AFC South: Mike Thomas

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It would be hard for the Jacksonville Jaguars to blow their first-round draft pick.

General manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley have so much talent from which to choose at No. 3 that it would be hard to find fault with whatever decision they made. Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack, Sammy Watkins, Greg Robinson, or any of the three quarterbacks are all good options.

The same applies for the second round as well, especially if the Jaguars are going offense because Caldwell said this is a deep draft for offensive talent.

It's on the third day of the draft, however, where it gets a lot tougher. How the Jaguars perform in Rounds 4-7 will be the key to the success of the draft, Bradley said.

"I think that's where we really have to do well," Bradley said. "The first round, obviously, and the second round you have to do some things there. But this draft will be determined by how well we do in those rounds.

"Example: Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, guys like that can make a big difference there. We focus on all areas, but that's an area that we've got to concentrate on, too."

Sherman (2011) and Chancellor (2010) were both fifth-round picks who developed into key members of the Seattle secondary. That's the kind of result for which the Jaguars are hoping for this year.

They've set themselves up with enough ammunition. Because of trades with Baltimore, Detroit and San Francisco, the Jaguars have eight picks in rounds 4-7, including three in fifth round. That should increase their odds of finding at least one player who could develop into a starter.

In reality, though, they're fighting against tradition. Looking back over the past 10 years of fifth-round picks by every NFL team doesn't exactly reveal a lot of success. There are some familiar names -- Sherman, Chancellor, Riley Cooper, Chris Clemons (the defensive back), Rob Ninkovich, and Brent Celek, for example -- but the majority of the picks turned into marginal players at best or were out of the league within a year or two.

The Jaguars haven't had much success with players selected in rounds 4-7 over the past decade, either. They hit on three in 2004 -- receiver Ernest Wilford (fourth), kicker Josh Scobee (fifth) and defensive end Bobby McCray (seventh) -- but since then only five players taken in those round became significant contributors: safety Gerald Sensabaugh (fifth round in 2005), guard Uche Nwaneri (fifth round in 2007), running back Rashad Jennings (seventh round in 2009), receiver Mike Thomas (fourth round in 2009) and receiver Cecil Shorts (fourth round in 2011).

It's too early to tell if any of the players taken in rounds 4-7 the past two seasons will become significant contributors, but it appears the team hit on receiver Ace Sanders (fourth round in 2013).

Bradley said the Jaguars will try to find players in those rounds that fit a specific role. Sanders, for example, was drafted to be the team's punt returner. It's the same approach they used in free agency with linebacker Dekoda Watson, a special teams standout who played situationally on defense with Tampa Bay. The Jaguars project him as a strongside linebacker on first and second downs and a leo on third down.

"For us he was intriguing. We have a spot for him," Bradley said. "We know exactly where we want to play him. That's what can happen [in] the fifth, sixth round. Hey, we really like this guy. We have a spot that he can come in and do some good things."

Find enough of those guys on the third day and Bradley will consider the draft a success.

RTC: Hasselbeck wants Cook happy

November, 1, 2012
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Reading the coverage…

Happy November.

Houston Texans

Writes John McClain of the Houston Chronicle: “For some reason, Mario Williams believes Houston fans do not understand why he left the Texans and signed with Buffalo.

To which I say: Seems to me he should be more focused on giving the Bills what they paid for than setting the record straight with Houston, especially when Houston understands exactly what went down.

Indianapolis Colts

“Andrew Luck has been the epicenter of the Indianapolis Colts' expedited return to relevancy,” writes Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. But the more he throws the less success the team has. The running game is a big key to the team’s performance.

To which I say: Donald Brown and Vick Ballard have set the bar higher, and need to continue to produce if the Colts are to continue to contend. The run-blocking of the O-line is key, of course, as well.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The careers of receivers Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts were moving in opposite directions in Jacksonville, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union. So the Jaguars traded Thomas and are counting on even more from Shorts.

To which I say: The surprising element here is that Stellino says Shorts outranks veteran Laurent Robinson, who’s healthy now and really needs to begin to give the team a return on its big investment.

Tennessee Titans

Matt Hasselbeck wants to do his part to keep Jared Cook happy, writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. Cook’s people requested a trade early this week, and he didn’t talk on Wednesday.

To which I say: The best Cook could hope for out of the request is to spark the coaches to play him more and call more plays for him. But as dangerous as he can be as a target, he’s not a complete tight end and won’t be on the field when blocking is at a premium.

 

Why NFL trades are so rare

October, 31, 2012
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Fans love the idea of trades.

The right addition can throw a team over the top. Or, if things are going poorly, a team can dump a guy for a draft pick. And nothing creates hope like draft picks.

Here’s the thing: Dumping players with expiring contracts for picks (or prospects) is a baseball thing or a basketball thing. Last year’s deal between the Raiders and Bengals for Carson Palmer was the rare major deal.

