JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton with three quick thoughts as the Jaguars prepare to begin 2018 Training Camp Thursday at the Dream Finders Homes Practice Complex
1.A question with potential. If Blake Bortles remains a question, the answer looks better than a year ago. Bortles, the Jaguars' starting quarterback since 2014, turned in the best stretch of his NFL career in the second half of last season and the postseason. He signed a contract extension in February and looked more confident, prepared and accurate during the '18 offseason than in any of his previous NFL offseasons. He will enter his second full season in coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's offense. He's still the biggest question on a deep roster loaded with elite talent, but the aforementioned factors add up to more optimism around Bortles than ever before in his NFL career. The thought within the Jaguars is he will have his best, most-consistent season. His teammates believe in him and so do his coaches. What's left now is to do it consistently through the course of a very important season. That's the biggest task of Bortles' career, but one he seems capable of accomplishing.
2.The great unknowns. There are many established reasons to expect the Jaguars to be good this season, but one of the season's most intriguing aspects may be a core of young players who haven't yet fully established themselves. That core includes running back Leonard Fournette, wide receiver Keelan Cole, linebacker Myles Jack and wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Yes, the group has shown a ton of talent, but you had a feeling watching all four last season that their best remained very much to come. The thought here is every player in the aforementioned group has Pro Bowl potential. Every one of the group has a chance to be a game-changing player. If Jack plays consistently as he did late last season, the Jaguars suddenly would add one of the game's most dynamic middle linebackers to a big-time defense. If Fournette consistently plays as he did in his two or three best games last season, the Jaguars' offense would be far more consistent. If either Westbrook or Cole builds upon the 2017 season, the skill group could have a dynamic playmaker it often lacked last season. Keep an eye on these four. From that group could emerge the Jaguars' next superstar.
3.Can the offensive line be great? The offense is where most of the Jaguars' pre-camp questions lie. Perhaps the biggest centers around an offensive line that must improve on what by any measure was a very good 2017 season. The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing and set a franchise record for fewest sacks allowed. So, why the need for improvement? Because Bortles was still pressured too often last season – and mostly because this team throughout the second half of the season and postseason struggled to run when it needed to run. The Jaguars' major offseason move – the signing of unrestricted free-agent offensive guard Andrew Norwell – vividly illustrated a desire to make the line more dominant. The Jaguars must dictate their will offensively more consistently. That means being able to run when opponents know they're going to run. It means protecting Bortles better in big situations. If the line improves to that level, this team indeed is capable of fulfilling its lofty expectations.
1.These guys are good. Maybe it seemed like hyperbole after the NFL Draft when national media guys started talking about the Jaguars' roster as the best in the league. If it isn't the most talented, it's a close second. Just ask yourself, "Who is the dominant player on this team?" It isn't an easy answer. The talk on defense is all about cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Jack, then shifts to end Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye. What about tackle Malik Jackson, tackle Marcell Dareus, end Yannick Ngakoue and linebacker Telvin Smith? On offense it begins with Fournette and shifts to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, wide receiver Donte Moncrief, Norwell, wide receiver Marqise Lee and Cole. Jaguars Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin and General Manager Dave Caldwell have assembled a roster loaded with impact players – and for the most part, those players haven't yet entered the prime years of their careers. This team deserves the attention it is getting for their talent and depth – and I haven't even mentioned a quarterback that played his best football in December and in Pittsburgh last season. They're good enough to win every Sunday, no matter the opponent, and we haven't said that around here in a long time.
2.Can they stay healthy? That's the question as far as I'm concerned; 99.4 percent of the defensive starts last season were made by the starters. That's an incredible run of good health and good fortune; it's unreasonable to think we'll see them anywhere near that number this season. Fournette reportedly showed up weighing less than he has since high school, and having him on the field all season long would go a long way towards establishing that dominant running game that slipped late last season. The Jaguars can help increase their chances to be healthy with a solid plan for individual players and the team in general; though I don't know what the plan, I know the men who put it together and have every confidence players will be focused on being ready to play on Sunday. It's the freak injury that you can't plan for – other than to have developed quality depth. The Jaguars certainly have worked on that.
3.The offense intrigues me. I look at the offense Hackett used last season and the word that comes to mind is "accordion." The Jaguars will slam the ball into the line with Fournette and draw the linebackers up into the gaps. When that happens the middle of the field is open for the tight end and the slot receivers. Once the Jags exploit that and bring the safeties closer they can hit over the top to Moncrief, Cole, Lee and perhaps rookie wide receiver D.J. Chark. It reminds me of how the old Oakland Raiders used to use fullback Mark van Eeghen, tight end Dave Casper and wide receiver Cliff Branch to keep defenses off balance. I can't wait to see how a svelte, healthy Fournette, an athletic tight end such as Seferian-Jenkins and some deep speed push and pull at the opponents' defense this season.