AFC South: Jarett Dillard

Mike Mularkey and his wide receivers coach, Jerry Sullivan, have had some time to consider their group and decided in the past couple days that Jarett Dillard is not part of the solution at a spot where the team is looking to upgrade.

That’s two players the Jaguars once thought would be a help at receiver they’ve dumped. Kassim Osgood, a quality special-teamer Gene Smith thought could grow into an effective receiver did not do so after he was signed in 2010 and was cut earlier this offseason.

Now Dillard is gone. He was drafted in the fifth round in Gene Smith’s first draft in 2009 when the Jaguars put a lot into receiver. Mike Thomas was a fourth-round pick, Dillard a fifth-rounder and Tiquan Underwood a seventh.

Only Thomas remains.

No. 5 pick Justin Blackmon should lead the group with free-agent addition Laurent Robinson. Thomas should now be the No. 3, which is the best role for him. They’ll round out the group with Taylor Price, Brian Robiskie, Lee Evans and Cecil Shorts in line for the fourth spot and beyond.

As for Dillard, he dealt with some injuries and never really flashed. A fifth-rounder is hardly a guarantee and has to have done more to stick heading into his fifth season considering he was due about $1.3 million this season.

The Jaguars cut five others in addition to Dillard: quarterback Dan LeFevour, safety Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, receiver Nelson Rosario, receiver Jarrett Boykin and defensive end Frank Trotter.

They added seven who were part of the recent minicamp on a tryout basis -- quarterback Jordan Palmer, fullback Naufahu Tahi and defensive tackle Odrick Ray, receiver Mike Brown, receiver Chris Forcier, linebacker Donovan Richard and defensive back Jeremiah Brown.
Justin BlackmonJerry Lai/US PresswireJustin Blackmon had 1,522 receiving yards and 18 TDs for Oklahoma State last season.
Blaine Gabbert finished last year throwing to Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard, Chastin West and Cecil Shorts.

General manager Gene Smith was charged with giving a quarterback he traded up for last season better people to aim for.

And Smith has come through, trading up from seventh to fifth and nabbing Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. He’ll join free agent additions Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans, a reclamation project, in trying to transform the Jacksonville passing offense.

Blackmon stands to be the team’s best receiving option since Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.

The Jags gave up No. 7 and No. 101 in the fourth round to Tampa Bay for No. 5 and the right to add Blackmon.

Hard to find any issue at all with that.

If they find a pass-rusher next, this will be a rousing success.

Who triggered 2012 incentives?

February, 9, 2012
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Brian McIntyre of Mac’s Football Blog has done a tremendous job tracking base salary increases for 2012 triggered by things that happened in 2011. (Hat tip to Alan Burge of the Houston Examiner.)

McIntyre's updated list currently includes 10 players from the AFC South:

Here they are, with their base salary increases:
Brown did good work establishing himself as a premier left tackle and is now slated to earn $2,081,500 -- still quite a reasonable price. Nwaneri is not quite at that level, but he set the tone for a line that produced the league's leading rusher. Nwaneri will now make $2.775 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dillard is now scheduled to make $1,260,000. He’s going to have to have a big offseason and camp to prove he’s worth that.
We’ll wait until next week to start building the All-AFC South Team, and you’ll have a big chance to offer input there.

This week we’ll pass out hardware for individual awards.

Drum roll please:

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Joseph
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJohnathan Joseph, new to the Texans in 2011, helped revitalize Houston's secondary.
Player of the year: Johnathan Joseph, Texans cornerback. Runner up: Brian Cushing, Texans inside linebacker.

Joseph, Cushing and Antonio Smith were the players I sorted through here, and you can make a case for any of them. While the Texans were a better defense at every level, it was the secondary that had the biggest room for improvement. Joseph’s ability to match up with a team’s best receiver eased the pressure on everyone else in the secondary and helped transform a miserable pass defense into an excellent one. In the Texans’ playoff loss in Baltimore he blanketed Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, rendering him a non-factor.

Offensive player of the year: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars running back. Runner up: Arian Foster, Texans running back.

It’s hard to fathom that Jones-Drew was the NFL rushing champ considering that defenses could regularly key on him without fear of any real threat from the passing offense, which ranked dead last in the NFL. He showed no signs of wearing down and averaged 100 yards a game. It felt like a waste on a five-win team. Foster missed some action early with hamstring issues or he would have likely challenged Jones-Drew in rushing yards. He’s a tremendous combination of power and speed and does excellent work as a pass catcher.

Rookie of the year: J.J. Watt, Texans defensive end. Runner up: Brooks Reed, Texans outside linebacker.