Such things are uncommon in football, where receiver Mike Thomas going from Jacksonville to Detroit for a pick qualifies as significant.

More common are deals that don’t ever come together.

Teams generally don’t want to trade for a guy with an expiring contract -- odds are they won’t be able to extend him and will have given up a pick for a rental.

Teams generally don’t want to trade quality players with expiring contracts, because they hold out hope of re-signing the player, and likely get a compensatory draft pick if they lose him.

Why else don’t trades usually trend?

ESPN.com's Andrew Brandt points to changing schemes, cap implications and fear of guys who are available.

If your huge hole doesn’t match up just right with someone else’s sale, the most likely thing we’ll hear as Thursday's deadline approaches are crickets, like the one currently making music in the Titans’ press room in Nashville.

Lesson from Thomas deal: Be right

October, 31, 2012
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A few thoughts after further contemplating the Jaguars' trade of Mike Thomas to the Lions for an as-yet undisclosed draft pick.

I wrote Tuesday that the Jaguars had jumped too soon in locking up Thomas with a five-year pact early last season. In the long view, that’s true.

But they thought they had a player who was going to be a very good piece for them and that they were locking him up early with what would turn out to be a very reasonable deal when he panned out as they expected.

[+] EnlargeMike Thomas
AP Photo/Bill BaptistThe Jaguars paid Mike Thomas a $3.5 million roster bonus before the season and got just 13 catches from him to show for it.
I don’t blame them for spending the money, and based on my early impression and the opinion of Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. -- he thought Thomas could combine some of the qualities of Carolina’s Steve Smith and New England’s Wes Welker -- locking Thomas up seemed like a good idea.

If you’re the Jaguars, though, you have to make a more accurate read and projection. Sure, you are going to miss sometimes. When you do, we’re going to hit you for it.

But it’s not really the overspending that is the issue here. The Jaguars had and have the cap room, and signing Thomas didn’t prevent them from spending in free agency last season. (They could have done more, but you can say that about virtually every team.) Though you don't want to burn money, even the best teams do it some.

My complaint, then, is that they failed to anticipate how the deal would impact Thomas. They failed to see how he and Blaine Gabbert would connect, or, more accurately, fail to connect. Then, with new coaches in place, they failed to accurately gauge Thomas' value to them in the context of the rest of their receiver group. They burned more money, paying him a $3.5 million roster bonus in March.

So they gave him that $3.5 million plus about $680,000 of his 2012 base salary for 13 catches, 80 yards and whatever draft pick Detroit gave up for him.

Spend the money. Heck, spend more. But spend it on the right people.

You’re going to miss sometimes on personnel decisions. More often, you have to not miss. Defensive end Jeremy Mincey seems to be coming back to life, and although it's just eight games in, I rank that re-signing as a good one.

Regime change might be coming. This front office or the next needs to make the right call on guys regarded as core players who are heading toward free agency, starting with left tackle Eugene Monroe and cornerback Derek Cox.

RTC: Colts exceeding expectations

October, 31, 2012
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Reading the coverage…

Midseason grades from USA Today: Houston A, Colts B+, Titans D, Jaguars F.

Houston Texans

Say John McClain of the Houston Chronicle: “Now I think the Texans will finish 12-4, possibly even 13-3. If they are fortunate enough to earn home-field advantage, I can see them reaching the Super Bowl.”

Receiver Jordan Shipley was part of the group the Texans tried out on Tuesday, says McClain.

Assessing the state of the Texans' special teams and discussing what can be done to make things better, with Stephanie Stradley of the Chronicle blog.

Indianapolis Colts

Which passer will the Colts face and how will they slow Cameron Wake, asks Phillip B. Wilson of the Indianapolis Star.

Sunday’s game is sold out and will be televised in the Indianapolis area, says Phil Richards of the Star.

These Colts are exceeding the expectations of Pete Prisco from CBS Sports.

The Colts are not real contenders , mostly because of their defense, says Herm Edwards of ESPN.

Where things stand for the Colts heading into Week 9, from Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Andrew Luck is at his best with the game on the line, says Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

“The decision to trade (Mike) Thomas is another sign that with the team at 1-6, the Jaguars are looking to build for the future by getting more draft picks,” says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

A breakdown of playing time in the Green Bay game from O’Halloran.

Where things stand for the Jaguars heading into Week 9, from Dunlevy.

A peek ahead at some draft possibilities for the Jaguars at two big positions of need, from Zain Gowani at Black and Teal.

Tennessee Titans

Five plays that define the Titans' season, from John Glennon of The Tennessean. The plays that injured Colin McCarthy and Jake Locker make the list.

The Titans cut safety Tracy Wilson, and are expected to sign guard Kyle DeVan, says Glennon. DeVan would be extra interior line insurance after guard Leroy Harris left the Colts’ game with a knee injury.

