JACKSONVILLE – Risers, it seems, are the rage.
At least that's the case around NFL circles this offseason, with those who cover the league in recent weeks rolling out lists of players – and even front-office types – expected to make a significant leap in performance, production and success during the 2014 season.
The Jaguars have been well-represented on these lists, with analysts projecting safety Johnathan Cyprien and running back Toby Gerhart to make big gains – Cyprien improved in the second half of last season and Gerhart gets the chance to start in Jacksonville after backing up All-Pro Adrian Peterson in Minnesota the last four seasons.
Those are the players getting the most national attention in recent weeks, but who else? What other Jaguars players appear poised to develop significantly in 2014?
There are many, which makes sense.
The Jaguars have a young roster, and NFL types generally believe young players make their biggest jump between their rookie and second seasons, benefitting from a year on the field, a full offseason of conditioning and strength work and simply maturing one more year.
Many of the Jaguars players who could make a significant leap were rookies last season, and a class that included left tackle Luke Joeckel, Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz highlights what will be a major focus as training camp approaches.
In the first of a series previewing training camp, here's a look at five Jaguars who could rise in 2014:
1) Johnathan Cyprien, safety. Cyprien improved significantly over the second half of last season. The analysis said so – after seven negative grades from Pro Football Focus in the first half of the season he had just two after that – and he passed the eye test, too. He was more natural in pursuit the second half of last season, and appeared far more confident. He said it was a matter of just realizing he knew what he was doing, relaxing and playing. Cyprien played more plays than any other Jaguars defender last season, gaining the experience coaches believe can help him make a significant jump at a critical position in this defense.
2) Toby Gerhart, running back.From a national perspective, Gerhart makes perfect sense as a "rising player" this season, and this is a case where the national pundits may have it right. The Jaguars signed Gerhart as a free agent because they want to revitalize a running game that has stagnated the last two years, and he'll be running behind a line that should be improved with the return of Joeckel and the signing of free-agent guard Zane Beadles. Gerhart is 27, has averaged 4.7 yards a carry in the NFL and has just 276 career carries. The theory is he's the right combination of experience, talent and fresh legs to be very productive.
3) Dwayne Gratz, cornerback.Gratz, a third-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft from the University of Connecticut, did everything you could expect from a rookie corner – when he was on the field. Gratz graded positively overall according to PFF and had more positive games than negative, with quarterbacks having a 75.7 passer rating throwing toward him. He also showed a knack for making plays on the ball, intercepting two passes and defending two others. Gratz appeared quick and comfortable in on the field work in the offseason, and looked very much like a player ready to rise. The challenge now will be to stay healthy. Gratz missed a five-game stretch early in the season with an ankle injury and missed the season finale with another.
4) Luke Joeckel, offensive tackle.There may be no more important "riser" on this list. Joeckel is in one sense an unknown, having playing just four full games last season before missing the last 11 with an ankle injury. The No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, Joeckel played just one quarter at his "natural" position of left tackle last season. He said during the offseason he was far more comfortable and confident in that quarter – which came against the St. Louis Rams in Week 5 – than he was at right tackle in the previous four. Joeckel got more work in the offseason coming off the injury than originally expected and expects to be 100% ready in training camp. He has shown the natural footwork, leverage and athletic ability needed to play left tackle at a high level, and there's no indication he's not ready to make a significant step forward.
5) Denard Robinson, running back.Robinson's rookie struggles have been well-documented, focused mostly on ball security. But the nerve damage in his hand that hampered him much of his rookie season reportedly has healed and he looked far more confident during the offseason. Robinson has the speed and playmaking ability to change momentum and games, and showed flashes of that as a rookie. If the offseason is an indication, he could be far more effective in Year Two than Year One. He won't likely get as many touches as Gerhart, but Robinson's playmaking is such that he doesn't need a mammoth amount of carries to make an impact.