaguars rallied with 10 fourth-quarter points, Mularkey had reason to like what he saw.

But those are intangibles, and there are tangible reasons to like where this team is entering the regular season. I wrote two weeks ago that it was OK to get excited. Two weeks later, it's still OK.

It's OK because while Blaine Gabbert and the first-team offense didn't score a touchdown for a second consecutive game, that group continues to make strides. Laurent Robinson? The guy fans worried about all week? He caught a pass in the first quarter and got open for a deep pass.

And although that deep pass missed, just barely, Mularkey said there was a lot to like about that pass. It was a pass that Gabbert didn't throw on a similar play in practice this past week, and Mularkey said it's the sort of pass that he must throw. And yes, while he must complete it, that he threw it is progress, Mularkey said.

Robinson on the play was even with the defender when Gabbert threw. A quarterback in this offense must throw and trust that the receiver will be open. Gabbert threw. He trusted. The ball narrowly missed being a long touchdown, but in a preseason that has been about growth for Gabbert, that was another growth play.

Growth isn't always gorgeous, and sometimes it's frustrating, but growth is critical and it's happening.

It continued to happen Friday in the form of Mike Thomas, who began training struggling and who continues to show signs of being a very effective third receiver. It also continued to happen in the form of an offensive line that already blocks very well for the run, blocking well for the pass for a second consecutive week.

Not that there aren't concerns as preseason wraps. Injuries have taken a toll on the offensive line, at tight end, and at defensive end. Mularkey on Thursday was asked if he was concerned about cornerback depth. Always candid, he said he wasn't as concerned there as other positions, and with tight end Zach Miller out, and ends Austen Lane and George Selvie out, too, those areas are thinner than you'd like entering the season.

But no team is perfect entering the season, and we didn't expect this Jaguars team to be, either. But it is fair to expect progress, and progress was made this preseason.

Gabbert is growing, and the receivers are, too. This team can run, and that's true whoever's at running back. Are the Jaguars better with Maurice Jones-Drew? Yes. Is the running game going to struggle without him? So far, that hasn't been the case.

The defense struggled against the Ravens last week, and there have been ups and downs, but this was a fast, aggressive defense last season and once linebacker Daryl Smith returns to the lineup for the opener – and there's no reason to believe he won't – there's little reason to believe it won't be fast and aggressive again.

Mularkey during the team's kickoff luncheon talked a lot about being proud of this team, and about being excited about what's ahead. That's what he's supposed to say at such an event, but that excitement is more than Podium Speak. There's a tangible energy around this team that defies the national expectations.

"We're champing at the bit right now," Gabbert said.

For a day on Friday, that excitement will be put on hold. Because on Friday, Smith and Mularkey must trim from 75 players to 53, which means releasing players who have worked hard and who are deserving and who Mularkey and Smith would very much like to keep.

This year, considering how well the Jaguars backups played in three of four preseason games, it also will mean releasing good players, guys who could contribute.

Mularkey said the bubble players, players such as Kevin Elliott and Julian Stanford and Antown Blake and Joshua Jones and J.K. Shaffer, made it tough by playing well.

"Every one of them made a play in that game somewhere," Mularkey said.

The reality? Not every one of them will be on the roster come Saturday, but there's another reality, too – and that's that the 53 who do make the roster will form a team that is moving in the right direction.

And as we look ahead after a preseason that has had highs and lows there have been more than enough of the former to still be pretty excited.

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