Watt was installed as a starter the moment the Texans drafted him and was an impactful player from his first snap. A relentless player, he was a force against the run and the pass and played beautifully in concert with the rest of the defensive front. His ability to get his hands on balls at the line of scrimmage turned into a monumental interception return for a touchdown in the playoff win over Cincinnati. Reed filled in very well after Mario Williams was lost for the season and may actually help the team decide Williams is expendable.

Best assistant coach: Wade Phillips, Texans defensive coordinator. Runner up, Mel Tucker, Jaguars defensive coordinator.

Phillips was a factor in the personnel decisions that brought Joseph, Danieal Manning, Watt and Reed into the fold for Houston. In his first year as defensive coordinator, he injected a huge dose of confidence into the Texans defenders and wisely drew up schemes that featured guys’ strengths and marked their weaknesses. The sort of turnaround the defense made in one year is practically unheard of. In Jacksonville, Tucker was given a huge boost with new personnel, but as he took over play-calling from Jack Del Rio, he excelled.

Best position coach: Dave Ragone, Titans receivers coach. Runner up, Vance Joseph, Texans secondary coach.

Ragone had no experience working with receivers coming into this job, but did fantastic work. He deserves a great deal of credit for the vast improvement and maturation of Nate Washington and the emergence of Damian Williams as a threat and Lavelle Hawkins as a guy who did some good things with the ball in his hands. In his first season with the Texans, Joseph helped some guys regain confidence while overseeing a successful move of Glover Quin from corner to strong safety.

Executive of the year: Rick Smith, Texans general manager.

He had lots of help, but completely nailed free agency, signing Joseph and Manning rather than Nnamdi Asomugha. And the top of the draft was fantastic, with Watt and Reed. As Houston suffered injuries at running back, receiver, linebacker and even punter, the Texans showed good depth and an ability to fill in holes with quality outsiders.

Best unit: Texans offensive line. Runner up: Texans linebackers.

Led by center Chris Myers, who may be the division’s most unsung player, Houston’s offensive line blocked consistently well for the run game and protected three different quarterbacks well. Left tackle Duane Brown and right tackle Eric Winston both earned mentions on various All-Pro teams. Antoine Caldwell filled in nicely when Mike Brisiel missed time at right guard. The Texans linebackers, even without Mario Williams, did spectacular, work stuffing the run and swarming quarterbacks all season long.

Worst unit: Jaguars receivers. Runner up: Colts cornerbacks.

Mike Thomas might be a No. 2 receiver and can certainly be a good No. 3, though his play in 2011 dropped off after he got a contract extension. But Jason Hill, who started as the No. 2 guy, wound up getting cut and guys like Jarett Dillard, rookie Cecil Shorts, Chastin West and Kassim Osgood did little to show they were NFL-caliber guys. Blaine Gabbert suffered the consequences. The Colts were insufficiently stocked at corner, though Jacob Lacey bounced back well late in the season after he was benched.

Most improved: Nate Washington, Titans receiver. Runner up: Connor Barwin, Texans outside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Timothy T. Ludwig/US PresswireFollowing a big contract signing prior to the season, Titans RB Chris Johnson failed to play up to the high expectations.
Washington’s maturation was remarkable. An excitable guy really calmed down and settled in working under offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and Ragone and with Matt Hasselbeck. Washington figured to be better with those guys while working as the No. 2 behind Kenny Britt, but Britt was lost for the season early on and Washington wound up with a 1,000-yard season and seven touchdowns. I give him the nod because I didn’t believe he had untapped upside. That was not the case with Barwin, who the Texans have expected to be a pass-rushing force since they drafted him in 2009.

Most disappointing: Chris Johnson, Titans running back. Runner up: Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars tight end.

I don’t care what sort of defenses are offered up for Johnson. He simply did not run as hard after coming out of a holdout with a giant new contract. There were other issues, but too often he appeared to lack fire and desire. In the rare instances he wound up in a one-on-one situation he was hardly the threat he’s been in the past. If he doesn’t bounce back in 2012, the contract will turn out to be disastrous. Lewis was supposed to be transformed by his MMA training during the lockout. If it impacted him, it made him worse. Expecting another 10 touchdowns was unreasonable. Producing none was unacceptable.

Best position revamp: TIE, Jaguars safeties and Texans safeties.

Both teams were terrible at the position a year ago and despite a draft class that was incredibly thin, reshaped the spot with great results. The Texans shifted Quin from cornerback and he was very solid alongside free-agent addition Manning. The Jaguars signed Dawan Landry from Baltimore and traded for Dwight Lowery, shifting a guy who’d played mostly corner to play with Landry. Applause to both teams for fine work addressing a trouble position.

Surprise of the year: T.J. Yates, Texans quarterback.

The finish in the playoff loss to Baltimore was a big disappointment. But Yates took over a good team when Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down in quick succession and played beyond what could reasonably be expected from a fifth-round rookie quarterback.

