The short version of the 2011 Jags' offense: outside of Maurice Jones-Drew, there wasn't one. But with a new coaching staff and quarterback Blaine Gabbert entering his second NFL season, the hope is that the passing game can serve as something other than a distraction from the rushing attack. Jacksonville traded up in the April draft to take wide receiver Justin Blackmon, and signed Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans in free agency. Blackmon has the potential to be special while Robinson and Evans are complementary players who would benefit from a legit No. 1 and a bona fide franchise quarterback. On paper, the Jags have both. Now it's just a matter of helping both Blackmon and Gabbert mature into those players.
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Gabbert's progress is dependent on several things. Most important: he has to overcome his timidity in the pocket, a condition that plagued him for most of his rookie season. Yes, he had one of the worst wide receiver corps since the invention of the forward pass, but he was also the beneficiary of the league's best run game, thanks to MJD. The bigger issue for Gabbert was one that bedevils most rookie QBs: pre-snap reads, identifying coverages and being decisive. It can be overwhelming. So the new coaching staff will be tasked with putting Gabbert in position to succeed, a scenario familiar to head coach Mike Mularkey, who was the Falcons' offensive coordinator when the team drafted Matt Ryan in 2008.
Jacksonville won five games in 2011 (including twice against hapless division rival Indianapolis). It's reasonable to suggest that the Jags' defense played a big part in any success the team had last season. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Jags went from dead last in defensive efficiency in 2011 to No. 5 in 2012. It was one of the 10 biggest year-to-year improvements in the past 20 years.
The D was just as good against the pass and the run (fifth overall in both), and if not for a string of injuries during the second half of the season, the unit might've been even better. The injury bug didn't discriminate, either, affecting the front seven as well as the secondary. The former meant a less effective pass rush; the latter saw a team so desperate for warm bodies that it was signing players off the street late in the year. If this unit had an Achilles' heel (beyond staying healthy) it was getting to the quarterback. Jeremy Mincey led the team with eight sacks, more than twice as many as any other Jaguars defender (Matt Roth and Daryl Smith were tied with 3.5). So after the Jags got their big-play wideout in the first round of the NFL Draft, they used their second-round pick on Clemson pass rusher Andre Branch. If Jacksonville's front four can consistently get into the backfield, it will free up linebackers Smith and Paul Posluszny to attack the line of scrimmage. The other beneficiaries: an underrated secondary that heads into training camp healthy. Veteran Rashean Mathis should be back from a November ACL injury, and Derek Cox will line up opposite him. Strong safety Dawan Landry, who was surprisingly effective in his first year with the team, will join steady-as-he-goes free safety Dwight Lowery, formerly of the Jets.
Staff: Former Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey replaces interim coach Mel Tucker as head coach (Tucker had replaced Jack Del Rio, who was fired in midseason); Tucker remains as defensive coordinator; former Falcons quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski replaces Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator; former Dolphins special-teams coach John Bonamego replaces Russ Purnell.
It was something of a surprise when the Jaguars gave Laurent Robinson, a one-year wonder in Dallas in 2011, a five-year, $32 million contract early in free agency. That said, Jacksonville's situation at wide receiver was such that they had to do something, even if that meant overpaying for a player who before last season never caught more than 37 passes or two touchdowns in a season. In Gabbert, the organization has who they hope is their franchise quarterback, and now they've surrounded him with people who can actually get open and catch passes. And even if Robinson doesn't duplicate his 54-catch, 858-yard, 11-TD effort of a season ago, paired opposite Blackmon, he'll be an upgrade over what passed for wideouts in 2011. (For some perspective: Mike Thomas led the Jags in receptions with 44. Second on the list? Maurice Jones-Drew. Third? Tight end Marcedes Lewis.
New head coach Mike Mularkey was criticized in Atlanta for his vanilla schemes. His replacement with the Falcons? Former Jags offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, a proponent of the vertical passing game, who in Jacksonville was handcuffed by an inexperienced QB and a dearth of playmakers. So it will be interesting to see what Mularkey does with an offense that, outside of MJD, doesn't have an identity. Any progress this unit makes will hinge on the play of the offensive line, which, not surprisingly, was above average as run blockers but much less so in pass protection. Some of that has to do with MJD's experience and skills and Gabbert's lack thereof.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has experience working with young signal callers; he was in Cincinnati when Carson Palmer arrived in 2003 and from 2004 (Palmer's first year as a starter) till 2007 (the season before he was sidelined with an elbow injury), the Bengals were regularly a top-five offense.
X-Factor: Maurice Jones-Drew
Jones-Drew wants to get paid. And we don't blame him. He led the league in rushing last season and it's not an exaggeration to say he was the Jags' offense. He accounted for a staggering 48 percent of the yards from scrimmage in 2011 (Jacksonville's total offensive yards: 4,149; MJD's contribution: 1,606 rushing, 374 receiving). The problem: Running backs, in general, are fungible, which means that the organization could choose not to rework Jones-Drew's contract and instead use that money to sign several cheaper backs who, on average, would be nearly as productive.