Zach Brown played in the nickel while Akeem Ayers saw more time as a pass-rushing end, says Glennon.

“Even if everything breaks perfectly for the Titans, it's hard to find more than four wins, five at the most, on the schedule,” says Dunlevy in a halfway report.
The Jaguars have plenty of cap room and don’t need to save money.

But that’s the biggest benefit to their dealing receiver and return man Mike Thomas to the Detroit Lions. I confirmed a bit ago the Jaguars got a draft pick for him, though I don’t know what yet. It’s safe presuming it’s not high.

Thomas has become a non-entity for the Jags, with all of 13 catches for 80 yards this season.

I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see a resurgence for him playing with an upgrade at quarterback, and moving from Blaine Gabbert to Matthew Stafford is a nice improvement for a receiver.

The Jaguars drafted Thomas with a fourth-round pick out of Arizona in 2009, then fell in love with him and rewarded him too quickly.

Early during the 2011 season they signed him to a five-year, $19 million extension with $9 million guaranteed, including a $6 million signing bonus. The contract amounted to a bigger annual average than Jordy Nelson got from Green Bay at roughly the same time. Thomas’ production hasn’t approached Nelson’s.

The Lions aren’t absorbing a lot of the number -- as Thomas’ remaining base salaries total roughly $8.6 million for 2013-15.

The Jaguars like Cecil Shorts and have Justin Blackmon, Laurent Robinson and Shorts as their top three receivers going forward. Robinson was a pricey free agent addition who’s contributed nothing so far and has dealt with multiple concussions.

They recently signed veteran return specialist and receiver Michael Spurlock and he is now working as their primary return man, though coach Mike Mularkey wasn’t happy with Spurlock’s decision-making in the loss at Green Bay.

Jacksonville hosts Detroit this weekend, so if Thomas plays he’ll be going against some familiar defenders.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 28, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Knowing what’s coming: The Texans are the only team dropping back to pass (including sacks and scrambles) on fewer than 50 percent of their plays this season (46.3 percent). Typically an opponent would intend to stop the run and force the pass. But it seems dangerous for the Titans to want to defend the pass, considering how they’ve been giving up plays. But a defense still wants to get into pass-rush situations. On the other side, the Titans have dropped back to pass a league-high 75.9 percent of the time this season. That’s got to make the quality rushers along the Houston defensive front salivate.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert and the Jaguars hope to get their passing game going against the soft Bengals.
In need of a jolt: Perhaps the game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts on Sunday in Indianapolis will have some sort of carryover effect for the Jaguars. If the Bengals' three-game sample is any indication, the Jaguars should be able to find pass plays in this matchup. The Bengals are allowing 34 points per game and 416.7 yards per game. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Cincinnati is one of three teams that has not intercepted a pass this season, and that was an issue last season when they had 10 interceptions. Jacksonville's Laurent Robinson is probably out after suffering a concussion. Struggling Justin Blackmon, Shorts, Mike Thomas and Kevin Elliott need to make some plays.

Don’t overthink it: I think the timing of the Colts' bye invites them to overanalyze the state of things. Coming off a difficult, last-minute loss to Jacksonville is tough. But they can’t let it have more of a bearing on them than it should. They come off the bye to face Green Bay, a team that will be very difficult to defend, given the Colts' coverage issues. Indianapolis has added cornerback Darius Butler, and it has two guys rehabbing injuries: starter Vontae Davis and nickelback Justin King. Those guys healing up might be the most important issue for the team during a weekend off.

Coverage issues: If Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph (groin) doesn’t play and is replaced by Alan Ball, that certainly will help the Titans. But then, Tennessee could be without Kenny Britt (ankle). Joseph covers the top wide receiver, so he likely would draw Britt a great deal. The drop-off from Joseph to Ball should be bigger than the drop-off from Britt to Kendall Wright, but that’s mostly about how good Joseph is. Joseph is likely the Texans' most indispensable player, but this is a matchup they can win without him if necessary.

Also: The Texans seek the first 4-0 NFL start in the city’s history. They’ve never done it, and the franchise never did it in its 37 seasons in Houston as the Oilers, either. … Gabbert has led the Jaguars on two go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter this season, and he is one of three quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts not to have thrown an interception. … Houston's Andre Johnson needs 132 receiving yards for 10,000. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, if Johnson gets there this week, he would become the sixth-fastest to 10,000 yards (in terms of games played; this is his 126th).

Jacksonville Jaguars cut-down analysis

September, 1, 2012
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Click here for the complete list of Jacksonville Jaguars' roster moves.

Most significant move: The team kept six wide receivers as it looks to make dramatic strides in the passing game with quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Laurent Robinson was the big free-agent acquisition and Justin Blackmon was the high draft pick. Brian Robiskie is a reclamation guy and Mike Thomas is a survivor who needs to regain form from early in his career. Cecil Shorts seemed to have stage fright a year ago when he got chances. Kevin Elliott is an undrafted rookie free agent who often shined and is deserving of a spot and some playing time. Only Thomas and Shorts are holdovers from a year ago.