Colt of the year: Pat Angerer, middle linebacker.

As Indianapolis was not mentioned here at all, we create this category for the Colts. Angerer showed himself to be a quality starter who has to be in the lineup going forward. That may mean the end of Gary Brackett, the veteran middle linebacker who was hurt in Week 1 and missed the season. Angerer is a rangy, instinctive player who’s sure to impress new general manager Ryan Grigson.

Finding positives for Blaine Gabbert

December, 26, 2011
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When Jacksonville Jaguars interim coach Mel Tucker called Blaine Gabbert “courageous” last week, Tucker lost credibility with regard to his public reviews of his rookie quarterback.

Monday, Tucker’s comments about Gabbert were more measured and more in line with the things I have been hearing from those who maintain it’s too soon to make any sort of final judgment about him.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Jim Brown/US PresswireDespite a dismal rookie season, Jags QB Blaine Gabbert has shown some superior playmaking skills.
“When he comes off the field and you ask him and his coaches ask him what he saw, he’s very, very accurate and I think that’s huge with a young player or any player,” Tucker said in comments to Jacksonville media on Monday. “When a player can come off the field and tell you exactly what he saw, what the defense was and why he did what he did, that’s a good sign.”

Moments are all we have in terms of seeing that for ourselves. On an early third-and-12 in Nashville Saturday, Gabbert took off running.

There was no real chance for him to reach the sticks, but I would have liked to have seen him do more -- try more -- than slide super early, settling for 4 yards.

Elsewhere, two plays in the game struck me as significant if we’re looking for reasons to maintain a degree of faith in Gabbert’s ability to improve as the Jaguars see a new owner take over and hire a new coach.

On a first-quarter third-and-6 from the Jaguars’ 22, he senses Dave Ball closing from his left, dipped and stepped forward with his eyes still downfield, squared his shoulders with another rusher coming hard from his right and hit Jarett Dillard for an 11-yard gain.

Gabbert had two opportunities to conclude the pocket was collapsing and the rush would get him but he kept trying to find something and connected on a conversion.

In desperation catch-up mode in the fourth quarter, with the Titans playing a bit softer as they tried to preserve a 23-10 lead, Gabbert took a shotgun snap on fourth-and-10 from the Tennessee 24. He moved right as Jurrell Casey dove for his ankles, then ran hard to keep Ball from getting him and threw to Dillard on the right sideline for a 21-yard gain.

Again, his head was up, he reacted fine to pressure and he found a play.

Those are just two snaps. They hardly wash away a poor rookie season during which he’s not played well on a team that hasn’t protected him consistently enough and which has horrible receivers.

But if you’re looking for hope that he can handle a rush, keep looking downfield and deliver a throw that can keep an offense moving, there are two plays you can point to.
Five things to look for tonight in the Jaguars game at Atlanta tonight:

Khan! He won’t take over the team until Jan., but Shahid Khan’s been approved by the league to buy the Jaguars. He will be at the Georgia Dome to watch his new team for the first time tonight, and NFL Network cameras are sure to find him. He was absolutely beaming as he participated in a news conference after approval, and he figures to start off all smiles at kickoff. But if things go badly for Jacksonville early, the expression under the mustache might change.

The defensive backs: Jacksonville is ridiculously thin in the secondary. Cornerbacks Ashton Youboty and undrafted rookie Kevin Rutland have both had some good moments. But surely Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterback Matt Ryan see the potential to attack on the outside and win.

Points: The Jaguars hadn’t topped 20 points all season until they exploded for 41 last week in a romp against the Buccaneers. The Falcons are playing good scoring defense. In the past month they’ve given up 23, 17, 14 and 17.

The receivers: Both Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts are out with injuries. With them, Blaine Gabbert’s got a super limited number of weapons. Without them we’ll see if newcomer Taylor Price and youngsters Jarett Dillard and Chastin West can make any plays. Mike Sheppard’s been working as the receivers coach for a couple weeks now, is he able to have a positive influence on this group?

Energy: High motor defensive end Jeremy Mincey qualifies as a tone-setter for the Jaguars. With a short turnaround and a road game, the team needs to show some hop against a team that’s primed to be a playoff entry. I’ll watch Mincey to see if he can provide the sort of early spark that could serve notice the Jaguars won’t go down easily.

Wrap-up: Jaguars 41, Buccaneers 14

December, 11, 2011
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Thoughts on the Jaguars’ 41-14 win over the Buccaneers at EverBank Stadium:

What it means: The Jaguars got their fourth win of the season and first under interim coach Mel Tucker in what had to be a cathartic day for a team that had lost three in a row and endured the firing of Jack Del Rio and the news that the team was being sold. Tucker got an ice water bath at the end. The Jaguars showed they can still play with life, can still beat another bad team and can, as is often the case, get massive production out of Maurice Jones-Drew. He turned 33 touches into 136 yards and four touchdowns.

