Jacksonville Jaguars 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jaguars have the smallest win total over/under in the NFL at 4.5, which suggests that the odds makers think they are the worst team in the NFL. Bet now on the greatest NFL lines here. However, teams with win totals of 6 or lower go over the total about 2/3rds of the time in that situation, as it’s very hard to be really bad for a long time. The Jaguars are a popular “sleeper” team and are popularly seen as one of the most improved teams in the NFL this off-season. I don’t understand that at all.

They signed Toby Gerhart, a backup from Minnesota, to be their starting running back. They overpaid for Zane Beadles and Ziggy Hood for the offensive and defensive lines respectively. They signed a pair of aging ex-Seahawk defensive linemen in Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. They have young players that could be improved this season, but I really don’t get why people see them as so improved. They drafted a pair of wide receivers in the 2nd round, but rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and they’ll probably be without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon for the entire season. I don’t see anyone on the team who is in the top-200 players in the NFL.

They had the 3rd overall pick in the draft, but they spent it on Blake Bortles, who won’t help them much this season. Bortles could end up being a great quarterback long-term, but the Jaguars are vowing that they’re going to go slow with him and ideally they wouldn’t play him as a rookie. He’ll only end up playing as a rookie if the starter struggles. That’ll probably happen, but either way, Bortles won’t be on the field until it’s too late for him to solve anything, even if he plays great. Obviously, there’s no guarantee he can do that, especially as a rookie.

That starter is Chad Henne, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked quarterback last season, completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. The 2008 2nd pick has completed 59.5% for an average of 6.00 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 62 interceptions in his career. He’s attempted 1876 passes in 6 seasons in the league. He’s 18-32 in his career and needs everything around him to be right for him to make the playoffs.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Everything definitely isn’t right around Henne. The Jaguars signed former Vikings backup running back Toby Gerhart to a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal worth 4.5 million guaranteed. He’ll be the starter and the Jaguars are talking him up as a 300+ carry three-down back. The 2010 2nd round pick clearly has some talent, averaging 4.73 YPC on 276 carries (1305 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns) in 4 years in the league.

However, he has limited action, with an average of 69 carries per season and just 1125 snaps played in his career (an average of 281 snaps played per season). He’s graded out above average in 2 seasons and below average in 2 seasons and has played the majority of his snaps in passing situations, meaning, when he does carry the ball, he’s doing it against a defensive front that’s not expecting the run. The 6-0 231 pounder has caught 77 passes in his career, which is solid, but unspectacular, which is the same way he is as a pass protector. He has some three down potential, but he’s a serious projection to that role. The Jaguars are expected to pound the rock with Gerhart to take the pressure off of their passing game, though that plan is best executed when leading, which the Jaguars probably won’t be doing a lot of this season.

The Jaguars really don’t have another option to run the ball after Gerhart, which is probably why they’re talking him up as a feature back. Jordan Todman will probably be the primary backup. The 2011 6th round pick has 79 career carries, 76 of which were last season. He averaged 3.37 YPC last season, rushing for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries. In his career, he averages 3.34 YPC, rushing for 264 yards and 2 touchdowns on 79 carries. Last season, in the only season in his career in which he saw significant action, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked running back out of 55 eligible, despite such limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He’s not a very good backup. 7th round rookie Storm Johnson could also see action this season. That’s how bad things are.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Gerhart generally ran behind a good offensive line in Minnesota, but that won’t be the case in Jacksonville. They graded out as easily Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked run blocking team last season, a big part of the reason why they averaged 3.33 YPC last season. They were better in pass protection, but still not great, grading out 19th among teams in that aspect. Things don’t figure to be much better this season. The Jaguars signed Zane Beadles this off-season, but they overpaid the ex-Bronco on a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal with 13 million guaranteed.

The 6 million dollars in annual value on that deal is the 10th highest in the NFL among guards. He’s not a top-10 guard. Beadles has been a starter since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010, but he’s been massively inconsistent. As a rookie in 2010, he was very solid as a guard, grading out 22nd among guards on 523 snaps played, but struggled mightily as a tackle. In 2012, he had his best season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked guard. However, in 2011 he was 73rd out of 78 eligible and in 2013 he was 49th out of 81 eligible. All in all, he’s about an average starting guard.