Onward and upward: Several underdogs fill in some roster cracks, including three who caught my eye early in training camp -- Elliott, undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford and running back Jalen Parmele. Parmele is one of four running backs the team kept with Maurice Jones-Drew holding out, along with Rashad Jennings, Montell Owens and Keith Toston. They’ve also got fullback Greg Jones. Other underdogs still standing are undrafted rookie safety Antwon Blake and defensive end George Selvie, who’s already spent time with three different teams, including the Jags once before.

What’s next: Guard Will Rackley was placed on injured reserve. He suffered a high ankle sprain early in camp and, according to AP’s Mark Long, reinjured the ankle. Eben Britton, who the team projected as the right tackle all offseason and at the start of the preseason, is now the left guard. Cameron Bradfield, undrafted a year ago, is now the right tackle and the backup left tackle. Middling veteran Guy Whimper is the backup right tackle, while undrafted rookie Mike Brewster and Josh Beekman, formerly of the Bears, are the interior backups. It sure looks like the team would benefit from adding someone with more of a resume.

Some thoughts on the Jaguars’ 27-24 win over the Saints Friday night in New Orleans:

Justin Blackmon looked the part: I saw a physical, confident receiver who made himself available for Blaine Gabbert. On an early catch, he stopped and went backwards to allow a tackler to miss and gain some extra yards. And he pulled in a dart from Gabbert on a third-and-7, skipped a defender who tried for the ball and bolted into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown. He wound up with four catches for 48 yards and the score. I thought it was a strong start that showed us a bit about who he can be.

Gabbert: A smooth and efficient night for the second-year quarterback. If he plays like this, the Jaguars are going to be a competitive team that surprises a lot of people making the too-easy prediction the Jags will struggle. He connected on 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards, two touchdowns and a 135.4 passer rating. Those numbers were enhanced a bit by replacement officials who were too quick with pass interference flags. But Gabbert was not sacked and he looked confident and in command, stepping up to deliver the ball with minimal concern about what might have been closing in on him. He fired one pass to Mike Thomas even as he was getting hit by Junior Galette. Take it all as a major cause for encouragement with him as he built on last week’s good showing.

Rashad Jennings and the run game: The Saints were not in a tackling mood, and the Jaguars took advantage. Jacksonville averaged 5.5 yards on the ground, with Jennings turning 11 touches into 62 yards. He continues to look like a starting-caliber back to me in the absence of Maurice Jones-Drew.

The rush: Defensive end Jeremy Mincey is not Jared Allen or Julius Peppers. But he’s not “just” a high effort guy, either. He was a real pain in this game, hounding Drew Brees as a consistent presence in the backfield. He can really be a tone setter. We also saw some flashes of just how dangerous Andre Branch’s speed can be coming off the other edge.

Coverage: The Jaguars got picked apart by Brees at times -- particularly on the nine-play, 85 yard drive that cut the Jags lead to 17-10 -- but that’s what the Saints can do. Jacksonville was without Derek Cox (hamstring) and Rashean Mathis (resting knee on turf) so the corner depth got work. William Middleton was draped on Devery Henderson when he made a strong, one-handed catch of a perfect 8-yard touchdown throw.

Winning it: Preseason results don’t mean much, of course. But you’d rather have the late drive to win a game than not, and Jordan Palmer provided it -- a 12-play, 74-yard march that ended with an 11-yard TD pass to undrafted rookie Kevin Elliott with 13 seconds left to provide the winning margin.