What I liked: The defense had five guys in the starting lineup who weren’t slated to start at the beginning of the season and still managed three sacks, three interceptions, six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries (with special teams contributing, too).

What I also liked: Offensive production from people and places other than Jones-Drew. Blaine Gabbert threw two touchdown passes to MJD, the rookie quarterback's second week in a row with two TD strikes. He also made a great deep throw to Marcedes Lewis for a 62-yard gain and found receiver Jarett Dillard five times. Running back DuJuan Harris got just one carry, but took it 24 yards.

What I want to know: If this win changes anything for most people when they learn the Jaguars will be in the Thursday game this week, their second prime-time appearance in three weeks. Rhetorical question, as I know few people outside of Northern Florida excited to see a 4-9 team.

What’s next: The Jaguars have a quick turnaround, playing Thursday night at the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons.

Tucker and Jaguars alter staff, roster

November, 30, 2011
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Two things buzzed around the Jaguars' offense as things fell apart this season, producing a 3-8 record that got Jack Del Rio fired.

The wide receivers were insufficiently coached by the inexperienced Johnny Cox.

[+] EnlargeJacksonville's Mel Tucker
AP Photo/Rick WilsonJaguars' interim coach Mel Tucker made several moves on Wednesday.
Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert wasn’t getting as much quality, hands on coaching from quarterback coach Mike Sheppard as he needed.

Mel Tucker’s staff move Wednesday suggests both sentiments were correct. The Jaguars’ interim coach let Cox go, and shifted Sheppard to receivers. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will take control of the quarterbacks.

Del Rio didn’t really have a lot of options in terms of staff. His assistants only had one year remaining on their contracts. Anyone he added would have had the same, and the best assistant coaches find more security than that.

Quarterbacks coach Mike Shula jumped to Carolina in the offseason, and Del Rio shifted one of his best teaching assistants, Todd Monken, from receivers to quarterbacks. Then Monken bolted for an assistant job at Oklahoma State, and Del Rio had to shuffle again.

Now, Tucker clearly sees the potential for addition by subtraction.

The team also made roster moves at receiver. Jason Hill, who’s been in the No. 2 role all season, was released. That makes room for more playing time for Jarett Dillard, rookie Cecil Shorts and Chastin West.

The Jaguars also signed running back DuJuan Harris from their practice squad, signed cornerback Morgan Trent and put safety Courtney Greene on IR.

Perhaps Harris will have a chance to earn touches in front of the struggling backup to Maurice Jones-Drew, Deji Karim.

Greene is the 18th Jaguars to go on the list, a league high.

What I think they should be thinking

November, 14, 2011
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What I think they are thinking, or should be, in the headquarters of the four AFC South teams this afternoon…

Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak gave a bunch of banged up guys the sort of light practice week they needed, then set them loose on Sunday in Tampa Bay. We won easily, boosting our record to 7-3. Based on our tie-breaker head-to-head result with the Steelers, we’re the best team in the AFC right now. The bye will feel oh so good, and we’ll get a rest we deserve. We’ve played catch up in a lot of seasons while unsuccessfully chasing a playoff spot. Now we’ll be a team being chased. We feel more than ready for such a beautiful reversal. A break and six games to the finish line, with Andre Johnson thrown back into the mix will make for fun times going forward. Who’s got our combination or success, belief and talent right now?

Indianapolis Colts

You mean we have to come back? This bye thing sounds great, are we sure we can’t just be dismissed for the remainder of the season? It’s silly to hear coach stand up and talk about improving and being close and all of that, but what’s he supposed to do? We don’t need public statements from Jim Caldwell or Bill Polian or Chris Polian to know the sad and obvious truth. We’re terrible. We’re going to get the No. 1 pick in the draft and set off a massive storyline about Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. There is no way after those verdicts are rendered that we should expect Manning to return and things to return to “normal.” If he’s himself and he’s back, he needs more to work with and a better defense to get him back the ball. Our scouts better be working extra.

Jacksonville Jaguars

We beat a horrible team, as we should have, and our defense carried us, as it should have. But the trip to Indianapolis was a good measuring stick for our offense, too. And the fact is, against a terrible team, it did enough to win but not enough to get excited about. Why would we hesitate for a second to do anything now that doesn’t serve Blaine Gabbert’s chances to succeed and grow? This coaching staff is going to be cleaned out, and the good guys from it will land in places with jobs that are just fine. But their parting gifts here can be to grow their early stake in Gabbert’s career. And maybe something like a key touchdown catch from Jarett Dillard will spark someone like Dillard to life.

