JACKSONVILLE – The path is set. Now, we know.
Blake Bortles on Saturday signed a three-year contract extension through the 2020 season, a move that gave the team clarity on its most important front.
Forget free-agent quarterbacks.
Forget Kirk Cousins – and forget A.J. McCarron and Drew Brees and every other name that has been discussed, dissected and associated with the Jaguars' quarterbacking situations during the first five weeks of the 2018 offseason.
Bortles is the Jaguars' quarterback. The path is set.
Now, we know.
"A dream come true – this is definitely where I wanted to be," Bortles said Saturday. "It's tough to put into words beyond it being a dream come true. It's pretty incredible."
Was this an easy decision for the Jaguars?
Perhaps not. Bortles hasn't been perfect in four seasons as the Jaguars' starter, and there were reports during the five weeks since the Jaguars' loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game the team could go a different direction.
Cousins, McCarron and even drafting a quarterback in Round 1 all were mentioned as possible quarterback options for the Jaguars, and all made at least some sense on the surface. So, why extend Bortles? Why make this move that makes him the guy moving forward?
Jaguars Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin addressed that in a press release issued by the team Saturday.
"Blake's growth and development last season was a key to the success we had as a team," Coughlin said in the release. "Blake has proven, with toughness and dependability, that he can be the leader this team needs going forward. Along with this contract come high expectations that he will continue to improve and help our team accomplish its ultimate goal."
Make no mistake:
Bortles' development did make a mammoth difference last season, and he proved he is a team leader. He earned this extension, and absolutely showed he can lead the Jaguars where they want to go.
That's a remarkable thing, and it's why in a sense Saturday had to have been satisfying for the No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. Remember? Last August? When Bortles spent a week competing with backup Chad Henne for the starting job he had held for three seasons?
Few imagined then Bortles would sign an extension this offseason.
Shoot, a lot of people imagined then that Bortles might be released before the 2017 regular season.
Instead, he improved in 2017. Dramatically. He reduced interceptions, and improved pocket presence and decision-making. He turned in the best stretch of his career during a three-game December stretch that essentially clinched the team's first division title in 18 years, then he turned in possibly the best clutch performance of his career in a Divisional Playoff victory at Pittsburgh before playing well enough to have the Jaguars in position to beat New England in the AFC Championship Game.
Bottom line: Bortles in 2017 quarterbacked NFL's sixth-ranked offense with a slew of rookies playing significant snaps. He did it with rookie running back Leonard Fournette injured much of the second half of the season. He did it without wide receiver Allen Robinson much of the season. He did it with an offensive line that also will undergo offseason change. He also did it in the first season in offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's system.
Bortles made young players around him better in '17. How much better can he and the offense be with some upgrades in the second year under Hackett?
"I think it's tough to put expectations on that," Bortles said. "I didn't have a ton coming into this year. It was a new system and we had a lot of young guys. What we were able to do and what we were able to see out of those young guys – and everybody being comfortable being in the second year going into Nathaniel's system … it's definitely set up for us to take strides in the right direction kind of significantly.
"Those guys are only going to get older and more experienced and more comfortable. I think it could be a huge step coming up this year offensively."
Saturday at the same time is just the first step. Bortles knows this. The NFL is a year-to-year league, and Bortles knows well he will have to keep earning the opportunity he earned this past season.
Saturday, too, is the first step in the Jaguars' offseason. Bortles' extension gives the Jaguars needed flexibility with the salary cap. It could mean room to sign Robinson to an extension and it means a significantly better chance to re-sign cornerback Aaron Colvin.
Other issues will gain clarity in the coming weeks. What will the Jaguars' wide receiver corps be? Can they use the draft – and perhaps free agency – to upgrade the line, tight end and receiver?
Those remain questions for now, but Question No. 1 was answered Saturday.
The path is set. Now, we know.