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O-Zone: All grown up

JACKSONVILLE – Let's get to it … Angel from La Habana de Cuba:
I can only imagine the emotional changes one would experience having to fill a gap knowing a 280-pound, half-rhino, half-fullback followed by a 240-pound man-child with a nasty disposition is coming straight toward me. What would you do? I foresee a lot of grown men needing to change their underwear.
John: I don't know that every NFL defensive player will be out-and-out frightened at the prospect of taking on Jaguars fullback Marquez Williams and running back Leonard Fournette. These are, after all, two rookies who never have played an NFL game. Still, the two without question define the tone the Jaguars want to set offensively. The Jaguars want to be big, strong, physical, powerful – and any adjective that fits in that category. The commitment to the run is real. It's undeniable. It has the potential to be franchise-defining. This is a team that wants to enforce its will. The Jaguars are putting the pieces in place to do it. I imagine the offseason work will focus on that as much as possible in a non-contact environment. I imagine the work in training camp will be intense in that area. This is the offense. This is the identity. Now, the Jaguars must work to establish it.
David from Oviedo, FL:
The first game of the season is against Deshaun Watson and the Houston defense. Beating them at home would send a message that there's a new sheriff in town. How important is this game in setting the tone for the rest of the season? As far as opening games go, does it get any bigger than this?
John: It's big, and it's a tone-setter – and then that Tennessee game in Week 2 looms awfully large. And then Baltimore. I'm not trying to avoid the question, but the reality is the opening game of the season does look very, very big. We'll talk about its importance for months, and in the days and weeks leading to the game it will look progressively larger and larger. And then once that game is played the next one looks big. It's the nature of the NFL.
Glen from Orange Park, FL:
Whoever starts at quarterback for the Texans Week 1 will be inexperienced and will turn the ball over: 1-0. Week 2 is our home opener with this new regime; losing is not an option: 2-0. Week 3 in London against a Baltimore team that never has played out of the country and will be looking ahead to the Steelers: 3-0. Week 4 at the Jets in a total rebuild with no quarterback. 4-0. Week 5 … uh, maybe this is a good place to stop. Strong start to shock the world!
John: #DTWD
David from Jacksonville:
So I guess Blake Bortles is an elite/franchise quarterback? Wow! I'm such a dummy. I thought he has played pretty badly - especially last year. Thank goodness the true football minds like Dave Caldwell have set me straight. I am back on board with the plan now: bring in zero competition and pick up the option for 2018! Can we go ahead and put Blake Bortles in the Pride of the Jaguars?
John: I don't know that the Jaguars have said this offseason that they believe Bortles is an elite quarterback or a franchise quarterback – and nothing they have done this offseason indicates they believe either of those things. What this offseason does indicate is they believe he still has a chance to be those things. Their offseason actions also indicate that they didn't believe there were options significantly better than Bortles to warrant the costs to bring in competition. I thought there would be competition brought in this offseason, but I honestly can't say there was competition available that I believed would be a significant upgrade. But to interpret the Jaguars picking up Bortles' fifth-year option as a sign that they believe he is great is to interpret the move incorrectly.
Andy from St. Augustine, FL:
I know everyone expects our defense to be much improved and play at a high level, and the hope is that the offense (Bortles) can be average at the worst. It kind of reminds me of last offseason when we all thought the offense was going to be great with Bortles coming off of a 35-touchdown season and we all thought - if only the defense can at least be average, we'll be in good shape. Kinda funny how things change in the NFL. While I certainly hope that the defense will be one of the best in the league, it wouldn't be out of character for it to take a step back after taking two steps forward last year.
John: I've gotten some version of this email quite a bit this offseason. I can't assure you the Jaguars' defense will be elite next season. I can tell you that the Jaguars realized in the offseason that this was not an elite defensive unit and that moves needed to be made to improve it. The team made such moves by signing A.J. Bouye, Barry Church and Calais Campbell – and by moving Jack's obvious talent to middle linebacker. I have a confidence that the defense will improve that I didn't have in the offense last offseason, when I wrote often that the offense needed to take significant steps in the offseason. If you watched closely in 2015 there were things that indicated the unit was not elite – inefficiency early in games and too many long stretches of consecutive three-and-outs among them. The defense had a similar worrisome area last season: the inability to generate consistent pass rush, which in turn limited the team's ability to force turnovers. So, does the defense need to take steps this offseason? Yes, but the presence of core, ascending players such as linebacker Telvin Smith, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive tackle Malik Jackson – as well as the aforementioned additions – makes taking those steps very possible.
Tucker from New York:
Many NFL analysts have questioned whether Leonard Fournette will be a capable third-down back. What is it about Fournette and third-down duty that makes analysts skeptical?
John: Fournette caught 41 passes in three seasons at LSU, and he wasn't really utilized as an out-of-the-backfield back in the sense that NFL teams use backs on third down. He alleviated some of those concerns by showing good hands at his Pro Day at LSU. My sense is Fournette is probably better out of the backfield than many analysts believe, though I doubt he plays an extensive passing-down role for the Jaguars any time soon if at all.
Jags from Miami, FL:
Why did Dave Caldwell and Tom Coughlin draft for depth rather than draft for starters? I mean – like i just don't think this team is good enough "yet" to be drafting, bench players or special teamers.
John: The Jaguars in no way drafted just for depth in the 2017 NFL Draft. They drafted likely starters in the first two rounds in Fournette and offensive lineman Cam Robinson. They believe third-round selection Duwuane Smoot will be in the line rotation, and I believe wide receiver Dede Westbrook will be on the field a lot this season. I believe the same could be true of fullback Marquez Williams. Beyond that it's difficult to find a spot where a fifth- or sixth-round draft selection would start for this team. Maybe there is one, but I don't see it.
Chris from Los Angeles, CA:
Yea Johnny Boy, I agree with DUVAL DOOM. And to further delve into facts: we lost nine-to-10 games by seven points or less … with the offense being inept until the last two weeks. The Cowboys went from bottom to top with Zeke. (No need to touch on our offensive line; I already know) And most of those games were lost in what was supposed to be our four-minute offense – I mean literally four minutes from securing a victory more often than not. I get curbing expectations as to not get your hopes too high but I firmly believe we are millimeters away from being that team we see on paper the last two-to-three years. Stranger things have happened.
John: There is certainly potential on the Jaguars. If I had to point to one thing that makes me think a major jump is possible it would be the collective maturity of some of the team's core players such as linebacker Telvin Smith, wide receiver Allen Robinson, wide receiver Allen Hurns, center Brandon Linder and so on. I got the impression from speaking with Smith on O-Zone Live on Facebook Thursday that this group believes it is ready to be a solid core of a winning team – and having such a core of experienced players is important. People tend to look at second- or third-year NFL players as finished products but in many cases they are still developing as players and leaders. As I mentioned to Smith Thursday, it feels for the first time as if his core group of players actually have grown up. They feel like veterans. I get the idea that will matter a lot. And, of course, the quarterback play must improve.

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