He’ll be an upgrade over Will Rackley, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard in 2011 and 3rd worst ranked guard in 2013 (with a season he missed with injury in between). However, he was still overpaid. Meanwhile, they downgraded the right guard position, cutting decent starting veteran Uche Nwaneri and replacing him with 3rd round rookie Brandon Linder. Linder will be forced into the starting lineup as a rookie, which just shows you how little talent they have, and he should struggle.

The Jaguars also have a downgrade at the center position, with long-time center Brad Meester retiring. Meester struggled in his final year in the league, grading out 29th out of 35 eligible centers, but replacement Mike Brewster could still easily be worse. Brewster was an undrafted free agent in 2012 and has struggled mightily in 2 years in the league, primarily at left guard. Brewster was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked guard in 2012, despite only playing 556 snaps. He then struggled this season on 230 snaps, again primarily playing left guard, but also playing some right guard. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league back at his collegiate position of center, but he’s also a former undrafted free agent who has yet to show that he should have been drafted, so it’s definitely not an ideal situation.

The most promising player on the offensive line for the Jaguars is left tackle Luke Joeckel, who was the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Joeckel struggled mightily as a rookie on 280 snaps at right tackle before going down with a season ending leg injury. He could easily be better in his 2nd year, at his natural position on the blindside, but the blindside is harder than right tackle, where he struggled, he’s coming off of a serious injury, and, while he went 2nd overall, he did so in arguably the weakest draft class of the past 15 or so years. We’ll see how he does in his 2nd year in the league.

At right tackle, it’ll either be Austin Pasztor or Cameron Bradfield, who manned the tackle positions for the Jaguars most of last season with Joeckel out. Both of them struggled. Pasztor is probably the better of the two, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s better when you consider that Bradfield graded out 73rd. Pasztor, a 2012 undrafted free agent, is unproven, but he’s also not quite the proven failure that Bradfield is. He was alright on 219 snaps at right guard as a rookie. Bradfield, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2011 and has struggled mightily in both seasons he’s been a starter in the NFL. I already mentioned how bad he was last season and he graded out 62nd out of 80 eligible as a starter in 2012. Any way you look at it, it’s an awful offensive line.

Grade: C-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

By default, things are probably best in the receiving corps. The Jaguars drafted Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft and both should have significant roles as rookies, which is a concern considering that rookie wide receivers tend to struggle. The reason they were drafted is because the Jaguars are not expecting suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon to play at all this season. Blackmon barely played last season, playing 253 snaps, but the Jaguars will still miss getting anything from him.

Blackmon was pretty impressive when he was on the field last season, catching 29 of 46 targets (63.0%) for 415 yards and a touchdown on 161 routes run, an average of 2.58 yards per route run that was 4th in the NFL. He did all of that despite horrible quarterback play. Lee and Robinson should be upgrades over Ace Sanders and Mike Brown, who were 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver last season, grading out 88th and 104th respectively out of 111 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. However, both will probably struggle as rookies and they’ll miss Blackmon.

With Blackmon likely out for the season, Cecil Shorts will remain as the #1 receiver. Shorts showed potential in 2012, when he caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns on 423 routes run, an impressive average of 2.31 yards per route run, especially when you consider the Jaguars’ quarterback play. The 2011 4th round pick seemed poised for a breakout year in 2013, in his 3rd year in the league, in a bigger role. However, Shorts didn’t live up to expectations and showed himself to pretty much just be a complementary receiver who needs someone opposite him to take the pressure off of him. He clearly doesn’t have that right now.

Shorts caught 66 passes on 117 targets (56.4%) for 777 yards and 3 touchdowns on 472 routes run in 2013, an average of 1.65 yards per route run, grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. He’s not bad receiver and he’s honestly probably their best offensive player, but that’s not saying much. He’s not the #1 coverage changing wide receiver they need. He’s also never played more than 14 games in a season in the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, showing a tendency to get injured.

The only player who gives Shorts competition for the top offensive player on the Jaguars (assuming Joeckel doesn’t have a massive breakout season) is tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis isn’t a fantastic pass catcher, but he’s averaged 1.58 yards per route run since 2009, including 1.37 yards per route run last season. That’s pretty impressive considering what he’s had to deal with at quarterback. His raw pass catching totals don’t seem that good (206 catches for 2577 yards and 20 touchdowns since 2009 in 73 games), but that’s because the way the Jaguars utilize his skill set limits his pass catching production (in addition to poor quarterback play).