Some quick thoughts on the Jaguars 32-31 preseason win over the New York Giants at EverBank Field Friday night:
  • Quarterback Blaine Gabbert showed good command and made good throws on the Jaguars’ first series, converting several third downs and leading a touchdown drive. He got time, stepped up and found Laurent Robinson, Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts, hitting Shorts for a short TD that produced a 7-0 lead. It was an encouraging showing from the second-year quarterback. Gabbert did lose a fumble later when he got swarmed. He simply needs to go down and be sure to hold on.
  • Shorts offset his TD catch with a fumble of an end around that started a long stretch of super starting field position for the Giants. The receiver was holding the ball with his inside hand and was too easily stripped. It’s the sort of mistake the receivers have been making in camp.
  • Other errors the Jaguars probably won’t be able to withstand against premium competition in meaningful games: a dropped interception by safety Dwight Lowery right at the start; a big kickoff return allowed following the touchdown pass that put the Giants near midfield; William Middleton holding down an arm of receiver Jerrel Jernigan in the end zone (that went uncalled); end Jason Pierre-Paul's too-easy rush inside left tackle Eugene Monroe en route to a tackle for a loss; punt fielding issues by undrafted rookie Mike Brown.
  • Rashad Jennings ran just fine: 12 carries for 56 yards including a 17-yarder around the right corner. Jaguars’ brass will not wake up Saturday morning feeling any differently with regard to Maurice Jones-Drew as a result of anything that happened here.
  • Tyson Alualu didn’t play, and the Jaguars started D'Anthony Smith and C.J. Mosley at defensive tackle. Terrance Knighton was in with the twos, and on several snaps he looked like a player a notch above the guys he was on the field with and against.
  • Rookie defensive end Andre Branch's speed off the edge was apparent a couple times. Once his presence prompted David Carr to step up into a sack by Knighton. Encouraging.
  • Bryan Anger's big, second-quarter punt tied up Jayron Hosley, who fumbled it. The big hang time meant Antwon Blake had time to get in position to pounce and recover the loose ball, setting up a quick Chad Henne-to-Brian Robiskie TD that cut the Giants lead to 24-14. Anger prompted Jernigan to botch a punt as well, and Blake recovered that one too.
  • Thomas and Robiskie made plays for third-string QB Jordan Palmer in the third quarter. More baby steps -- the Jaguars have receivers who can have success against second- and third-team guys in coverage.
  • Good consistency by the replacement officials. They consistently failed to give signals to declare what happened on plays that begged for such authority. It’s not that they failed to convey the message. It’s that they didn’t know what to convey.
Some notes on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first unofficial depth chart, released in advance of their preseason opener against the Giants on Friday night at EverBank Field. Take note, it’s common for seniority to determine close spots on paper at this stage.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you care to think the Jaguars are a mess and going to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, they’re fine with that.

As they worked through the early days of Mike Mularkey’s first training camp, they repeated the new coach’s mantras (like, “we just want to get a little bit better every day”), fell in line with his policies (like potential $10,000 fines for answering media inquiries about injuries) and gave team-first answers to questions about the absence of their two biggest names -- Maurice Jones-Drew (holding out for a new contract) and Justin Blackmon (unable to strike a rookie deal).

Sure, they don’t have much choice but to buy in, but there is an undertone that suggests they have a secret to spring on the league in a couple of weeks.

Every team at this stage of camp thinks it can be good. In Jacksonville, a significant improvement from 5-11 is certainly possible, no matter what the popular storylines are. Honest.

Theirs is a defense loaded with quality, front-line talent. Beyond middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, most of it remains largely unknown. But if you don’t know linebacker Daryl Smith or cornerback Derek Cox or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, that’s not the Jaguars' concern.

“If anyone feels we are not in a proper place or we have problems, that’s OK,” Posluszny said. “We feel like inside these walls we’re doing everything that we can to be a very successful team.

“Mularkey’s done a great job for us. He’s a former player who’s been through it. To me, that all means a ton, because he knows exactly what we are going through and what it takes to be successful.”

While the offense is being revamped, and Mularkey and his assistants are trying to reformat quarterback Blaine Gabbert after a horrific rookie season, the defensive system and bulk of the staff have been in place for a while now.

Gabbert has nice moments, but his overall inconsistency at practice halts any proclamations that he made a significant offseason jump.

No matter how much players and coaches talk about his gains in leadership, no matter how much faith the organization has in him, no matter how patient they are, it comes down to making throws under pressure.

The early snapshot says the defense can be really good, but that a limited offense could be the obstacle to the surprise the Jaguars would so like to produce. There is a lot of time to work on what’s been installed, to find what works and to run it better than it’s been run so far.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Phil Sears/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert finished his first season with 12 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a 50.8 completion percentage.
1. Is Gabbert good enough? He folded under pressure too often last season, but the rush wasn’t all he was facing. The team drafted him 10th overall intending for him to sit and learn for a season, but that plan didn’t pan out and Gabbert was hurried into the starting role for 14 games during which he had poor pass protection and very limited receivers.

There were big distractions off the field, too: Jack Del Rio got fired and the team was sold.

Mularkey was hired in large part because he’s developed quarterbacks, and he, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson have to get steadier play from Gabbert and get his arrow pointing up. His good moments look very nice, but there are still too many bad ones that leave you shaking your head. A kneel-down would seem less disheartening in many of those instances.

It’s a slow process, installing a new offense and rebuilding a quarterback’s confidence. Exactly how slow is the question we need answered.

Mentions of mechanical or technical adjustments by his coaches have been well-received, and he acts on them quickly. That’s great, but when the rush turns live and the pocket starts collapsing, will he have open people he can stand in and find? We simply can’t know yet.

2. The missing pieces. Jones-Drew is demanding a new contract. The Jaguars have said they won’t give him one with two years left on the old one. Boom -- a stalemate. I can’t see the team altering its stance unless he holds out into the season and it struggles horribly without him. He’s got an ego that will make it hard for him to return without any contract alteration, so this could drag on.

