While the off season has been full of quarterback and giant video boards talk, the on-field product for the Jaguars this year will be tested in an unglamorous way.
Up front. Both sides.
We can talk about the future for Blake Bortles and whether Chad Henne is the right call all we want. We can debate whether the lack of a real veteran in the wide receiving corps will be exposed by opposing defenses once the regular season starts. And any discussion about the receivers can spark a debate on how the Jaguars spent their draft picks, taking Marquis Lee and Allen Robinson back to back. But any discussion about the success, or lack thereof of the 2014 Jaguars has to start with the offensive and defensive lines.
Acquiring Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Ziggy Hood and Dekoda Watson in the off-season as free agents showed how General Manager Dave Caldwell wanted this 2014 team to perform. Too often last year, double-digit losses early in the season were because when the offense sputtered, the defense couldn’t hold. This season, Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley are hoping the money spent on defensive free agents will keep the Jaguars in games. Bryant and Clemons will start on the defensive line, giving the Jaguars two veteran players who have proven track records. Bryant might be the linchpin, taking up double and triple teams, freeing Clemons, Sen’Derrick Marks and others to beat their man and make a play. At least that’s the plan.
Hood will rotate in and do the same, with the team hoping Watson will have the speed and the instincts to rush the passer when necessary. You might hear the terms “cheetah” and “lightning” thrown around a lot this year in passing situations, both denoting defensive personnel packages designed to get the maximum number of speed players on the field at one time.
The Lone free-agent acquisition on the offensive line is veteran Zane Beadles. Like the defensive newcomers, Beadles is in the prime of his career and has a proven track record. For the Jaguars, he’s the own known quantity up front. Luke Joeckel is technically a second year player and starts at the all-important left tackle spot. But with only 5 games in 2013 before he suffered a season-ending injury, you could call this rookie year 2.0 for Joeckel. He’s already good, worthy of his second overall selection. But he’s not the elite player yet the Jaguars hope he’ll be. The rest of the line is a big question mark. Most coaches admit that linemen in the NFL have a gradual growth in their development. There aren’t any giant leaps forward as there can be with the skill players. So often players are put in situations they’re hoping they’ll grow into. Such is the case of Brandon Linder at right guard. The Jaguars see great “upside” in Linder, so he’s starting right now with the team hoping he grows into the player they think he can be. But he’s not that yet. To his right, Cam Bradfield is a known quantity and a valuable stopgap player until Austin Pasztor returns. But Bradfield isn’t a superstar. And Pasztor is a project in his own right. In the middle, Jacques McClendon won the center job almost by default. Mike Brewster never could perform at the level the Jaguars had hoped he would and McClendon, a guard by trade, was plugged in until Luke Bowanko, a sixth round draft pick, can push himself into the starting lineup.
None of what Toby Gerhardt, Lee, Robinson, Marcedes Lewis or Chad Henne does can be done successfully without the five guys up front getting their job done consistently well. Same thing with Alan Ball, Dwayne Gratz, Jon Cyprien and Winston Guy. Without effective pressure up front and some kind of run stopping force from the D-Line, they’re job is almost impossible.
So watching the game against the Eagles Sunday, look at what’s happening up front. It’ll give you a clue as to what’s going to happen in the back.
And on the scoreboard.