Tennessee Titans

Yeah, we’re not quite sure who we are either. But people overrated the Panthers and we jumped to a lead, did great work against Cam Newton and showed we’re a good deal better than Carolina. Being better than them and being as good as the best teams in the AFC are two very different things, though. When Baltimore loses in Seattle it dilutes our biggest accomplishment of the year. Our toughest challenges have not been our best days. So in Atlanta we need to show how we measure up to a contender, on the road. The challenges the Falcons will provide will be way tougher than what the Panthers brought. Are we good enough to win that one, or do we prove again to be average?

Three things: Jaguars-Bills

August, 27, 2011
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Three things to look for in tonight’s Jaguars-Bills preseason game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. ET.

Jack Del Rio has said David Garrard’s his starter at quarterback. But if he’s bad in this game and rookie Blaine Gabbert is good, there is still room for mind-changing and it will give added volume to Garrard’s critics. Garrard has said he and the Jaguars need to drive to touchdowns and show some rhythm and tempo on offense. He won’t have Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield, Zach Miller available to catch passes or Eben Britton to block for him at right tackle. It’s a situation where a reliable veteran should ease any concerns. Can he?

The pass rush did OK last week but has only one sack in the preseason. Now one of the most effective rushers, Jeremy Mincey, is out with a concussion and Aaron Kampman also stayed home. If the front can get Buffalo quarterbacks off their spot, great. It would be good to see them get a QB to the ground as well, helping kill drives and possessions.

Young receivers will get chances. The team cut Tiquan Underwood to ensure guys like Jarett Dillard, Armon Binns, Jamar Newsome and Dontrelle Inman will get a solid look. Even if the team is set in going with Mike Thomas, Jason Hill and Cecil Shorts as the top three, it needs to see what it has beyond that.

Sunday reads: Quality team previews

August, 21, 2011
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Andy Benoit’s thorough Fifth Down previews are always a good read, so I thought I’d pass them along and get you started with an with an interesting chunk of each.

Houston Texans

“By constantly changing up [Andre] Johnson’s route tendencies and where he aligns in various formations, the Texans prevent a defense from finding a comfort zone and rhythm in its coverages. Defenses that get brazen and try to defend the 223-pound receiver straight up get burned (Johnson has great wheels and is too strong for most cornerbacks to even think about jamming). Defenses that commit the proper safety help leave themselves vulnerable to other mismatches -- usually involving a linebacker on Owen Daniels.

“Now more than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, Daniels will most likely re-establish himself as the smoothest tight end in all the land. He has remarkably soft hands and a natural feel for turning upfield. While Daniels battled the knee in ’09 and a hamstring in ’10, the Texans discovered a second practical receiving tight end in Joel Dreessen. He is used as a blocker, too, and compensates for mediocre power with fantastic technique.

“It’s a surprisingly typical receiving corps outside of Johnson.”

The full preview.

Indianapolis Colts

“Starting outside receiver Pierre Garcon is one of the physically strongest catch-and-run weapons in the N.F.L. The Colts will need a breakout season from Garcon, a fourth-year pro, because, with the exception of center Jeff Saturday, none of their older veterans have shown as stark a decline as Reggie Wayne. This may sound preposterous considering Wayne is coming off a 111-catch, 1,355-yard season. But in an offense as proficient as this, the numbers will always be there (especially when your quarterback attempts 679 passes). What’s more important is how those numbers are obtained. Are they coming against double teams and coverages tilted his direction over the top? Or are they against a lot of soft zones, where a receiver can get by on timing and precision? This is not a rhetorical question -- there’s an answer: zones. Wayne can still feast on zones. But in a private moment with all walls down, the Colts’ brass would probably tell you that Wayne is no longer explosive enough to consistently separate against quality man coverage. (Which may be why he has not received the long-term contract he desires.)”

The full preview.

Jacksonville Jaguars

“We know the Jaguars don’t believe they can be great with [David] Garrard. They’re right. His arm strength is ordinary at best and he’s not a sharp progression passer. Scrambling ability aside, he can only play within the basic confines of an offense, which means just about any big play the Jags strive for has to be deliberately manufactured by [Dirk] Koetter. That’s a caretaking quarterback to a T.

"Exacerbating the passing game’s mediocrity is an underwhelming stash of resources at wide receiver. Jason Hill runs well and can go over the middle, but there’s a reason he has caught only 51 passes in his five-year career. Mike Thomas can admiringly be described as a compressed version of Hines Ward, but stocky 5’8” receivers with good track speed but only decent football speed don’t become stars, no matter how excellent their blocking might be.

