JACKSONVILLE – And so it arrives. At last.
We have followed the Jaguars through the draft, through the offseason, through training camp, and through the preseason. We have navigated highs, lows, pessimisms and optimisms …
You know, pretty much your typical NFL offseason …
And now, it arrives, at last: The 2017 regular season.
And make no mistake:
The Jaguars' 2017 preseason was tricky at best, and sometimes worrisome. The offensive line struggled in run-blocking and in pass protection – and according to Head Coach Doug Marrone, the starting left guard still hasn't been decided. Quarterback remained unsettled until the weekend following the third preseason game when Marrone re-named Blake Bortles the starter after opening up the position to competition between Bortles and Chad Henne.
An unsettled quarterback and offensive line isn't your NFL ideal.
But make no mistake about this, either: preseason concerns don't end seasons, and there are plenty of reasons for hope – real hope as the Jaguars enter 2017.
Here are things to believe in around the Jaguars that we didn't see in the preseason:
1)Leonard Fournette.This may be the most obvious reason to believe – and the most obvious Jaguars regular-season strength that we didn't see in August. While the running game struggled throughout much of the preseason, Fournette played just one preseason game. Don't overlook the significance of that. Fournette, the No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, wasn't drafted to be just another running back. Teams select backs in the top four expecting offense-defining, difference-making players. And unlike many other positions, running backs can and often do make immediate, offense-defining impact. Fournette, who missed Preseason Weeks 2 and 3 with a foot injury before sitting out Preseason Week 4 with most other Jaguars front-line players, rushed for 31 yards on nine carries against the Patriots in Preseason Week 1. It was a small sample size, but during that time you saw power and explosiveness. Will Fournette alone make the Jaguars a dominant running team? That's unknown, because much of an NFL running game is about the line. But can his presence make this area better? Can his return make a difference? It can and it must.
2)The three corners.This is another area that can't be overlooked. While the Jaguars' front-line defense struggled in its last two preseason appearances, allowing three long drives against Tampa Bay in Preseason Week 2 and a long opening drive to Carolina in Preseason Week 3, the unit was without its starting three cornerbacks much of the preseason. Starting cornerback Jalen Ramsey played just one preseason series and the players who will start opposite him – A.J. Bouye – did not play at all in the preseason. Aaron Colvin, the team's nickel corner, played a little more than a half during the preseason finale after missing the first three preseason games. There will be a lot of storylines about the cornerbacks this week – most notably, will the Jaguars allow Ramsey to track Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins all over the field, or will they allow A.J. Bouye to cover Hopkins one on one at times as well? The key in that last sentence is the Jaguars have two corners they believe capable of the assignment. Having both available together for the first time will be critical. While there were concerns along the front seven in the run defense in preseason, too, the return of the corners should give the secondary a dramatically different feel than it had in the preseason.
3)Good Blake.Marrone opened up the quarterback competition following Week 2 before naming Bortles the starter 10 days later, and Bortles no doubt struggled at times in practice and in preseason games. But before dismissing Bortles, remember: the Jaguars aren't looking for him to pass 40 or 50 times a game this season; ideally, that number will be around 30 a game. It might even be less than that in a few really ideal situations. And the attribute that helped Bortles get the start for Week 1 over Henne – ability to extend plays – is a very real strength against a dangerous Texans pass rush that includes not only J.J. Watt, but Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. But here's perhaps the biggest reason to believe in Bortles: the last two games of last season. Remember? Bortles in a victory over the Titans and a loss to the Colts threw for more than 600 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He wasn't great all the time, but he was pretty good a lot – and he didn't make costly mistakes. That's "Good Blake," and Good Blake exists. Good Blake can happen Sunday, and if it does, the Jaguars have a chance – even against a very, very good defensive front.