The 6-6 261 pounder is a very good run and pass blocker. As a result, he’s very often asked to stay in and pass block, which limits his pass catching production. Since 2009, he has 1 pass block snap for every 3.53 routes he runs, which means he pass blocks more often than almost any tight end. The Jaguars also very rarely line him up off the line, because he’s so good as a blocker. That also limits his pass catching production. Since 2009, only 31.7% of his routes run have come on the slot, which means he lines up off line as infrequently as almost any tight end in the game.

He’s graded out above average every season since 2009 and he was a top-10 tight end in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out at #2 overall in 2010. Much of that is run blocking grade, which isn’t the most valuable part of a tight end’s job, but he graded out above average as a pass catcher in 3 of those 4 seasons. He didn’t do so last season and he only graded out slightly above average overall and also missed 5 games with injury. That’s a concern as he heads into his age 30 season. However, he should remain an asset for them as long as he stays on the field and the 2006 1st round pick only missed a combined 3 games from 2006-2012. Clay Harbor, meanwhile, remains as the #2 tight end. He struggled as a pass catcher and a run blocker on 363 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible. Overall, it’s a pretty talentless offense.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Things aren’t much better on defense, though this is probably their better unit. They don’t have a ton of talent, but head coach Gus Bradley is a smart defensive mind, coming over from the Seahawks, where he was defensive coordinator. Bradley coached up several players last season. Going into his 2nd year as a head coach, Bradley is reunited with Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, two defensive ends who he had when he had a lot of success in Seattle. The issue is that both are aging right now and both are not the players they once were. Both were cut by the Seahawks for cap purposes this off-season.

Clemons was a top-12 4-3 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2012 with the Seahawks. He graded out below average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons, but he excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 4th, 6th, and 4th in pure pass rush grade in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively. However, Clemons tore his ACL in the 2012 post-season and was a shell of his former self in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible on 585 snaps. He still struggled as a run stopper and he wasn’t nearly as good rushing the passer, though he did great out slightly above average in that aspect. He’ll be about 20 months removed from that torn ACL for week 1 so he could be better, but he’s also going into his age 33 season, so there’s a very good chance that he’ll never close to being the same player he once was.

Red Bryant, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season. He’s actually coming off of a solid season in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, grading out above average as a run stopper and below average as a pass rusher. The 6-5 321 pounder is a pure base defensive end, playing 488 snaps last season. At his best, he’s a strong run stuffer and a poor pass rusher, which is what he was last season. He was a similar player in 2010, before missing half the year with injury, and then he struggled mightily in both 2011 and 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 60th 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible in 2012 and 56th out of 67 eligible in 2011. Bryant isn’t as old as Clemons, but he’s aging and he never was as good or as big of a part of Gus Bradley’s success in Seattle as Clemons was.

With Bryant and Clemons aging and both essentially being situational players anyway (Bryant as a base defensive end, Clemons as a sub package edge rusher), the Jaguars are going to need a 3rd defensive end to play a significant role. They may also need a 4th to play a significant role. That 3rd defensive end will be Andre Branch, who played 604 snaps in this role last season. He graded out below average, ranking 32nd among 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. That’s not great, but it’s better than what he did as a rookie, when he ranked 50th out of 62 eligible on 421 snaps. The 6-4 259 pounder is better against the run than as a pass rusher, but he’s not great in either aspect. We’ll see what he does in his 3rd year in the league.

That 4th defensive end will probably be Tyson Alualu and he probably won’t have a big role. Alualu had a big role last season, playing 754 snaps, but he was awful, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, struggling as both a run stopper and especially as a pass rusher. Red Bryant is essentially his direct replacement and he’ll almost definitely be an upgrade. Alualu started his career at 4-3 defensive tackle, getting drafted 10th overall in 2010, but he’s been a massive bust and the 6-2 294 pounder was moved to defensive end last season. He played 3-4 defensive end in college.

He’s graded out significantly below average in every year he’s been in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked defensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2010, their worst defensive tackle in 2011, and their 2nd worst defensive tackle in 2012. The position change didn’t help him and it’s good news for the Jaguars that he won’t play much this season. Owed a 2.37 million dollar salary in his contract year, Alualu is also squarely on the roster bubble.

