JACKSONVILLE – The day draws near … very near now.
We kid you not: In three days, the Jaguars actually will play a real, regular-season football game – one that counts, one with no "buts" or "wait-and-sees" attached.
The Jaguars play host to Carolina in the 2015 regular-season opener at EverBank Field Sunday. And while it might be hard to believe the time at last is at hand, a Jaguars fan might be forgiven for having a little apprehension mixed in with the sweet anticipation.
Four consecutive losing seasons will cause apprehension; seven victories in two seasons will, too.
So, why feel good about this season? What makes this real?
This View from the O-Zone isn't about the obvious reasons. If you've followed the Jaguars even a little this offseason, you know about Blake Bortles. You know about Aaron Colvin and Telvin Smith defensively, too. You know the Jaguars look deeper at running back, and you know the big picture is that overall the first-team offense has the feel of an improved unit.
You know the defense hasn't looked as good, and we won't sugarcoat it: the pass rush needs to be better in the regular season than preseason. If not, it's going to cost the Jaguars – big and soon.
This "View" isn't about those things. Rather, it's about a few things that haven't been discussed quite as much or in as much detail – a few hidden or overlooked reasons for optimism over the next few days when apprehension might just maybe sneak in.
So, here are five hidden strengths as the Jaguars prepare for the regular-season opener:
1)The right side.We've discussed the offensive line as a whole this preseason and discussed it often. The unit looks a lot better. That's true all around, but it's particularly true on the right side. Right guard Brandon Linder is the best of the five starters and has the look of a future Pro Bowler. Right tackle Jermey Parnell, an unrestricted free agent from Dallas, was consistent and strong throughout camp and preseason. It's too early to call this a lock-down team strength, but it has that feel.
1a)Wisniewski's experience.We don't want this "View" to be all O-line all the time, but center Stefen Wisniewski's experience in new coordinator Greg Olson's offense is big. His ability to read defenses and help the line and the offense get to the right play is big, too. If this offense looks smoother and allows fewer blitzes to get home, "Wiz" likely will be a big reason.
2)Jared Odrick.The veteran defensive end didn't dazzle with memorable plays in the preseason, but the Jaguars didn't sign the unrestricted free agent for dazzle – or for preseason memories. Because of his position – strong-side end – you may not notice Odrick every play, but if the run defense is better, he'll almost certainly be a reason. He and Otto linebacker Dan Skuta give the strong-side defense an experienced, reliable feel. Will that be obvious five minutes into the opener? Maybe not. Will it show up over time and make the run defense stouter? Almost certainly, and that matters a lot.
3)Marcedes Lewis.Yeah, we know: observers/fans always say Lewis looks really good entering a season – and but for a 10-touchdown season in 2010, the 10-year veteran never has put up eye-catching receiving numbers. Still, the guess here is this could be a bigger season for Lewis than many expect. First, he had his best camp in recent memory. Second, new coordinator Greg Olson's offense is tight-end friendly and Lewis seems to fit well in it. When Julius Thomas returns from a hand injury, Lewis will benefit from teams focusing on Thomas; even before that, Lewis could be a key part of an offense that otherwise lacks experience at the skill positions.
Check out images from Jaguars practice as they prepare to open the 2015 season against the Carolina Panthers.
4)The return game.Special teams struggled at times last season, but the area looked solid in the preseason. That's key; you can't repeat last season's blocked kicks and miscues. As importantly, the Jaguars for the first time in a while look like they could get some big plays from the return game – and from two rookies, no less. Wide receiver Rashad Greene will handle punt returns; he had a 37-yarder in Preseason Week 1 and is the head-up-field returner the Jaguars didn't have in recent seasons. Running back Corey Grant will handle kickoff returns; while he didn't break one in preseason he showed his speed as a running back and it feels like a matter of time before he gets loose on special teams.
5)Bortles' confidence.We talked a lot of angles about Bortles throughout the offseason. Mechanics. Footwork. Accuracy. Knowledge of offense. We've also talked about how none of what we've seen thus far means much unless he replicates it during the regular season. But one factor you may have overlooked is Bortles' demeanor and confidence. There's significant pressure on Bortles; he's a second-year quarterback in a new, young offense and the expectation is that he takes a very dramatic step. But while it's true that there's pressure, it's equally true that it appears not to have affected him. Bottom line: if Bortles and this offense aren't better this season it won't be because the stage is too big for the quarterback.