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View from the O-Zone: Wiz starting only part of O-line story


JACKSONVILLE – Stefen Wisniewski is the Jaguars' starting center.

That became official Monday, and when it did, the last major preseason roster unknown – particularly on offense – became known.

"It was my goal to be a starter," Wisniewski said as the Jaguars began preparations for Friday's Preseason Week 3 game against the Detroit Lions at EverBank Field. "I'm excited it happened today. I can get that off my mind and move on."

That's Monday's big storyline, and we'll cover that in this View from the O-Zone. But before that, consider the underlying truth behind the center competition – and the big picture about the starting offensive line that the player they call "Wiz" now joins.

That's this:

To the untrained eye, it didn't seem to matter too much who started at center.

That's because both Wisniewski and his competition for the job, second-year center Luke Bowanko, appeared to play well in the first two preseason games. There appeared to be no major drop off whoever was starting, which ties in with the big, more-important picture:

This offensive played good in both preseason games.

Really good, actually.

There seemed to be no major breakdowns. The running game played well. The protection held up. The offense was productive.

Consider that for a moment:

This was a major offseason concern. The development of quarterback Blake Bortles was the big offseason storyline, but the offensive line wasn't far behind. At all. The Jaguars allowed 71 sacks last season, and while not all were on the line, the need for improvement was no secret. It also was vital to this team being able to improve this season.

So far in two preseason games, the offensive line hasn't been a concern.

Actually, it has looked suspiciously like a strength.

There are many reasons. Certainly one is Wisniewski, who signed with the team as a free agent in the offseason after four years starting at guard and then center for the Oakland Raiders.

After a training-camp battle in which he and Bowanko – the starter for 14 games as a rookie last season – split reps and preseason starts with the starters, Head Coach Gus Bradley named him the starter Monday.

Wisniewski wasn't guaranteed the starting position. And this was a real battle. As Bradley said Monday, if it hadn't been, the team wouldn't have bothered with the whole split-reps-with-the-starters thing.

"If we were going to do that then he would have started right when he came in in training camp," Bradley said.

Bradley said the competition was close, and said consistency and experience worked in Wisniewski's favor. It was thought that Wisniewski having played the past two seasons in Oakland with current Jaguars offensive coordinator Greg Olson holding the same position there would work to his advantage, but Bradley said Bowanko picked up Olson's system well.

"I think the experience of games played helps," Bradley said. "It was just what we saw on tape and in practice. I think we just felt like Wiz had the edge."

Bowanko, Bradley said, will work at tackle in addition to being the backup center. That's not easy. It speaks to Bowanko's ability and athleticism that the Jaguars believe he can do it. Bradley also emphasized that right now, Bowanko may be the team's sixth-best lineman overall.

So, as the center competition ends and eyes turn to the regular season, a few things feel true about the offensive line. One is it's clearly deeper than last season. The idea of signing Wisniewski was that the competition between he and Bowanko would result in a stronger position, whoever the starter. That seems to have played out.

There's depth elsewhere, too. Veteran Zane Beadles is starting at left guard, but the team selected A.J. Cann in the third round and he appears destined to start in time. Former starting tackle Austin Pasztor is now a reserve guard and the team loves the potential of not only tackle Josh Wells but guard Tyler Shatley.

That's at least nine capable offensive linemen.

Other reasons for the different feel? Right tackle Jermey Parnell, signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, has had a strong camp and preseason, with he and guard Brandon Linder – perhaps the team's best lineman – making the right side of the line one of the team's strongest areas.

Left tackle Luke Joeckel, after allowing a sack in the preseason opener and coming under the scrutiny of observers in training camp, appeared to play better Saturday. Bradley on Sunday praised Joeckel's improvement in blocking "power," which is in keeping with the confidence Bradley continually has shown in Joeckel.

Maybe it's young players such as Joeckel, Bowanko and Linder developing a bit. Maybe it's free-agent moves. Maybe it's the addition of Doug Marrone as offensive line coach, and the thought here is Marrone's influence can't be underestimated.

Whatever it is, the story is a striking one. Maybe it's too early to call the group a strength, but it may not be too early to say it's improved.

If so, making more go right offensively – and for the team as a whole – gets much, much easier.

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