Things aren’t much better at defensive tackle. Sen’Derrick Marks got a big contract this off-season, re-signing with the Jaguars for 22 million over 4 seasons with 8 million guaranteed. That deal doesn’t make a lot of sense. Marks is coming off of the best season of his career, particularly as a pass rusher as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle in terms of pass rush grade. However, he still graded out below average because he was horrific against the run, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked defensive tackle against the run.

He definitely was better last season than he normally is, largely thanks to the tutelage of Gus Bradley, but he’s still not a great player. He was horrible before last season. The 2009 2nd round pick struggled mightily as a rookie on 200 snaps. He then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked defensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2010, 78th ranked defensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 2011, and 75th out of 85 eligible in 2012. There’s a reason all he could get was a one year deal worth 1.5 million last off-season. He could easily regress a little bit this season and he wasn’t that great last year anyway.

Sadly, Marks is their best defensive tackle. Roy Miller is going to be the other starter for a 2nd straight season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible in 2013. The 2009 3rd round pick has graded out significantly below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league. He was Pro Football Focus 73rd ranked defensive tackle out of 87 eligible in 2009, their 3rd worst defensive tackle in 2010, and their 82nd ranked defensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 2011. His best season in the league was 2012, when he graded out 64th out of 85 eligible. That’s sad.

What’s even sadder is that he isn’t even the Jaguars’ worst defensive tackle. In the weirdest move of the off-season, the Jaguars gave Ziggy Hood, a 2009 1st round pick mega-bust former of the Steelers, a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal with 5.5 million guaranteed. He spent 5 seasons in Pittsburgh as a 3-4 defensive end and graded out as a bottom-4 player at his position in each of the last 4 seasons. The only reason he was even remotely good was his rookie year, when he only played 225 snaps and graded out about average. A switch back to his collegiate position of 4-3 defensive tackle could help him, but I expect him to still struggle mightily in a rotational role. This might be the worst defensive line in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Paul Posluszny had 162 total tackles last season, which was 2nd in the NFL, but that’s misleading. Think about it. Someone had to stop plays for the Jaguars last season. They were bad, but they weren’t letting the other team score on every single play, so someone had to get a bunch of tackles. That doesn’t necessarily mean that player was great. Posluszny wasn’t bad, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season. The Jaguars are keeping him at a 6.45 million dollar salary for 2014 because they have a ton of cap space and need his veteran leadership.

He’s been better in the past, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 and their 9th ranked middle linebacker in 2009, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of his last 4 seasons and each of his last 2 seasons. In 2012, he was even worse, grading out 47th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers. Now going into his age 30 season, Posluszny will be an average starter at best this season, even if he does, once again, get a bunch of tackles.

Geno Hayes will probably be the other every down linebacker, a role he served in last season, grading out 28th out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He was once an above average starting outside linebacker in Tampa Bay, grading out well above average in his first 2 seasons as a starter in 2009 and 2010, but he graded out 40th out of 45 eligible at his position in 2011 and then only played 141 snaps in 2012 with the Bears. Those days could easily be behind him now and he should have another season of being a below average starter on the outside.

The other outside linebacker role will probably be just a two-down role and there’s a three way competition for the job right now. Chris Smith and Telvin Smith are a pair of 5th round rookies, while Dekoda Watson is a relative veteran who appears to be the favorite right now. Watson, a 2010 7th round pick, has flashed in his career, grading out above average in 3 out of 4 seasons in the league, though he’s done it as a reserve on only a combined 742 snaps. He should be qualified for two-down work, provided he wins the starting job. It would be his first season as a starter in his career.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary was the Jaguars’ best defensive unit last season (and maybe their best unit on either side of the ball). That could continue to be the case, but they do have some guys coming off of career years that could regress. However, they could continue to play well thanks to the tutelage of Gus Bradley and they have a pair of 2nd year safeties who could be better this season. Those two safeties are Jonathan Cyprien and Josh Evans, who went in the 2nd round and 6th round respectively in 2013.

