As we know, the Minnesota Vikings and the Jacksonville Jaguars have been practicing together this week in preparation for their preseason contest on Saturday afternoon at U.S. Bank Stadium. Even though the Vikings won’t see the Jaguars again in the regular season until 2020 (also at U.S. Bank Stadium), it’s been good for them to get an opportunity to go head-to-head with one of the NFL’s most talented rosters.
I had an opportunity to exchange some questions with Ryan O’Bleness of Big Cat Country, SB Nation’s home for the Jaguars. He’s posted the questions that he sent me and my answers to them over at BCC, and here are the questions that I sent him along with his responses.
1) Everyone knows that the Jaguars defense is ridiculously talented. The offense has questions, however, so we’ll start with the biggest question the Jaguars might have: Do the Jacksonville Jaguars, and/or their fans, trust that Blake Bortles is the long-term answer at quarterback?
For better or worse, Blake Bortles is always going to be the biggest question mark of this team. He has been heavily scrutinized by both the media and fans throughout his career, and sometimes that was deserved. However, feelings about Bortles are shifting. He was given a three-year extension in the offseason following a great playoff run where he led his team to within minutes of a Super Bowl appearance, and did not turn the ball over a single time in those three games. Fast forward to present day, and Bortles has had a very strong training camp where he has looked poised, confident and in command of the offense. He’s also coming off of a strong performance in the preseason opener, albeit in limited action (one drive). Bortles led a 15-play scoring drive where he completed six of nine passes for 53 yards (including three third down-conversions) and capped it off with a two-yard rushing touchdown.
The problem with Bortles has always been consistency. He has flashed his ability several times, but then would also fall into slumps of poor decision-making, bad throws and turnovers. The Jaguars want to run the ball as often as possible, but there will be times when Bortles has to make plays. In my opinion, 2017 was his most efficient season as a starter, but based on everything I said above, Bortles looks poised for his best season yet in 2018. The joint practices and game against the vaunted Vikings defense will really let us know where he currently stands.
2) Staying with the offense, a couple of seasons ago Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns were mentioned among the up-and-coming receiver duos in the NFL. Now neither of them are with the Jaguars anymore. Who are some of the guys that Bortles will be throwing to, and who is considered the #1 receiving threat in the Jacksonville offense?
The Jaguars don’t really have a true “No. 1 receiver” in the traditional sense where there is a guy who commands double teams or you can count on in every situation. In terms of the depth chart, Marqise Lee is the closest guy they have to a No. 1 wide receiver. What Jacksonville does have, however, is a deep, and I think underrated, group. Donte Moncrief came over in free agency from Indianapolis and will likely start on the outside with Lee. Dede Westbrook is a second-year player who has made highlight-play after highlight-play in training camp and has more than likely earned a lot of playing time this season. Keelan Cole was an undrafted free agent last season that ended up leading the team in receiving yards in 2017. He will be on the field a lot, and I expect him to work out of the slot often. Jacksonville also used a second-round pick on LSU product D.J. Chark, who has been nothing short of impressive as a wide out so far, and also adds value on special teams.
The Jaguars also signed tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul in free agency. Bortles and ASJ have already seemed to develop a nice chemistry in practice. Players like Rashad Greene, Shane Wynn, Jaydon Mickens and UDFA Allen Lazard are all battling for the sixth receiver spot.
So, this is definitely not a group that people look at and immediately think of big-name guys, but I believe the wide receivers in Duval are gong to surprise some folks.
3) One of the big stories this week was the Jaguars suspending Jalen Ramsey and Dante Fowler for this week’s practices and preseason game. We’ve seen that the Jaguars defense likes to talk (and with good reason. . .they’re really good), but is this the start of a potentially larger issue with the defense or just a blip on the radar?