The fight for the No. 3 receiving job is uninspiring. In one corner is the oft-injured third-year pro [Jarett] Dillard. In the other is Cecil Shorts, a fourth-round rookie from Division III Mount Union. Possibly in the mix is Kassim Osgood, whose business card has always had ‘special teamer’ written in bigger font than ‘wide receiver.’”

The full preview.

Tennessee Titans

[Chris] Johnson’s life will be much, much easier now that Matt Hasselbeck is under center. Though the soon-to-be-36-year-old is struggling to learn a new system for the first time in his 13-year career, he’s still sure to be a marked upgrade over Vince Young. Young’s decision-making ineptitude and subpar pocket passing allowed defenses to crowd eight and even nine defenders in the box. Unless Jake Locker -- who, as a fairly inaccurate, run-first quarterback at Washington, is essentially another version of Young only with (Tennessee hopes) thicker skin and more maturity -- gets on the field, defenses will have to at least hesitate before dialing in completely on Johnson.”

The full preview.
Welcome to David Garrard’s world, Blaine Gabbert.

Jacksonville’s rookie quarterback started in New England on Thursday night.

He made some good and quick decisions. But he was ultimately undone by rookie inexperience and, in part, by the same things that often helped undo the veteran he is expected to sit behind. Gabbert’s protection broke down and allowed three sacks and his targets -- including Mike Thomas, Tiquan Underwood and Zach Miller -- dropped passes.

The Patriots beat the Jaguars 47-12 in the preseason opener for both teams as Gabbert played the first half, completing 9 of 16 passes for 85 yards.

New England defensive back Patrick Chung also got in on the drop action, sparing Gabbert an interception on a poorly thrown ball behind and over Jarett Dillard in the second quarter.

At least one other problem from last season resurfaced, poor tackling by cornerbacks. Second-string corner David Jones flailed on a couple tackles in key spots and rookie Rod Issac had a bad miss early in the third quarter. Another corner, undrafted rookie Terrence Wheatley, got lost in coverage a couple times before intermission.

Gabbert was the most significant Jaguars' story, though. When he left the game it was 19-9. The Patriots poured it on from there.

He showed composure considering it was his first action in an NFL game setting, playing with first-stringers (minus some key guys) against a team that sat a large share of front-liners. He also held the ball too long at times and made some bad throws that had nothing to do with protection or the hands of his targets.

All in all, it was the sort of outing you’d expect.

It’s likely his work comes later next week against Atlanta, presuming Garrard’s back is better.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars aren’t looking for parades or pinwheels as congratulations. But in the two years since Gene Smith took over as general manager, they’ve basically gutted the roster. And while setting about a major rebuilding project, they remained competitive with a 7-9 season and an 8-8 campaign.

After another draft and an active free-agency period, they now feel the rebuild is complete.

“There is an expectation level in this league to win, and I think having some horses makes us all smile in this building,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think we went out and acquired some guys for the second and third level of our defense where we talked about needing some help. ... It’s going to help us be a whole lot better.

“The pressure, the demands, that’s part of what we do, and I love that part of it. It becomes a little more enjoyable when you know you’re getting closer to being on equal footing."

Del Rio’s not buying that the Colts are slipping, and he’s not waiting for them to. The in-house expectation is that this team is capable of competing for the AFC South crown no matter what any other team in the division has going for it.

Bolstered by four upgrades among the top 12 players on defense, Jacksonville is a team that should be much improved. The Jaguars won’t be a popular pick, but they could be a surprise, emergent team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert and David Garrard
Phil Sears/US PresswireThe Jaguars say they will develop Blaine Gabbert (left) slowly and have David Garrard take the snaps as the team's starter.
1. Will there be a quarterback controversy? The team stands firmly with David Garrard and intends to bring first-round pick Blaine Gabbert along slowly. But Gabbert has looked great early, while Garrard tends to be inconsistent. There are bound to be times during the season when there is some pressure to make a change from inside team headquarters, not just from media and fans.

“If we ever get to the point where we think Blaine is better than Dave, that’s good for the Jaguars,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Because I think Dave is good enough to win with; I think we can win our division with Dave Garrard at quarterback. If Blaine is better than Dave, shoot, that’s good for us.”

Del Rio and Koetter could have a complicated job managing how and when to play Gabbert if they feel he’s forcing his way into the lineup.

“I’ve got a healthy appreciation for the desire out there to make it a story,” Del Rio said. “For us, we’re about maximizing our opportunities as a football team, playing the guys who give us the best chance to win games and working on the preparation. ...

“Through the course of competition and exposure and based on health, those factors kind of take care of themselves. I don’t think we have to get ahead of the story. I think we can just let it play out, and at least we are doing so from a position of strength. There is no reason to make it dysfunctional, make it unhealthy. What purpose does that serve? It’s not going to help us win more games.”

