JACKSONVILLE – The time is at hand, and the preliminaries are over.
Indeed, with the 2016 regular season finally upon us, perhaps it is time for those of us who discuss, analyze and examine the Jaguars to step back and let the smaller stuff fade from view.
No more worrying about the peripheries … whether the Jaguars will keep two or three quarterbacks, who will sign on the practice squad and who will back up Otto linebacker.
Those are all real issues, but with the regular season opening against the Green Bay Packers at EverBank Field Sunday, they're no longer The Issues – and they're realistically not going to decide whether or not the season is a success.
What really matters? What will make this team better?
The thought here is what will improve this team is the emergence and development of a few veterans. It's difficult to rely on rookies to be the core of your team on the field, so we're not including in this topic cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue or defensive tackle Sheldon Day.
We'll omit, too, players such as wide receiver Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who last season showed you probably know what to expect from that duo. Tight end Julius Thomas, defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks must return to past levels, and players such as middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and Roy Miller are reliable, consistent veterans. And no doubt offseason free-agent signees such as offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum, running back Chris Ivory, safety Tashaun Gipson and defensive tackle Malik Jackson must be as good as they showed with their former teams.
But to take a needed step, a handful of returning players must fulfill potential. If they do, the thought here is the team can truly make the jump in competitiveness and record that has been discussed throughout the offseason.
So, here are six to grow on – and if they grow as they could, they're six players who will make a real difference in the Jaguars' final record:
1)Dante Fowler Jr., defensive end.Few Jaguars players ever have been so analyzed by observers before his first regular-season snap. Fowler missed his 2015 rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament – and because of his No. 3 overall draft status, there's pressure on him to provide pass rush off the edge. He has more than enough athleticism to do it, but his play in preseason games didn't match what he showed in the offseason and early in training camp. If Fowler can grow into the player whose athleticism wowed observers in early July and August, the pass rush is exponentially better.
2)Luke Joeckel, left guard.Joeckel seems to have responded well to his recent move from left tackle to left guard. That's good news for the Jaguars, because they need Joeckel to play well. He has shown talent and has played well at times in three NFL seasons. If he can grow into the quality left guard the Jaguars see in him, this could be the best overall line the team has had in several seasons.
3.Marqise Lee, wide receiver.Lee did what was asked of him this offseason – and that was to prove he could be reliable and healthy. Yes, he missed a week at the beginning of training camp with a minor hamstring issue, but outside of that he participated in pretty much all offseason and training camp work. He appears capable poised for a larger, more defined role this season. If he can fulfill that role – and if the Jaguars can take advantage of his elite athleticism and playmaking ability – this offense will become significantly more dangerous.
4.Brandon Linder, center.Linder has shown all the signs of being a dominant interior lineman. He showed it for an extended period at left guard as a rookie and for three more games at the same spot last season. If he shows it this season in his move to center – and there's every anticipation within the team he will do just that – he could help the line immeasurably.
5.T.J. Yeldon, running back.Yeldon flashed as a rookie running behind a line that struggled to run block. He showed the cutback ability and running feel during the preseason that made him an early second-round selection in 2015. If he's as improved during the regular season as he looked in the preseason, the Jaguars' two-headed running combination is suddenly very dangerous.
6.Blake Bortles, quarterback.Why is Bortles on this list? Didn't he prove himself last season? Yes and no. He proved himself capable of being a long-time NFL starter, but he didn't show the decision-making, accuracy or pocket awareness needed to reach an elite level. That's not unusual for a quarterback so young, but he still must improve for this team to get where it wants to go. Bortles showed real signs during the preseason of making the necessary Year Three jump. If those signs are real and he continues developing in the preseason … well, there would be no better sign in any area for this franchise than that.