I certainly hope this will not snowball into anything larger, but head coach Doug Marrone said he does not expect this to be a problem in the locker room when Ramsey and Fowler return on Monday, and I trust his input. Marrone has been very tight-lipped about the situation and is making sure it is kept as an internal issue. Fowler was involved in several scuffles, including with fellow defensive end Yannick Ngakoue -- who starts over Fowler despite being a third-round draft pick. The two had to be separated by teammates when they got into on the field, and then they had to be separated by security off the field, as things got heated again when they were leaving the facility. I can’t say that I know why these two got into it, as again the Jaguars are keeping details under wraps, but fights amongst teammates at training camp aren’t all that uncommon. What is a little bit strange, though, is that normally when teammates get into fights, it’s players from opposing sides of the ball. So, it’s definitely a situation to keep an eye on, but I think this was made into a bigger deal than it actually is, and hopefully the team is just able to move on from it.
Ramsey was suspended for going after local media members. He was actually sticking up for teammates as he thought the media was portraying them poorly.
4) With all of the incredibly talented players on the Jacksonville defense, who do you feel is the most vital player on that side of the ball for your team?
This is a great question, but a tough one to answer. Calais Campbell is a veteran and a leader. He’s coming off of a first-team All-Pro season with 14.5 sacks in his first year in Jacksonville. Weak-side linebacker Telvin Smith is also taking on more of a leadership role as his mentor, Paul Posluszny, retired. He has recorded more than 100 total tackles in every season he’s been in the league. Then of course, you have two All-Pro cornerbacks on the outside in Jalen Ramsey -- arguably the best (and best trash-talking) cornerback in the league -- and A.J. Bouye, who would be a No. 1 cornerback on a lot of other teams. Pro Bowler Malik Jackson isn’t talked about near as much as he should be, but does his job very well. Ngakoue is the master at the strip-sack. Myles Jack is taking over at middle linebacker, and he is in for a breakout season. Then the two safeties in the back, Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church, quietly make up one of the best safety duos in the league.
You really can’t go wrong with anybody I named above, but if I had to choose one as “most vital,” my pick would be Campbell. He just seems to get better with age. With the pressure he applies on opposing quarterbacks, he makes everybody’s jobs in the second and third levels that much easier. With that said, Ramsey is still the guy that I would never want to see in another uniform, if that makes sense,
5) In the four years leading up to last season, the Jaguars didn’t win more than five games in a year. Then, in 2017, they went 10-6 and were a quarter away from going to their first ever Super Bowl. How much of that do you feel was the change to Doug Marrone at head coach and how much do you feel was the talent that the Jaguars had stockpiled over previous seasons finally coming together?
I think Doug Marrone, along with former Jaguars head coach and current executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, had a lot to do with the turnaround. They didn’t just come in and change some schemes around, they completely changed the culture. Gus Bradley, the prior head coach, was all about “getting better every day,” while Marrone and Coughlin are results-oriented and put much more of an emphasis on actually winning. Marrone, similarly to Coughlin, runs a tight-ship and has put his guys through a grueling training camp so far, which recently included 11-straight padded practices in the Florida heat.
However, general manager Dave Caldwell deserves some credit, too. He was scrutinized early on in his tenure for some of his decisions, but his recent drafts and free agent signings have been very impressive. In the 2016 draft alone, the Jaguars acquired Ramsey (Round 1), Jack (Round 2) and Ngakoue (Round 3). Campbell, Bouye, and Andrew Norwell this past offseason were al huge free agent splashes. Telvin Smith was a fifth-rounder in 2014. Last year, the Jaguars traded up in the second round to get Cam Robinson, the team’s current starting left tackle. In the 2018 draft, Caldwell plucked Leon Jacobs out of the seventh round, and he is already the team’s starting SAM linebacker. And we’ve already talked about Keelan Cole as an undrafted free agent.
So, to answer your question, it’s all of the above. Marrone changed the attitude and got his team to buy-in, Caldwell has lured some major stars here and found diamonds in the rough, and Coughlin’s involvement with the team has been huge. Other executives, such as Tony Khan (senior vice president of football technology and analytics) have also had a hand in finding some undrafted free agent contributors.