Blackmon is a rangy target who can go get the ball, and missing early camp is helping no one. He got a DUI after being drafted fifth overall, and the team wants insurance against any further troubles. Blackmon's unwilling to give the Jaguars what they are looking for, though.

So we’re seeing second-year man Cecil Shorts work in the Z spot where Blackmon will eventually be, with veteran addition Laurent Robinson at the X. Rashad Jennings is the lead back without Jones-Drew in camp, and is a bigger guy who also ranks as a power runner. I liked what I saw and heard from him.

3. Will there be enough of a pass rush? The Jaguars had 31 sacks last season, and to reach their potential on defense they need more in 2012. More consistent pressure and more sacks will come with improved coordination from the defensive linemen.

Their line coach, Joe Cullen, said they just missed on a bunch of chances last season, and another season together and the work they are doing now will result in better communication. The Jags face Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in addition to two games against Matt Schaub and two against hotshot rookie Andrew Luck this season, and they won't win many of those without consistent pressure.

The relentless Jeremy Mincey promises the production will increase. Andre Branch was drafted in the second round to help, and looks like a quality player. Depth off the edge remains a concern. Austen Lane suffered yet another injury while I watched practices, during which John Chick walked the width of a practice field dragging heavy weight as he rehabilitated his knee.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/John RaouxNew head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff have made a positive impression on the players.
Mularkey and his staff. There is planning and logic to everything going on here, and the new staff has genuine concern for players on and off the field. Players are being told what the plan is and the right way to execute it. They felt that was lacking with the previous regime, and welcome it.

Position coaches like Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and one of the key holdovers, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, are true teachers, and they have guys under them who want to learn. That leadership and teaching faltered in many areas at the end of Del Rio’s tenure. It’s present in full force now. If guys follow and doing so produces results, it’ll snowball.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

A lot more is in place for Gabbert, and everyone has a stake in his performance: the GM who traded up to draft him needs him to succeed; the new coach who was hired to polish him needs him to succeed; the high-priced free-agent receiver and first-round draft pick receiver need him to succeed; the talented defense needs him to succeed.

Gabbert’s saying the right things and working hard, and you can see improvement on some drop backs. But there are still enough dud plays sprinkled into practices to make you wonder if he can succeed. The team wants him to avoid turning the ball over -- staying away from the worst-case scenarios -- and it's a smart goal, but will it make Gabbert too cautious?

Can you ask him to be careful and function as a game-manager type when the best attribute he has is a big arm that can get the ball into tight windows? It might turn out to be complicated.

Also, there is not great roster depth. I have particular concerns about the offensive line, defensive end and safety if someone goes down.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • The team appears to be high on undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford out of Wagner. With Clint Session’s future in doubt because of post-concussion issues, Russell Allen is likely to start opposite Daryl Smith outside. Stanford could make the team as a special-teamer who can provide depth. Brandon Marshall, a fifth-round pick, also has what looks to be an NFL-ready linebacker frame.
  • Mike Thomas needs Blackmon signed, in camp and taking the bulk of the snaps at one of the two outside receiver spots. I’m convinced that to get his head right, Thomas needs to be given the slot role and allowed to focus on it exclusively. His snaps were cut down during my visit, with Shorts working at the front of the line in Blackmon’s Z spot. The slot is what Thomas is best suited for, and his performance has slipped when he’s been expected to do more. He had a lot of drops early in camp, and Mularkey agrees with the potential for less to be more with Thomas.
  • Josh Scobee has the leg to get a lot of touchbacks and Bryan Anger has the leg to force a lot of fair catches. The Jaguars obviously still have to work on covering kicks and punts, but how often will they actually be covering kicks and punts? If the offense can produce some first downs, we should see more scoring, and more scoring will mean more kickoffs from Scobee and less work for Anger.
  • The depth at tight end is interesting after No. 1 Marcedes Lewis. Colin Cloherty got a lot of work as the No. 2 early on, and Zach Miller is another move guy who’s very intriguing, though Miller is rarely healthy. Zach Potter is giant, but hasn’t earned a lot of time, and undrafted rookie Matt Veldman is also extra large.
  • Posluszny is the centerpiece of this defense. He covers a ton of ground and makes big hits. He’s a model for doing things the right way, which is a major point of emphasis for Mularkey and his staff. Posluszny was a solid signing last season, and continues to deliver just what the team hoped for. That helps offset the fact Session, who also came to Jacksonville for a big contract in 2011, might not be on the field any time soon, or ever again.
  • The cornerbacks look good. Cox is really solid, and Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis will be effective as the Nos. 2 and 3. The depth grew with last season's injury onslaught, and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland can play, too.
  • Branch, the rookie pass-rusher, came into the league facing questions from many teams about his ability to stand up against the run. The Jaguars have no such concern at this point. He’s got to be an effective part of a four-man group at end with Mincey, Lane and Chick. Branch certainly looks the part, but so did former Jaguars bust Derrick Harvey, so we can’t put much on the early eyeball test.
  • Along with Stanford, running back Jalen Parmele caught my eye. He’s spent time with Miami and Baltimore.

