JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser's five Thursday takeaways as the Jaguars prepare to play the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday
1.Big day for Gray.We begin this Thursday takeaways on Jaguars running back Jonas Gray, who figures to play a key role Sunday – and who could get a big opportunity as a result. With starter T.J. Yeldon expected to miss a third consecutive game with a knee injury, and with Gray rushing for 31 yards on six carries while replacing Denard Robinson Sunday against New Orleans, Gray could get increased carries against Houston Sunday. "Every time you get an opportunity to go out and compete, it's a big deal," Gray said. "People are depending on you to do your job, so that's a big deal, too, but I'm excited for it." Gray, who signed off the Dolphins' practice squad two days after Yeldon's injury, rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns for the Patriots in a victory over Indianapolis last year. He is signed by the Jaguars through next season. "It's definitely a place I want to be," Gray said of Jacksonville. "There are a lot of young guys, and a lot of these young guys are hungry for success. They work hard and buy into what [Head] Coach [Gus] Bradley's preaching."
2.No doubt.Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson has had a huge, successful season. That's true whether he plays Sunday or not, but he left no doubt Thursday he wants to – and plans to – play in the regular-season finale. While there has been speculation the Jaguars could sit key players to protect them from injury because they have been eliminated from the postseason, Robinson said he's not thinking about that approach. "For me, it's about going out and competing with everybody that I go out and work with every day," said Robinson, who has 75 receptions for 1,292 yards and a franchise-record 14 touchdown receptions this season. "It's not about statistics or having anything to play for, or anything like that. We have a real privilege to play with guys who go out and work their butt off each and every Sunday – the same with coaches. You play for the guys who you're in here every night with, who are here from six in the morning to six in the evening. That's what it's really about."
Images from Thursday's practice as the Jaguars prepare to travel to Houston for the 2015 regular season finale.
3.Progress made – more to come.Count Julius Thomas among those who believe the Jaguars' offense will improve next season. The veteran tight end also said this week he believes the continuity that developed between he and quarterback Blake Bortles from the midway point of the season also will continue to improve. "It takes a long time to get a good understanding of anyone in life," Thomas said. "It's no different for football players, even at this level. We're continuing to learn how each other does things. I get to see how he reacts in situations and he gets to see how I react in situations. That's the cohesiveness you build as you grow to know another player. It's happening for all of the receivers and Blake and even the backs." Thomas also was among those players this week who believes the return of offensive coordinator Greg Olson for a second season will benefit the offense. "It's definitely difficult when you're changing offenses, so having Olson back will be great," Thomas said. "It will be great for us to just continue the growth we're having and the direction we're going. When you get a great offense, it's not just great players and great playcalling; it's everyone understanding how they all work together for a common goal. That's what we're looking to build here."
4.Steps at quarterback.Although it's indeed Thursday, Olson's Wednesday media availability is worth reviewing – with the first-year offensive coordinator speaking extensively this week about several topics, including quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles' growth has been significant – as has that of the offense, which has improved scoring by nine points a game over last season. The unit is ranked 16th in the NFL in total yardage this season after finishing 31st last season. Olson has emphasized since taking the job that Priority One was putting Bortles in a situation to grow and succeed. He said Wednesday while progress was made, more should happen this offseason. "I am excited about that," Olson said of Bortles, who has 35 touchdown passes with 16 interceptions compared to 11 and 17 as a rookie last season. "He knows he has a long ways to go, but it was good to see him make those steps this year. We talked about it at the first of the season – it wasn't an ideal situation to come in the second year of a new coordinator, new quarterbacks coach, but he has done his part in learning the system and getting better the second year."
5.Joeckel improving.Olson also on Wednesday spoke of offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jermey Parnell, saying the Jaguars are in a good situation at the position. "We're not out actively searching for players to replace there," he said. Parnell, who has yet to practice this week with a hamstring injury, started the first 15 games of the season at right tackle and Olson said he should gain strength and power in the offseason. Joeckel, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, has started all 15 games this season and has shown benefits of gaining strength and size last offseason. "I think Luke got better and I still think he has a high ceiling still," Olson said. "I think he'll still get better. He's not in a situation where you can look at Luke Joeckel and say. 'He's in Year Three, where's he at?' He's still showing growth. From last year to this year there's more strength; there's more power that's evident on tape – but it's not there yet. Certainly he needs to get better and we need to help him get better in terms of the offseason and what he's doing in the offseason."