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View from the Ozone: A welcome gift


JACKSONVILLE – Now, this was a gift the Jaguars needed.

Actually, even though we're reaching for a holiday theme for this Christmas Day View from the O-Zone, it may not be right to call the Jaguars' 2014 rookie class a gift …

No one gave the Jaguars their 2014 NFL Draft class. The scouts worked it, General Manager David Caldwell picked it and Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley and his staff coached all offseason and all season to develop it …

But whatever you call it – gift, work, whatever … – know this:

It's starting to pay off in a big way.

Do you see it? Have you watched it develop?

Those are fair questions, and it's fair to have overlooked the '14 draft class. When you're 3-12 and still struggling with a young offense, it's easy for people to miss the positives.

But on this Christmas morning – or afternoon if you're logging on late – take a moment to notice those things. Notice the development. Notice the growth.

A close look at the '14 class shows a whole lot of both.

And because that's true, the Jaguars may have found something very, very important: the core and the beginnings of the foundation for this franchise.

The Jaguars' 2014 season ends Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston. They will finish either 4-12 or 3-13, with 4-12 meaning matching last season's record in Year One of Bradley/Caldwell and meaning entering the offseason on a two-game winning streak and the accompanying end-of-season good feeling and momentum.

But that good feeling means little if there's not something solid on which to build and if the team isn't growing with potential to keep growing further.

This team has that potential.

It's starting to feel solid around here.

The rookie class is turning into the biggest reason for that feeling.

It happened in fits and starts this season. That's the way growth happens with rookies, but in the last month, you're starting to see more signs of the growth being good and true and real.

It actually started early in the season. That was when wide receiver Allen Robinson – a rookie second-round selection – showed maturity beyond his years. He has been on injured reserve since Week 10, but it's hard to see Robinson being less than a productive, reliable receiver moving forward.

Early in the season also was when Allen Hurns, a free-agent rookie wide receiver, emerged as the team's most-consistent big-play threat. When Hurns went over 48 receptions this past Thursday, he and Robinson became the first rookie receiving tandem in NFL history to surpass that total.

How good is the Jaguars' rookie wide receiver situation?

Hurns and Robinson may not be the best in the class. That may be Marqise Lee, a second-round selection who has emerged in Robinson's absence and shown enough growth and confidence that he has been the team's most important offensive player in recent weeks.

Lee is fast. Really fast. And he's starting to look like a player who could be the elite, game-changer the team hasn't had in nearly a decade.

We won't make this Christmas View a blow-by-blow run down of the draft class. Presents and Santa hats await. Suffice to say receivers aren't all that matters. Third-round guard Brandon Linder has played at or near a Pro Bowl level at times this season. That's not an exaggeration, and if sixth-round center Luke Bowanko isn't at that level, he's giving cause to think he's going to be good.

Defensively, the numbers are smaller, but the impact is larger.

Has there been a more noticeable rookie than fifth-round linebacker Telvin Smith, a speedy playmaker with potential to be much, much more?

In recent weeks the answer to that question has been, "Yes."

Cornerback Aaron Colvin, who missed the first 10 games while rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury, has been the team's best defensive back in five games since. Colvin, like Smith and Lee, has made enough eye-catching, film-stopping plays to think he could be a core player.

Which brings us to Blake Bortles.

As the No. 3 overall selection – and as the quarterback – he's the crown jewel of the class. Ultimately, the class will be remembered largely for his development. If he succeeds, it will be a success. If not, that's how it will be remembered.

Here's the good news for the Jaguars there: That's starting to look OK, too, because if Bortles hasn't played great in the last month, he has played better. His teammates believe he's the guy, and while he never has acted like he didn't believe it, he's playing with more confidence, more leadership and more of lots of good things.

Bortles still must develop. A lot. That's true of any rookie, and it's true of the entire rookie class. What we have seen this year in fits and starts is potential, nothing more. At least not yet.

But that potential is real, and it makes you think that what we're seeing may be the future of a young, improving, solid franchise. Maybe that's a gift. Maybe it's not.

Whatever you call it, the Jaguars sure needed it.

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