Hope. That's the best word to describe the Jaguars season in 2013. And it came despite one of the worst starts we've ever seen from an NFL team. (Although they secretly weren't the worst team in Florida.) Heading into their Week 9 bye, the Jags were a winless joke, a speedbump on the schedule for everyone else in the NFL.
The scoreboard often looked like the Jags were playing baseball at a middling level:
It was perfectly reasonable to assume Jacksonville would go winless and keep the 2008 Lions from popping bottles. But a funny thing happened after the bye: Jacksonvilles started winning.
They weren't necessarily handling good teams, but they beat the Titans in Week 10, the Texans in Week 12, the Browns in Week 13, the Texans (again) in Week 14 and OHMYGOD THAT'S A WINNING STREAK Y'ALL.
It was real weird when the Jags started trying to knock on the door of the AFC Wild Card at 4-9. They'd eventually lose out but it seemed like Gus Bradley's enthusiasm took hold of a young roster learning on the fly. Four wins isn't cause for celebration but it's better than, literally, nothing.
What Went Right
Youth. Particularly on defense. In the secondary second-round pick Jonathan Cyprien looks like a future star at safety and Dwayne Gratz could be a steal at cornerback. Andre Branch, a 2012 draft pick, came alive at times in 2013 and finished with six sacks.
GM David Caldwell wasn't afraid to scour the land in search of potential contributors, bringing in guys off the street who ended up getting pretty good run. A great example was Sen'Derrick Marks, who started 16 games at defensive tackle, finished with four sacks and landed an extension out of the whole deal. Will Blackmon and Alan Ball also made an impact in the secondary.
I can't quit either Denard Robinson (who had a meh season) or Ace Saunders (who filled a hole at receiver and could develop nicely).
What Went Wrong
Despite the optimism above, there was still a lot wrong with the Jags season. The final dagger was plunged in Blaine Gabbert's run at being a franchise quarterback -- he'll likely be one of just a few first-round rookies from 2011 to not get a fifth-year option. Chad Henne started but anyone who tells you he's a bridge to the future has a bad taste in bridges.
Maurice Jones-Drew struggled again in 2013 and is nearing the end of his time in Jacksonville. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and will be a free agent this offseason. Caldwell and Co. will let him test the market which means he could be in a new uniform next season unless he's willing to take less money to stick around with a reduced role. On the bright side he did throw a touchdown!
Justin Blackmon was suspended indefinitely and played just four games in 2013. That he averaged 103.8 yards per game in a season where he was barred from playing because of the Substance Abuse Policy perfectly sums up his career so far. Caldwell called Blackmon's return a "luxury" during the NFL combine.
Jason Babin led the team in sacks with 7.5. Despite all the talk about drafting a quarterback (and there's good reason for that talk) this is a team that badly needs pass rush help in the draft or free agency as well.
A trade of Eugene Monroe slotted Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, into the left tackle spot. He immediately suffered a season-ending injury. The future's still bright for him but that was a tough burn.
Bradley. On a team where there weren't a tremendous amount of strong performances, I'm giving the "award" to the coach who kept his team motivated despite an 0-8 start. He's a large part of the reason for optimism going forward.
Blackmon. Getting four games out of 2012's top draft pick and potentially losing him going forward is an absolute nightmare. It's even more frustrating when you see how well he played at times.
What Has Happened Since the End of the Season
Not a whole lot. Jacksonville's in pretty good shape with their free agents. There weren't wholesale changes coming to the coaching staff or roster anyway between now and the start of the new league year.
Impending Free Agents
Jones-Drew is the biggest name and he's free to walk but could return. Henne's also on the list of guys who could walk but it's not as if he earned some massive contract because of his play last year. Jacksonville still gives him the best chance (for now) to start. Brad Meester retired after playing his entire career in Jacksonville.
Free-Agency Game Plan
Caldwell is almost as rich as his boss, Shad Khan, with Spotrac.com giving the Jaguars more than $55 million in cap space for 2014. Don't expect him to spend it all in one place, though. Jacksonville is playing it slow as they try to fashion a sustainable roster that maximizes their assets.
If a difference-making player like a Greg Hardy or Jimmy Graham hit the market (my bet is neither will) then maybe Jacksonville goes on a spree. Otherwise I'd expect a little more aggressive approach than you saw last season with similar principles.
Jacksonville's front office knew making it rain in free agency would just be a Band-Aid over a bullet wound; we saw them attempt that before 2012 and the results were disastrous.
Draft Game Plan
The No. 3 pick is a fascinating one. If Jacksonville goes with a quarterback -- either Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel, presumably -- Caldwell will start his franchise quarterback "clock." (It's why not drafting anyone last year was really, really smart.) If Jadeveon Clowney is there at the third pick it's hard not to snag him. Same goes for Sammy Watkins if Clowney is gone.
If they go quarterback up top, nabbing pass rushers in later rounds is almost a must. Any running back they grab -- and they'll need one -- has a good shot of getting carries in the future.
Ridiculously Premature Prediction for 2014
A much more competitive year for Jacksonville from start to finish. They won't make the playoffs unless they draft a quarterback and that quarterback is substantially better than anyone really expects. But if they add players like they did in 2013 then next year should be an improvement. The coaching staff had a strong influence on this roster. Gus Bradley's a walking cup of espresso and he kept his guys trying the entire season. He'll do the same thing in 2014 with slightly better results.
Predicted Record: 6-10