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Senior NFL Columnist

Jaguars training camp: Coaches should change take on starting Bortles

Is it a stretch to think of Blake Bortles as the Jags' starting QB? (USATSI)
Is it a stretch to think of Blake Bortles as the Jags' starting QB? (USATSI)

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you walked into Everbank Field on Saturday night to watch the Jacksonville Jaguars scrimmage, you would have come away thinking rookie Blake Bortles is the team's starting quarterback.

He isn't. Nor will he be when the season opens.

The staff might want to re-visit the idea of sitting him and playing Chad Henne after what transpired in the team's scrimmage here.

Henne wasn't bad. He completed his share of passes -- 14 by unofficial count -- but they went for 75 yards. Bortles, the team's first-round pick and third player taken overall in the May NFL Draft, hit on nine for 79 yards.

I am a big believer in playing Bortles right away, even if the staff has repeatedly said they won't. On this night, even some so-called skeptics had to re-consider the idea that sitting him is the best option. The feeling is that Bortles is making bigger strides than most in the organization expected at this juncture.

But the team's approach is Bortles will watch early this season -- no matter what happens in preseason.

On Saturday night, Bortles showed he's a gamer, the kind of player who might not light it up on the practice field but shows up in game-like situations and games. He was clearly a different-looking player in the scrimmage than what he has shown on the practice field.

"He had really good poise back there," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. "Really good poise."

Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said earlier this week that Bortles was showing a marked improvement over where he was in OTAs and minicamps. I asked Fisch what he meant by that.

"I think it came down to his ability to communicate the game is where his biggest advancements were," Fisch said. "So when I was talking about his ability to play faster, his decision making, and that aspect of it. Like down there [backed up in end zone]. He checked to a pass when we were backed up and got us a 30-yard gain on the sideline. You guys saw him step-back, check, and then step back under. I wouldn't say a lot of rookies in OTA would have felt comfortable. He made a good check and then converted it."

The Jaguars are quick to praise Henne as well. But, unlike Bortles, he seemed hesitant to drive the football in the scrimmage. Bortles did get away with a bad deep ball that he threw late, but other than that it was a pretty clean performance, although Fisch said he did blow a few play calls.

That's to be expected. Henne is the starter for now. But if Bortles continues to play the way he did Saturday night, it might put a little pressure to re-think those plans to keep him on the sidelines to learn for most of this season.

Curse of the Jags' WRs?

What is it with the receiver position and the Jacksonville Jaguars?

It's almost as if it is cursed.

Think about the history. They had the Andre Rison disaster in 1996, leading to his being cut for a variety of missteps. Then Jimmy Smith had his well-documented issues that cut short his career. That was followed by the troubles of R. Jay Soward, Matt Jones, Reggie Williams and Justin Blackmon, four first-round picks all proving to be disasters because of off-field issues.

Then this year's camp starts with Ace Sanders, who caught 51 passes last season, being suspended for four games and then leaving the team to take care of his personal issues.

Next the injury bug hit hard.

Cecil Shorts, the No. 1 receiver, goes out for a month with a hamstring issue. Then rookie Allen Robinson, who had impressed, tweaked his hamstring and is out for a couple of weeks. On the same day, Tandon Doss went down with an ankle injury.

Keenan McCardell, you available?

"I don't think it's jinxed," Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said after this team's scrimmage "We're looking to the future, not the past."

The right now doesn't look so good. With Shorts, Robinson and Doss out, the Jaguars were left with rookies Marqise Lee, a second-round pick, and Allen Hurns, a free agent from Miami, working with the first team at Saturday's scrimmage.

"It's a way to test the receivers we do have," Fisch said.

How can the quarterbacks and the passing game get any continuity with so many receivers down?

On Saturday, the Jaguars signed former Florida State receiver Kenny Shaw, let go by the receiver-needy Browns in July. He can also help with return punts, something Sanders and Doss were going to do.

For now, it's a position of concern. And history hasn't been kind to it, that's for sure.

Cecil Shorts' injury is among the snafus plaguing the Jags' receiving corps. (USATSI)
Cecil Shorts' injury is among the snafus plaguing the Jags' receiving corps. (USATSI)

More camp notes

The defensive front should be much improved. The additions of end Red Bryant and Chris Clemons from Seattle will key the improvement. Bryant, a massive run stuffer, will anchor left end, while Clemons will be the right end in pass-rush situations. The Jaguars also added Ziggy Hood from Pittsburgh and they are counting on big improvement from third-year player Andre Branch, who has had a good camp rushing the passer. He had seven sacks last season, but needed to improve his one-on-one techniques -- and the staff feels he has done that. The staff has been giving him high praise this summer. The key to improving the pass rush is stopping the run, which is where Bryant will play a big role. He is one of the best run-playing defensive ends in the league. "He's big. I think if you talk to our offensive linemen, that's the one thing that will come back. Clem [Chris Clemons] and Andre Branch are really good, they've got all this -- but Red's a different issue," Bradley said. "He's big, he's strong and he's something to deal with. And that's what you want to do defensively. You want to create some uniqueness and some difficulties for the offense." The Jaguars had 31 sacks last year. Expect that number to go up in 2014.

For most of their time in the league, the Jaguars have not had concerns at running back. They had Natrone Means and James Stewart early, then Fred Taylor followed by Maurice Jones-Drew. But Jones-Drew wasn't brought back -- he signed with Oakland -- and the team decided to sign Vikings backup Toby Gerhart. The staff feels Gerhart has few carries on his body and has been productive when given the chance. Backing up Adrian Peterson, he got only 276 carries in four seasons in Minnesota. He had 36 carries last season, but averaged 7.9 yards per attempt. The Jaguars hope to give him 20 or so carries a game. He's also effective as a receiver with 77 catches in four seasons with the Vikings. Keep an eye on rookie Storm Johnson, who has done some good things in camp, as a backup. Gerhart sat out the past two days with muscle tightness, but it isn't something the team expects to keep him out for long.

The offensive line was a disaster last season, but should be better in 2014. The return of second-year tackle Luke Joeckel, the team's first-round pick last year (second overall), will help in a big way. He started the first four games at right tackle last season, then moved to the left side, his more natural spot, when Eugene Monroe was traded to the Ravens. In his first start against the Rams, Joeckel fractured his ankle and was lost for the season. He's healthy and working on the left side with free-agent signee Zane Beadles at left guard. The right side is more of a concern. Austin Pasztor did a nice job at right tackle last season, a surprise to the team, but he played through a shoulder injury that required surgery after the season. He has been practicing in camp and will be the starter. The other two spots are wide open. Rookie third-round pick Brandon Linder has the inside track at right guard, although he dinged an ankle last week. He is battling Jacques McClendon, who is also battling Mike Brewster inside for the center spot. Neither McClendon -- who has been waived by four teams -- nor Brewster has an NFL start at center, which is why the Jaguars signed Cleveland's Alex Mack to an offer sheet.

The Jaguars have really done a nice job sprucing up Everbank Field, spending $63 million to do so. They've added cabanas and pools and the two biggest scoreboards in the world. They are doing everything they can to make it a pleasant experience. They are also added field seats, which will give fans another unique vantage point to watch the games. That's on top of owner Shad Khan already spending a lot of money to improve the locker rooms and training facilities. So quit all that talk about this team moving. There is also a chance that Khan is going to develop the Shipyards property adjacent to the stadium. The idea is to build condos and an entertainment district, and I hear a practice facility that would include an indoor bubble to help get through the heat of the summer would also be in the plans. So even though the Jaguars are playing games in London, don't think they are moving there anytime soon.

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