It sounds good, but it can get complicated. Garrard’s the guy right now, and the team and the quarterback need to do a better job of making sure he gets hit far less so he can make consistently good decisions with the ball.

Factor tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller and running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings into the mix with the receivers, and the Jaguars have sufficient weapons to complement a run-based offense. Mike Thomas, Jason Hill and Cecil Shorts could be a better three-pack of receivers than many people think.

2. How much better can the revamped defense be? If this defense doesn’t improve from 32nd against the pass, 28th overall and 27th in points allowed, Del Rio will lose his job.

The team shelled out $37 million guaranteed to three prime free agents: linebackers Paul Posluszny and Clint Session and safety Dawan Landry. The Jags also added nickelback Drew Coleman.

That group, plus rookie defensive backs Chris Prosinski and Rod Issac, should vastly improve the defensive production and depth.

Smith wanted to build foundations early and spent his first two drafts working on the lines. Defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton should take up all kinds of blockers and create space for the two new linebackers and the underrated Daryl Smith to make a lot of impact plays.

“Jacksonville’s interior D-line really stood out,” Posluszny said about his research as a free agent. “They’ve got two studs in the middle that are very active, get to the ball a lot and certainly are going to take up a lot of blockers.”

Safety play last season was horrific, and Landry will be a significant upgrade even though he didn’t bring Ed Reed with him from Baltimore.

“I’m not looking for any grace period to assemble this defense,” Del Rio said. "Guys we’re assembling and counting on for the most part are veterans. ... We’re going to expect to play coming out of the gate as a winning football team, and defensively we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

3. Can they play well late in the season? December is a debacle for this team.

In the past three seasons in games played in December and beyond, the Jaguars are 4-11. They need to learn to finish games and seasons better. What can change it?

“I think in Week 13 or something, we had a better record than the Packers did last year,” Daryl Smith said. “They got hot, and who would have thought they would go on to win? That could be us. Why not? We have to try to stay off of that roller coaster, try to be consistent, just get better each week. Steady, steady, steady, then come late November or December, get hot.”

“I’ve been in the playoffs twice since I’ve been here and that’s been the formula. … We can’t feel like we arrived when we have a good game or played well and won a couple games.”

Del Rio says that with a more talented roster, he has to guide it to better work in the last quarter of the season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeAusten Lane
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireJacksonville could look to Austen Lane to help solidify their defensive line.
Beat writers and fans call Austen Lane “The Bringer of Pain.” It’s funny. But he looks like a guy who will make it hard for the team to look anywhere else for its second starting defensive end. He can be a ball of fury, and that will fit right in with the tone and tempo of the rest of the defensive front.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Right tackle Eben Britton came in with a reputation as a nasty player, and the team missed him last season when he was lost with a shoulder injury. I’ve picked him as a breakout-caliber guy this season. But word is he has not been great so far. Perhaps he’s still being cautious and easing his way back, but he needs to take things up a big notch soon.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Two years ago, people were writing off center Brad Meester. But defenses were taking advantage of weak guard play to get to him. He rebounded well last season and is a guy whom coaches love as a reliable offensive line leader.
  • Knighton’s weight always will be an issue. The defensive tackle is a great player and superlikable guy. The team cannot hold his fork for him. The more he can control it, the more impact and money he will make.
  • Prosinski could well be in the opening day lineup as the free safety. He worked with the first team early in camp and might be up to a pairing with Landry in the middle of the secondary. Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox need to play better at corner, but the Jaguars will improve from the safety upgrades and from the presence of veteran nickelback Drew Coleman.
  • Looking for an underdog to root for? How about undrafted free agent Marc Schiechl? He set a Football Championship Subdivision record for sacks at the Colorado School of Mines.
  • Scotty McGee isn’t working with defensive backs regularly anymore. Can he stick as strictly a punt-return specialist? He caught 185 punts on one day of camp. And the team should move away from using Thomas in the role, although McGee is hardly the only alternative.
  • I like Miller, and the team raves about his potential. But he’s been inconsistent early in camp with too many drops. He’s got great hands, so it seems to be a focus issue.
  • Larry Hart may be in the doghouse for coming back from the lockout overweight. At defensive end, he currently ranks behind Aaron Kampman, Lane, Jeremy Mincey and Aaron Morgan.
  • Fourth-round receiver Cecil Shorts was great in camp early, and I bet the undrafted crop of wideouts has at least one NFL-caliber guy. Keep your eyes on Armon Binns, Jamar Newsome and Dontrelle Inman.
  • Third-year receiver Jarett Dillard is running well after a couple of injuries cost him the bulk of his first two seasons.
  • Watch how much better punter Matt Turk gets now that he will be a beneficiary of the Jaguars’ topflight cover guys, Montell Owens and Kassim Osgood.
  • The Jaguars may be content to use Jones-Drew, coming off a knee operation, very minimally in camp and preseason games.
  • Veteran Jason Spitz has not been on the field yet, but I think the team would like for third-round pick Will Rackley to win the open left guard spot.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

Andre Johnson intends to be more vocal, says Jeffrey Martin.