Mailbag: On my silly conclusions

August, 4, 2012
8/04/12
1:09
PM ET
Dustin from Houston writes: With Connor Barwin, Duane Brown and Matt Schaub going into contract years, how big of a chance is it that the Texans cant resign all three? I don't know the Texans cap numbers or a ballpark estimate of the market value for those players, but if they weren't able to resign all three, which one do you believe is most likely to be left out? Personally, I feel that Barwin would be the most expendable if Mercilus turns out to be a good pass rusher, BUT you know how the saying goes, "you can never have too many pass rushers.”

Paul Kuharsky: You can always find a way to keep top guys like those. What I’d like to see happen is that they strike a long-term deal with Brown or Barwin before the season starts. That would ease the pressure for after the season. I think it’d be best if that could be Barwin. Brown is very good, but that he’s in a system that helps make offensive linemen good might make him less appealing for other teams who don’t run a similar zone-blocking scheme. So if he got to free agency there could be less competition for him.

I think they’ll keep Schaub, and that this season’s performance will go a long way toward setting his price.


Steve in New Orleans writes: If you think Blaine Gabbert gives the Jaguars a better chance of winning than Chad Henne, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn and San Francisco that I would like to sell you.

Paul Kuharsky: How many practices have you watched, if I may ask?


Rick in Jacksonville writes: What is your deal with your crush on Gabbert and your hatred for Henne. The idea that Henne has been worse at training camp than Gabbert is laughable. How much are the Jaguars paying you to talk crap about Henne? I am supposed to believe that a guy who has a career 60 percent career accuracy rating and who has thrown over 3,000 yards in a season and someone who has carried a team to seven wins on his back is worse than Gabbert? You sir are a moron. How about stop bashing Henne for no reason and tell the truth for once.

Paul Kuharsky: I said: “Chad Henne has been average at best. Gabbert bashers can find ammunition, but at this point they can’t argue that the backup quarterback would give the Jaguars a better chance to win.” I also said: “Quarterback Blaine Gabbert didn’t look like a guy who’s made the big jump out of an offseason many of us expected.”

Look, you can decide Gabbert has no chance after 14 games. And I can tell you a young QB that a team makes a big investment in gets more time than that. A lot more time. His ceiling is higher than Henne’s. Henne didn’t make any real “Wow” plays that I saw. I don’t see any Henne bashing there. And what there, in my interpretations of what I saw, amounts to a lie?


Chad via Twitter asks: Do you think Andrew Luck is currently more pro-ready than Gabbert and Jake Locker?

Paul Kuharsky: From what I am hearing, I’d say yes. Certainly more ready than Gabbert. But I’d like to see Luck a bit for myself before making that assessment on Luck as a rookie as opposed to Locker in his second year. Feel confident I'll say yes on Luck there, too.


Yellek from parts unknown writes: It’s only preseason and I am sick on how you come across anti Titan... which I guess you need to do living in Nashville, and covering the team since Oiler days. I am sure I am wrong... but I am sure you and I can have a good banter for the up coming year..... I have followed the team since 1978, so do not dismiss me as a homer. Especially since I grew up and CT and live in CA.

Paul Kuharsky: Finally someone that is able to sort through it all, see my true feelings and understand that living in Nashville means I have to be anti-Titans. Sarcasm#. In an email like that, it’s nice to actually cite examples. Here’s what I do: I watch things, I ask questions and I make assessments. It’s pretty simple.


Jamie Zaleski asks via Twitter: Was Keith Bulluck best Titans defensive player ever? Can Titans D replicate the 2002 defense in young players coming up big?

Paul Kuharsky: Titans/Oilers, no. Elvin Bethea is in the Hall of Fame. Titans, as in since 1999? He could be. Jevon Kearse at his peak was a better/more impactful player. But for productivity over a long period of time, no one fared better than Bulluck once the franchise was settled in Nashville.

The defense now is expecting a lot of young guys to all get good/ stay good together at once. I wish there was a little more veteran leadership/ star power


Nicholas Ortiz from New York, NY writes: There's a lot of talk in Jacksonville right now about whether Mike Thomas will make the roster, and how much his contract will factor into that determination. It appears he still has $6M left in guaranteed money and $15M total on his contract remaining to be paid. Do you have any opinion on the matter? It seems to me that his contract doesn't weigh in his favor, because while paying $6M to someone not on your roster is a bad thing, paying $15M to someone who doesn't belong on your roster would be far worse.

Paul Kuharsky; I think if they just put him in the slot and tell him that’s his narrow role -- which I think they are basically doing now -- he has a chance to break out of this funk and still be a productive player. He can also return punts, which has value. Given what they’ve spent on him and the remaining guarantee, I can’t imagine they cut him.

