Senior NFL Columnist

Jaguars camp report: New regime's focus is getting Gabbert in spot to succeed


The Jags need Eugene Monroe to help protect the QB; Andre Branch will add push to the pass rush. (AP)  
The Jags need Eugene Monroe to help protect the QB; Andre Branch will add push to the pass rush. (AP)  

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It was ugly, gross, pathetic, horrible, pedestrian, disgusting and any other negative adjective you can find to describe the Jacksonville Jaguars' 2011 passing game.

With rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggling, a line that was a sieve at times, receivers who couldn't get open or catch and an offensive system that was something out of 1977, the passing game had no chance.

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In a league where passing numbers were at all-time highs, the Jaguars were on the other end. They were last in the NFL in total offense, passing yards per game and passing yards per play. Gabbert finished with a 65.4 passer rating, the lowest of any starting quarterback in the league. Yes, even behind Curtis Painter.

The new staff intends to change that. Gone are coach Jack Del Rio and his run-first ways. Mike Mularkey and his offensive coaches plan to let Gabbert do more.

With running back Maurice Jones-Drew holding out, this summer is about getting Gabbert ready to take a big step.

"I don't see some of the things last year I saw on tape," Mularkey said. "I see him much more balanced in the pocket. He is accurate. To his left, he still has some errant throws. He can get the play and call it without 'give it to me again, give it to me again.' I've been around a lot of those guys. Once he hears it, he's in the huddle and calls it. He has a lot of confidence about him. He hasn't let any of the stuff written about him get to him."

Gabbert has been shredded this offseason, even though few realize he's the youngest player to start 14 games at quarterback in NFL history.

There has been talk he's soft and squeamish in the pocket, afraid to stand in and take shots.

"I can tell you this: That's the last thing he is," Mularkey said.

The Jaguars added free-agent receiver Laurent Robinson and drafted Justin Blackmon in the first round to help. Blackmon isn't signed, but he will get in at some point. Mularkey also expects improvement from some younger receivers.

But this is the summer of Gabbert. If it isn't the season of Gabbert, the Jaguars might have to go back and find a guy next April.

I don't think that will be the case.

Team Objectives

 Improve the pass rush. The Jaguars were 24th in sacks per pass play last season. That's why they drafted Andre Branch in the second round. He has impressed so far in camp and should be able to give them an edge rusher to go with underrated Jeremy Mincey, who had eight sacks last season and re-signed as an unrestricted free agent. Austen Lane is also coming back off an injury.

 Get better play from the receivers. They dropped way too many passes last season and really struggled to get open. Robinson got off to a slow start in camp, but he impressed for much of the offseason. Blackmon has a lot of work to do to catch up because of the missed time. Keep an eye on second-year player Cecil Shorts. He caught one pass last season as a rookie, but he has impressed new receivers coach Jerry Sullivan.

 Solidify the offensive line. Gabbert took a pounding last season -- some of it self-inflicted -- but the line needs to play better. The return of right tackle Eben Britton will help. Guy Whimper played for him last season and he was a turnstile. Britton was good as a rookie in 2009, but has battled injuries, including back problems, since then. It doesn't help that both left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Will Rackley are missing time with injuries. Monroe's is minor, but Rackley will be out three to four weeks with an ankle injury.

Camp Battles

Starting cornerback: Veteran Rashean Mathis is coming off a season cut short by a torn ACL, but he is back working in full. His top competition is Aaron Ross, signed as a free agent from the Giants. Ross is a capable starter, but if Mathis is healthy I expect him to win the job and Ross to move inside in the nickel. Either way, both should be on the field a lot. Projected winner: Mathis. He's a better cover player when he's healthy.

Backup running back: It's either the No. 3 job or No. 2 job depending on whether Jones-Drew shows up. Rashad Jennings is in as the starter for now, but there is depth behind him. One guy who has flashed so far is Jalen Parmele. He has been the most impressive back of the group besides Jennings. DuJuan Harris and Richard Murphy are also in the mix. Projected winner: Parmele. He has showed some elusiveness as he gets second-team reps with Jones-Drew not around.

No. 3 receiver: Shorts has added body weight and looks stronger and really seems much more confident. Coming out of Mount Union, he was raw. He flashed last summer but then disappeared. Look for him to press Mike Thomas for the No. 3 job if Blackmon gets into camp soon. If not, he might end up as a starter. Thomas has to pick it up. He is the most experienced, but he hasn't had a good camp so far. Projected winner: Shorts. Call it a surprise, but this kid has the look of an NFL receiver.

Somebody to Watch

When the Jaguars drafted defensive tackle Tyson Alualu in the top 10 of the 2010 draft, it was a big shock to many. The Jaguars loved the kid, but something happened on his first day of practice that has held him back since.

After flying from Hawaii to Jacksonville, he was put into an Oklahoma drill against mauling guard Vince Manuwai, even though some urged the coaching staff to keep him out. Manuwai crunched him and Alualu's leg buckled, tearing the meniscus. He played that season with the injury and then didn't have it fixed afterward because of the lockout.

He then played a second full season with the injury, rarely practicing and earning high praise from his teammates. He wasn't great, but he was much better than some supposed experts would lead you to believe.

"That guy is a warrior," Mincey said.

Alualu had surgery in the offseason and looks to be stronger and quicker and could be ready to live up to the expectations of his draft spot.

Just keep him away from any Oklahoma drills.

Injury Roundup

 G Rackley. He started as a rookie in 2011 and had some good games, one against Haloti Ngata. But he wasn't strong enough. He came back to camp bigger and stronger, but now he will miss time with the ankle. That will put veteran Jason Spitz in as the starter for now. Sptiz is capable, but not having Rackley will be felt.

 LB Clint Session. He has concussion issues that forced him to injured reserve last season and there's talk he might not play this year. Russell Allen, a third-year player, would take his spot. Allen is more than capable, but depth becomes a problem.

 DE John Chick. He is coming off a major knee injury and likely won't play this season. He's barely running now.

 CB Reggie Corner. The Jaguars placed him on IR this week with a knee injury.

The Last Word

New owner. New coach. New era.

New results?

Not this year. Next year is the year for this young team.

The Jaguars will make strides this season, but it might not show up in the win-loss record. The schedule is tough. They will play a lot of close games because of the defense. If they can find a way to win them they might get to .500.

If Gabbert were to suddenly morph into a 3,500-yard passer with 20-plus touchdowns, maybe they get more.

But I think this is his growing year -- he will be better than most expect -- as is the case for many of the young players, and then they take the big step in 2013.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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