They graded out 84th and 76th out of 86 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus last season. Evans was the better player last season, but Cyprien definitely has more long-term upside, which is why he went in the 2nd round. Evans, meanwhile, was benched for Winston Guy down the stretch and will need to compete to win his starting job back. A foot injury has him behind the 8-ball at the moment. He fell to the 6th round so it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter. Winston Guy, a 2012 6th round pick, played 8 snaps as a rookie with the Seahawks and then reunited with Gus Bradley in Jacksonville last season. He struggled on 363 snaps, grading out 73rd out of 86 eligible safeties despite the limited action. He won’t be much better than Evans so it’s really a toss-up who wins this job.

Cyprien, meanwhile, played pretty well in the 2nd half of last season. In the Jaguars’ first 9 games of the season, he graded out significantly below average in 8 of them and below average in all 9. In their final 7 games, he graded out above average in 4 games and significantly above average in 3 games. He missed 1 game with injury and graded out below average in 2 games and significantly below average in 1. The 33rd pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Cyprien could carry over that strong finish into his 2nd year in the league this year.

Things were much better at cornerback, though they might not be as good this season as two players had easily the best years of their career last season and could regress. Alan Ball led Jaguar cornerbacks with 1020 snaps played and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback. However, the hybrid cornerback/safety had graded out below average in 5 of the 6 previous years he had been in the league prior to last year, since being drafted in the 7th round in 2007.

The only season he had graded out above average prior to last year was 2009, when he played just 303 snaps and he played a combined 598 snaps in 2011-2012. The only other season he was ever a starter was 2010, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked safety out of 85 eligible. He could have another strong year this year and Gus Bradley seems to have gotten the most out of the long, lanky 6-1 168 pounder (which is Bradley’s type of cornerback), but he could just as easily regress.

Will Blackmon will continue to start at cornerback opposite Ball. He also had the best year of his career last season, grading out 22nd on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks, tied with teammate Alan Ball. However, much of that was run grade as he graded out slightly below average in coverage, but ranked 2nd against the run. Run play is important for a cornerback, but it’s not nearly as important as coverage so he wasn’t quite as good as his rank suggested. On top of that, he’s the definition of a one year wonder. He played a combined 31 snaps from 2009-2012. Like Ball, he could have another solid year under Gus Bradley’s tutelage and he has the length that Bradley works well with at cornerback (6-0 199), but he could just as easily regress this season.

2013 3rd round pick Dwayne Gratz will start the season as the 3rd cornerback again, but he could easily have a bigger role than the 494 snaps he played last season if either Ball or Blackmon struggles. He graded out above average last season. He graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he played the run well and he still showed a lot of potential. He has some breakout potential going into his 2nd year in the league. Their secondary is more talented than the rest of their defense, but there are still issues here.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Jaguars may have won 4 games last season, but they were even worse than their 4-12 record would have suggested and they were the worst team in the NFL. They finished dead last in DVOA and point differential, with 10 of their 12 losses coming by double digits. Their 4-12 record was buoyed by a 4-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Those 4 wins came against teams that finished a combined 15-49. They also ranked easily dead last in rate of moving the chains differential. They were dead last in rate of moving the chains, moving them at a 64.19% rate. Meanwhile, their defense was 29th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.85% rate. That’s a differential of -11.66%. No one else was worse than -7.45%.

When you look at this roster, it’s easy to see why they struggled. They were grossly mismanaged in the Gene Smith era and they’re only going into the 2nd year of their new front office and it’s going to take time to rebuild. I don’t really see how they are going to be significantly better this season. They didn’t have an unsustainably poor turnover margin or fumble recovery rate last season. They didn’t have an enormous amount of injuries last season. They didn’t have a hard schedule last season. They didn’t have bad luck and lose a lot of close games.

They didn’t add a lot of talent this off-season. They signed Toby Gerhart, a backup from Minnesota, to be their starting running back. They overpaid for Zane Beadles and Ziggy Hood for the offensive and defensive lines. They signed a pair of aging ex-Seahawk defensive linemen in Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. They drafted a pair of wide receivers in the 2nd round, but rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and they’ll probably be without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon for the entire season. I don’t see anyone on the team who is in the top-200 players in the NFL.

They used the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Blake Bortles. He may be their long-term savior, but the Jaguars are wisely going to let him develop on the bench as a rookie so he won’t contribute much, leaving Chad Henne to quarterback an awful supporting cast. This has all the makings of another horrible season this year, possibly even worse than last season in terms of win total. I think this is easily the least talented team in the NFL. I’ll have an official win total after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: 2-14 4th in AFC South

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