Rick Smith has made big moves, but says the roster is never set, says Craig Malveaux.

Johnson’s finger injury isn’t a big deal, Lawrence Vickers and Ty Warren visited and Glover Quin is transitioning smoothly to safety, says John McClain. Warren ended up with a deal in Denver.

Sorting through the roster with Alan Burge.

Indianapolis Colts

It could be Ryan Diem’s last season, says Mike Chappell.

Kevin Bowen’s review of the day of camp.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jarett Dillard is intent on making up for lost time, says Vito Stellino.

Blaine Gabbert pumped up David Garrard, says Tania Ganguli.

The Jaguars saluted the military at Tuesday night’s practice, says Dana Treen.

Seattle’s Zach Miller could raise Marcedes Lewis’ price, says Alfie Crow.

Tennessee Titans

Akeem Ayers can be another UCLA hit and Jurrell Casey is off to a good start, says Jim Wyatt.

The Titans are the only team in the league counting on new free-agent additions at quarterback and middle linebacker, says David Climer.

With Chris Johnson’s holdout, Javon Ringer is the top running back, says Wyatt.

Ryan Mouton suffered an Achilles injury and is likely out for the season, says Wyatt.

A padded practice made for some short fuses, says John Glennon.

Considering Alterraun Verner versus Jason McCourty with Drexel Perry.

Free agency so far ...

July, 31, 2011
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Are teams addressing needs? We can’t say if they’ve picked the right guys until we see how they all play. But we can assess how our four franchises have done in terms of filling holes or attempting to upgrade to this point.

Houston Texans

Old needs: The Texans were in desperate need of defensive backs and landed the second-best available cornerback in Johnathan Joseph and a safety better than any they have in Danieal Manning. They re-signed receiver Jacoby Jones, third tackle Rashad Butler and backup quarterback Matt Leinart. Matt Turk was a free agent who departed, so a punter is a need.

New needs: Fullback Vonta Leach was a huge part of Arian Foster’s rushing title but went to Baltimore. It seems likely the Texans will turn to versatile tight end James Casey as a lead blocker, but there are some quality free-agent options out there.

Don’t think they need: They’ve said from the time Wade Phillips evaluated personnel that Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell will be a capable combo at nose tackle. It’s a spot they may well be overestimating.

Indianapolis Colts

Old needs: A contract for quarterback Peyton Manning was No. 1, even though he was not technically a free agent, and they’ve gotten that done. They prevented safety and kicker from becoming issues with quick moves to retain Melvin Bullitt and Adam Vinatieri.

New needs: Kavell Conner is likely the third linebacker with Clint Session now a member of the Jaguars. But the linebacking depth is hardly great, and even a late veteran addition at the position might be significant.

Don’t think they need: I’m sure they’d love to find the next Reggie Wayne or a run-stuffing defensive tackle, but they either don’t see those guys out there or, more likely, aren’t changing their philosophy about chasing significant outsiders.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Old needs: Very aggressively address linebacker (with Paul Posluszny and Session), safety (with Dawan Landry) and nickelback (with Drew Coleman). That’s four quality players added to their top 12 on defense

New needs: Punter Adam Podlesh bolted for a big contract in Chicago. But the Jaguars quickly adjusted, signing Turk to replace him.

Don’t think they need: They’ve tried and failed with veteran wideouts to varying degrees -- from the bust of Jerry Porter, to the more affordable non-contributions of Troy Williamson, to the stopgap year from Torry Holt. They appear comfortable with a top three of Mike Thomas, Jason Hill and Jarett Dillard or Cecil Shorts. They won’t likely be shopping.

Tennessee Titans

Old needs: They’ve addressed quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck), middle linebacker (Barrett Ruud), defensive tackle (Shaun Smith), and guard (re-signing Leroy Harris). Safety has gone unaddressed, so it appears Chris Hope remains in place. With Ahmard Hall a free agent, they could use a fullback, but may just go with tight ends or an undrafted if he departs.

New needs: Stephen Tulloch didn’t officially leave until after the Titans signed Ruud. They lost Jason Babin to Philadelphia, but never really planned to pursue him hard, and the move of Jason Jones to end helps offset it.

Don’t think they need: Wide receiver is always an issue for the Titans, but they don’t feel the desperation outsiders do. They’re content with their group, though an experienced, low-cost free agent could eventually arrive.

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