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Training Camp 2016: Reasons to believe


JACKSONVILLE – The mock game has been mocked.

And with the end of the scrimmage/controlled practice/mock game – or however you describe Friday night's event at EverBank Field – we're one step closer to the Jaguars' 2016 regular season.

The truth is we probably didn't learn too much at Friday's 2016 Mock Game at the 'Bank that we didn't already know. It's the nature of the modern NFL that such events aren't going to very be "live" – all the better to prevent injury and wear and tear.

But with a week and a half of 2016 Training Camp in the rear view – and with Thursday's preseason opener fast approaching – we can be more confident in several things about this Jaguars team, a team that increasingly seems to be giving fans real reasons to believe it will be improved.

A few generalities:

The defense is faster – much faster. The secondary appears to have a chance to be much better with the addition of free safety Tashaun Gipson, cornerback Prince Amukamara and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The defensive line looks a lot deeper, and far more capable of pressuring the passer on third downs.

The offense has shown signs throughout the offseason of improvement. While the offense still needs to improve efficiency – and while starting faster will continue to be a storyline until it's not – quarterback Blake Bortles is showing good signs of being on the same page as his receivers, and appears to have the expected improved grasp of the offense.

The running game also appears to have a real chance to improve, with Chris Ivory showing not only the power expected inside but more outside speed and burst than expected when he signed as an unrestricted free agent from the New York Jets. Still, any remotely accurate measure of the running game won't come until preseason games – and even then the only real measure of the area is the regular season.

The major unknown remains the left side of the offensive line, with Kelvin Beachum continuing to be brought along cautiously from the anterior cruciate ligament tear he sustained last season with Pittsburgh. Until he takes contact repetitions it's hard to know what combination of him and Luke Joeckel will start where – and equally impossible to know the potential effectiveness of the combination.

So, what do we know about this team after a week and a half that we didn't know before? What are the biggest reasons for optimism?

Here are three tangible reasons why the Jaguars can indeed be improved in 2016:

1.The improvement of Allen Robinson.How could Robinson's improvement be a tangible reason for improvement? Wasn't he already good last season? Indeed he was. Robinson was the team's lone Pro Bowl selection last season and he was the biggest reason for the team's offensive improvement. But as well as he played last season, Robinson has looked like a different receiver early in training camp – and a much better one, too. His offseason focus on route-running is evident and he appears to be more aggressive to the ball. That last part is impressive because he already was one of the most-aggressive-to-the-ball wide receivers in the NFL. Robinson showed last season he was capable of being one of the NFL's best receivers. So far during this camp he has shown he might become that this season rather than in the future. If that happens, the offense automatically becomes more reliable and far more difficult to defend.

2.The emergence of Dante Fowler Jr. and the defensive line.OK, so Fowler hasn't emerged yet – because he hasn't played a real NFL game. But a week and a half into camp, he has shown exactly why he was the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. An intriguing thing about Fowler is he's far from the only reason the Jaguars' defensive line could be improved. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue have the look of immediate contributors, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson has shown the athleticism, power and quickness that made him one of the NFL's most coveted free agents this past offseason. Strong-side end Jared Odrick has looked significantly better than last year during training camp. This looks like a deep group with multiple pass-rushing options. It goes without saying that was not the case last season.

Take a look at the best images from Friday night's scrimmage.

3.The presence of Jalen Ramsey and the improvement of the secondary.So, that's two defensive entries out of three … does that mean the Jaguars' defense will be improved? In a word … yes. The Jaguars' defense is so much faster and deeper that there's almost no way it won't be better than last season. While the line is one reason – an improved pass rush automatically improves this defense – the secondary has been a major camp storyline. Ramsey, the No. 5 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, will make some rookie mistakes but he also has playmaking ability at outside corner and nickel. Free-agent Prince Amukamara would be the defensive backs story of camp if not for Ramsey, and free-safety Tashaun Gipson has been everything the team hoped when he signed as an unrestricted free agent from Cleveland in March. Like the line, there's almost no way this group isn't better than the '15 version.

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