On the one hand, the Jags are coming off a 5-11 season and are rebuilding; what do they have to lose by not signing MJD? On the other hand: If Gabbert doesn't improve, Blackmon takes longer than expected to adjust to the NFL, and free-agent acquisitions Robinson and Evans struggle, Jacksonville's best offense might be their scorning defense. Not only that, but the platitude "a running game is a young quarterback's best friend" certainly holds for Gabbert's development. He had his problems last season and MJD was the offense. The Jags have upgraded the talent around Gabbert, but without MJD standing behind him in the backfield, it might not matter.
Henne as the fallback?
In March, Jacksonville signed Chad Henne to a two-year deal. Henne had four pedestrian seasons in Miami but some of that was a function of the offense he played in, the players around him and bad luck. The 2011 season was his best -- Dan Henning and his antiquated scheme was replaced by Brian Daboll, the Dolphins had Brandon Marshall, and Henne, for the first time in his four-year career, looked comfortable. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury in October ended his season and the organization chose not to re-sign him. Mularkey has already said that Gabbert is his starter, but if 2012 starts to look like 2011, Henne could (and should) get a look.
Special teams focus
Josh Scobee accounted for 40 percent of the team's points last season. He was so valuable that the Jags franchised him, though Scobee (like every other franchise player on the planet) would prefer a long-term deal. Either way, special teams shouldn't be overlooked, especially by teams with very little margin for error. It explains why Jacksonville didn't want Scobee to get away and it also sheds some light on why the organization used a third-round pick (!) on Cal punter Bryan Anger. Here's what we wrote shortly after the draft:
"No one doubts that Anger has starter ability. The problem: The Jags lost 11 times last season and it wasn't because they didn't have a top-flight punter. And this isn't the first time in recent draft history that Jacksonville drafted a punter. In 2007, they selected Adam Podlesh in the fourth round, and thought so much of him that they let him walk after the 2010 season. He signed with the Bears and played well in 2011. The lesson: A team with myriad roster needs shouldn't be preoccupied with landing the 'best' punter when starters can regularly be found after the draft."
CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco went so far as to call it the " worst move of the draft -- by any team."
AFC scout on Jacksonville: "Blaine Gabbert or
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
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2012 Preview Schedule
Texans @ Jaguars: 9/16 (1 p.m. ET)
Jaguars @ Texans: 11/18 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Colts @ Jaguars: 11/8 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Jaguars @ Colts: 9/23 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Titans @ Jaguars: 11/25 (1 p.m. ET)
Jaguars @ Titans: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
There's no surprise with the offensive package in Jacksonville. It's get the ball to Maurice Jones-Drew 24-25 times a game as a runner or receiver. He accounted for 48 percent of the total offense and 11 of the 20 touchdowns they scored on offense. Things may not be much different this season unless MJD decided to hold out.
The Jags' running game predominantly comes out of the 21 personnel package (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and it is based on a stretch zone scheme. MJD is his own best blocker with 825 of his rushing yardage after contact. Blaine Gabbert is only in his second season but is already under the microscope as a guy that has to prove he can play from under center, utilize the play action pass scheme screaming to be used off the MJD run game and have a 300-yard passing day when the team needs one.
Marcedes Lewis was a pro bowl tight end two years ago but didn't catch a single TD last year. He is athletic enough to be a threat in a flexed position. Justin Blackmon will not get any rolled coverage his way as long as MJD and a fullback are on the field, and that presents excellent first down passing opportunities. Last year, Gabbert threw on first down 130 times as compared to Cam Newton's 214 throws. The Jags' new head coach Mike Mularkey has to find a way to make Gabbert more effective or we will see Chad Henne.
The Jaguars' defense is better than people think. They held eight teams to 17 or less points and still managed to lose three of those games. Their inside triangle (DT, DT, MLB) is stout with Tyson Alualu, Terrance Knighton and Paul Posluszny.
The Jags' pass rush needs help, and that's why they drafted DE Andre Branch. Last year, when this team had one or zero sacks, they were 0-6. The secondary is a question mark but their first three games are Minnesota, Houston, and Indianapolis, and they have a chance to experiment with man.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
The immediate success of A.J. Green (Bengals) and Julio Jones (Falcons) a year ago gives Jaguars fans high hopes that first-round pick Justin Blackmon will be able to quickly acclimate to the NFL. Historically speaking, however, wide receivers rarely make a significant impact in their first year in the league, and Blackmon already has off-field issues to contend with.
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Talented pass rushers, however, are often able to help their team immediately, which is one of the reasons why the Jaguars' second pick of the 2012 draft -- defensive end Andre Branch from Clemson -- could wind up playing a more important role in Jacksonville in 2012.
At 6-4, 260 pounds, Branch is slightly undersized. His lack of prototypical bulk and strength versus the run means that he'll fit best in a 4-3 scheme at right defensive end (against the left tackle), which will place him opposite Jeremy Mincey. Branch flashes an explosive first step off the ball to challenge left tackles, as well as the lateral agility and long arms to elude pass blockers.
Branch is very athletic, light on his feet and changes directions easily.
The rest of the Jaguars' picks:
1st Round - No. 5 overall - Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
2nd Round - No. 38 overall - Andre Branch, DE, Clemson
3rd Round - No. 70 overall - Bryan Anger, P, California
5th Round - No. 142 overall - Brandon Marshall, LB, Nevada
6th Round - No. 176 overall - Mike Harris, CB, Florida State
7th Round - No. 228 overall - Jeris Pendleton, DT, Ashland