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O-Zone: Separation anxiety

JACKSONVILLE – Let's get to it … Justin from Hampton, VA:
It's obvious the quarterback play must be better this season, but what is the one position you feel needs to be upgraded? (You can be honest)
John: If by "upgraded" you mean adding personnel before the regular season begins, I don't think you'll see anything significant; the time for that has passed. But there are areas that obviously must play better than last season. The No. 1 choice other than quarterback? The obvious answer is offensive line, because while it improved as a pass-blocking unit last season, it must continue to improve in that area and take dramatic strides as a run-blocking unit in 2017. But probably as important is pass rush. Yannick Ngakoue showed potential last season and Dante Fowler Jr. was better at times than many believed, but the Jaguars were not an intimidating pass rush group when it mattered. If they don't get closer to being such a pass rush, then a lot of the assumptions many are making about this being a great defense … well, you know what they say about assuming.
Preston from Oakville, CT:
O man, with the Jags bringing back the fullback, what position do you think will have fewer players? My guess would be tight end, or perhaps we only keep two quarterbacks. If the latter is true, do you see the Jags keeping Brandon Allen over Chad Henne as a backup? Because if things go south for Blake, it may be worth giving Allen a shot.
John: The Jaguars likely will keep one fullback, so we may never know which position actually was reduced to make room. The Jaguars could possibly keep one less defensive back, defensive lineman or linebacker. If it comes from the offense, quarterback would be a possibility – or perhaps wide receiver. I could see the Jaguars keeping wide receivers on the roster. I also could see the team keeping two quarterbacks, though to assume Chad Henne won't be on this roster next season is jumping to a conclusion that I believe ultimately will prove incorrect.
Stephen from Jacksonville:
I'm not sold that Dante Fowler Jr. is the defensive lineman everyone was hoping the Jaguars would get with the third overall pick, but I'm not one of those who thinks he can't become that just yet. Who do you think are the four best defensive linemen on the roster? With the difference between a good Jaguars defense and an elite one likely the team's pass rush, it seems logical that the four best pass rushers should see the majority of the snaps over the course of next season. Do you expect we will see a frequent combination of Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, and Fowler used to get after the opposing quarterback? What role will Abry Jones have as a pass rusher next season?
John: Campbell, Jackson, Jones and either Fowler or Ngakoue likely will be the "starting" line next season, which means that will be the lineup in base defenses. Don't underestimate Jones in passing situations, though. While he is a nose tackle he's also very disruptive in passing situations. But yes … I do think your foursome of Ngakoue, Jackson, Campbell and Fowler will be on the field together a lot in passing situations.
Greg from Jacksonville:
It's a bit disingenuous to still call ourselves a 4-3 when the SAM was getting ~15 snaps a game last year. Nickel is base now.
John: Yes, if nickel isn't most teams' base defense it's not far off.
John from Jacksonville:
What particular skill set makes a receiver an ideal "slot receiver."
John: Quickness, the ability to separate in small areas, toughness, good hands, field awareness.
Casey from Kingsville, TX:
One more Branden Albert question for you ... if Albert is a no show for the regular season, what are the Jaguars on the hook for (other than a penciled in starter at left tackle and a 2018 seventh-round pick)? Is there any guaranteed money to Albert at this point if he doesn't play in 2017?
John: No, because Albert's contract is not guaranteed, they would lose nothing. Even if it wasn't guaranteed, the Jaguars likely wouldn't owe him anything because it would be his choice not to report.
William from Yulee, FL:
Which of our 2017 draft picks do you think have the best chance of being starters right out of the gate?
John: Leonard Fournette at running back and Cam Robinson on the offensive line. Marquez Williams also has a very good chance to be the fullback, though it remains to be seen if the position technically will "start" each week.
Justin from Hampton, VA:
Eventually Blair Brown will replace Posluszny at strong-side linebacker. Do you agree?
John: I haven't seen Brown play in the NFL yet, so I hesitate to project him as an eventual starter.
Brian from Charlottesville, VA:
Do you foresee any changes to the CBA in terms of how running backs are paid? If you look at LaGarrette Blount, for example, he scored the most touchdowns in the league last year and just signed for under $3 million for one year. If there's a position where it makes sense for the group to collectively hold out, running back is it. Fournette for example may become an elite back for the next five years. The Jaguars could run him into the ground and use his option on the fifth year. He might not get a deal as lucrative as his rookie contract in those circumstances. I think something has to change with how these players are paid or there will become a lack of talent at the position in five years. A young athlete coming into college would have to be insane to choose to play running back if they have a chance to excel at another position. Your take?
John: I don't foresee changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement to specifically address running backs because that's not how the CBA works. The CBA is designed to create a system under which all players and all teams can function while allowing something close to real market forces to operate when it comes to veterans who sign free agent contracts with current or new teams; it doesn't really lend itself to creating a false market for a single position. The realities you detailed about the plight of a running back are indeed difficult, and it is a position with a short shelf life that is devalued more and more in league circles. But that's the nature of the position, and that's not new. As for the collective holdout, it's a great idea in principle, though it would be difficult to execute.
Travis from Mandarin, FL:
In response to a recent question from Zac from Duval about the AFC South possibly being the worst division in the NFL with the Jags being the worst team in that division in the last four years, I'd agree with you this isn't "breaking new ground." However, after four years the Jags seem to think David Caldwell has done such a good job that he deserves a contract extension. You can protect if you'd like, I just don't see any real tangible results that warrant this.
John: I have no incentive, desire nor mandate to "protect" Caldwell or anyone else, but I can tell you the theory behind him staying as general manager. He took over a roster in 2013 that was weak in pretty much every area. It now appears on paper at least to be stronger. This strengthening appears to have taken place while keeping the Jaguars in a strong position when it comes to the salary cap. Caldwell overall appears to have done a solid if not spectacular job in the draft, with the No. 1 question right now obviously being the development, performance and future of quarterback Blake Bortles. Caldwell's Jaguars story is one still to be written in many ways. If the Jaguars show results on the field in the next two seasons with a lot of the players on the current roster, then the argument that Caldwell has strengthened the roster will have a lot of merit. If they don't, then that argument won't have much merit at all.
Kevin from Jacksonville:
John, an article on by Marc Sessler talks about teams most likely to break their playoff drought. He mentions the Jaguars in his article but asks, "Are they even the third-best team in their division?" So, I ask you: is there at least one team in our division that you feel we finish ahead of?
John: Yes, though figuring just which team is tricky. I'm on record saying I believe the Texans will win the division again, so I'll say the Jaguars will have a chance to finish ahead of the Colts and Titans. The intriguing thing about the South entering the season is there doesn't seem to be significant separation between the teams. Then again, what's perception in the offseason often isn't fact come the regular season.

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