* *JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser examines what we learned about the Jaguars during the 2016 offseason program
1.The Jaguars are better.You couldn't watch this team during organized team activities and minicamp and not see the dramatic increase in talent level. There are potential core players at every position, with most positions having a combination of talented youth and veteran experience. A lot of jelling must still take place, but the foundation is being built.
2.The Jaguars are faster.The additions of Dante Fowler Jr., Yannick Ngakoue, Myles Jack, Jalen Ramsey and Tashaun Gipson should make an immediate difference. It was notable throughout the offseason, and that was without Ramsey participating and Jack missing all but two practices. Lack of speed has hurt the defense in recent seasons. It lacks it no more.
3.Jalen Ramsey is wearing No. 20.We learned this Tuesday, thus ending "23Gate," as it never was really known. Ramsey, a cornerback and the No. 5 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, coveted No. 23, but second-year veteran James Sample coveted it more and had the advantage of already having the number. He declined to give it up even after Ramsey offered compensation. When the Jaguars released safety Craig Loston last week, Loston's No. 20 became available. Ramsey took it, and gave up No. 38 in the process. So, now we can rest.
4.Dante Fowler Jr. is healthy …The second-year defensive end was a major storyline entering the offseason; he's a major source of optimism exiting it because he may have looked better than any other Jaguars player during OTAs and minicamp. He showed no aftereffects of the torn anterior cruciate ligament that kept him out his entire rookie season, and showed the quickness and agility that made him the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. The Jaguars need Fowler to be a pass-rushing factor off the edge. He looks like he could be just that.
5. … and so is Marqise Lee.If any player challenged Fowler as the on-field story of the Jaguars' 2016 offseason, it was Lee. The third-year wide receiver stayed healthy the entire offseason, and as a result could have a far bigger role than in his first two seasons. That would give the offense a dimension it hasn't had in recent seasons. "Compared to last year we're really excited about him," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said.
6.Tashaun Gipson may be the free-safety the Jaguars have needed …While defensive tackle Malik Jackson was the Jaguars' highest-priced, highest-profile free-agency signing, Gipson may have been just as important. Gipson has the look of the sideline-to-sideline free safety the Jaguars have lacked the past few seasons. "What it allows us to do is really just play the [defensive] system the way it was designed to play with when Gus [Bradley] and I were in Seattle," defensive coordinator Todd Wash said of Gipson's addition.
7…. and Gipson may indeed improve two positions.The hope after signing Gipson was his presence would allow strong safety Johnathan Cyprien to focus on the box-safety role at which he is most comfortable. Coaches remain optimistic about Cyprien in that role. "We're excited about it," Wash said, though there will be competition between Cyprien and second-year veteran James Sample in training camp.
8.Julius Thomas is going to be a factor.The veteran tight end looked consistent in OTAs and minicamp and made big plays in the passing game. Although and Bortles struggled at times to get in synch last season, their chemistry improved this offseason. "I had a couple of things designed for them here especially in the last two of days minicamp and they were on the same page and had some nice completions, so it was good to see that," Olson said during minicamp last week.
Images from the Jaguars second day of mandatory minicamp.
9.Ramsey could get an early look at nickel.The Jaguars like having rookies learn one position before moving to another. That's the plan for Ramsey, too, but Head Coach Gus Bradley talked late in minicamp about getting Ramsey a look at nickel, too. He has the skill set to play there, and with Aaron Colvin suspended for the first four games, Ramsey theoretically could address a short-term issue.
10.The Jaguars are going to be creative on third downs.The defense struggled on third downs last season. They addressed that in a big way with the addition of Jack, Ramsey, Malik Jackson, Gipson, cornerback Prince Amukamara and Ngakoue. But look for the Jaguars to also use more looks and vary their scheme more in passing situations next season.
11.There will be heavy rotation on the defensive front.Look for the Jaguars to keep at least nine defensive linemen, perhaps 10. Dante Fowler Jr., Yannick Ngakoue, Jared Odrick, Tyson Alualu, Malik Jackson, Sen'Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Abry Jones, Sheldon Day and Michael Bennett … all 10 could be on the roster. With Ryan Davis and Dan Skuta also regularly rushing the passer from the "Lotto" position, or from the Leo, this team is going to play a lot of players up front defensively.
12.The offense has improved.While defensive additions were the offseason focus for many observers, the continued improvement of the Jaguars' offense is a huge priority. Though explosive last season, the offense wasn't efficient or consistent enough. Olson said he liked Bortles' mental improvement in the offseason and sounded pleased with the offensive improvement overall. "It's just night and day from where we were a year ago at this time," he said.
13.Bortles made strides.Olson has said it often and said it again last week: "the development of Blake Bortles is still the No. 1 priority for us." More importantly, both Bortles and Olson said Bortles emerged from the offseason with a better knowledge of the offense. He also appeared to gain chemistry with not only Thomas, but Lee and Rashad Greene.
14.Optimism is high.Just as you couldn't be around this team in the offseason not see increased talent, you couldn't not feel the optimism. This team believes it will be dramatically improved. Players believe it's time to win and they're saying it. Five weeks until training camp. Stay tuned.