Laurent Robinson, Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts are roster locks. Thomas would be on the next tier, with a couple guys out of Brian Robiskie, Lee Evans, Taylor Price, Kevin Elliott and the rest of the undrafteds.

That said, if receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and the rest of the staff decide Thomas is not one of the best five or six, they won't be forced to keep him because of the contract.
Chris from Upper Carolina writes: With the Tennessean now prompting us to pay to view, can you not post anymore links to them?

Paul Kuharsky: I’m not sure how that better serves my readers. At least you get the gist of a story from the headlines I offer. A certain amount of clicks per month are free, so access may be different for different people. You are free to go subscribe. Or you can simply ignore it.

My approach is to link to the primary stuff on four teams. And with two dedicated beat guys and a columnist, The Tennessean remains the primary news outlet on the team. If I ignored the outlet, there would be days where there is nothing to point you to at all.

Thoughts from Jaguars' practice

August, 2, 2012
8/02/12
12:52
PM ET
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Observations and thoughts out of my final practice with the Jaguars this morning:

  • Receiver Cecil Shorts has moved up in the rotation and was prominent with both Justin Blackmon (contract dispute) and Laurent Robinson (being evaluated for a possible concussion) missing. Shorts did a lot of good things, but had at least two drops. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert said the receivers made great gains with routes in a tough practice, he saw “crisp, perfect routes.” Drops remain an ongoing issue, however. And Shorts may have run a great route on one seven-on-seven play, but Gabbert stared him down and Rashean Mathis easily slipped inside the receiver for a pick.
  • One of Shorts’ drops produced a terrible officiating situation. NFL replacement officials are here through Friday night’s scrimmage. Shorts went up on the left sideline to grab a Gabbert pass over defensive back Courtney Greene. Shorts made a fine play on the ball, but ultimately allowed it to squirt out as he went to the ground. Official No. 82 -- whose name the league didn't make available -- had no idea what had unfolded and looked up the line to Neely Dunn, an NFL supervisor of officials who had to tell him it was incomplete. Perhaps No. 82 would be looking to his teammate up the line in that situation for help, but I saw little effort to actually diagnose what happened and a big effort to get off the hook for making a call. Dunn was doing a lot of hands-on coaching of the officials. Will the league clone him and put him on the field as a reference point for these subs if they are used in actual games?
  • I can’t visit Jacksonville during camp without watching the defensive line’s period with its coach, Joe Cullen. It can be hard to look anywhere else, but I intentionally waited until today. He ran his guys through a furious session, going from drill-to-drill and working on power, cornering and getting through traffic. For the latter, they weaved through four dummies set in a tight row before turning left to hit the QB dummy and swipe at his arm. The pace was well above what you see at position drills. And yes, Cullen’s voice is about gone. His guys know how to listen to his hoarse instruction and evaluation.
  • Chad Henne has been average at best. Gabbert bashers can find ammunition, but at this point they can’t argue that the backup quarterback would give the Jaguars a better chance to win.
  • Coach Mike Mularkey said he never promotes fights but he does find value in the competitiveness that can fuel them. He went out of his way to point out that players are disciplined for fighting. He also went out of his way to share how minor that is: a $25 fine. A bit cheaper than the $10,000 hit for answering questions about injuries.
  • Gabbert is not being discouraged from running, and Mularkey sees a lot of advantages to the quarterback using his athleticism that way. “When you run the ball, you can protect yourself, you can see where the threat is coming from” as opposed to time spent in the pocket when a quarterback is encouraged to not look at the rush, Mularkey said. Certain coverages will create running opportunities that Gabbert should be considering even in the huddle.
  • Punt-returner candidates currently include Shorts, Mike Thomas, Aaron Ross, Charles Gilbert and Mike Brown.
  • Tight end Marcedes Lewis was featured in red zone team work and looked like the effective weapon we saw in that territory two years ago.
  • Rookie linebacker Brandon Marshall had a pick, reacting well to a ball batted shortly after Gabbert released it. Couldn’t ID whose paw altered the pass, sorry.
  • Injuries: Defensive end Austen Lane suffered a sprained foot and linebacker Daryl Smith has a groin injury. Mularkey is optimistic Robinson will be cleared to return but isn’t expecting the same for corner Kevin Rutland, who’s also likely dealing with a concussion.
  • Fans at Friday’s scrimmage will each get a scratch-off ticket, and 90 of them will win the jersey worn by each player on the field, which will be autographed.
  • Non-practice aside: I saw two versions of the Jaguars' commercials pushing tickets on Jacksonville’s NBC affiliate during Wednesday night’s Olympic coverage. Gabbert is featured in one, Smith and Tyson Alualu in the other. The players introduce themselves and pledge that they are “All In.” Sleek, I thought.
Justin Blackmon was the best receiver available in the draft for a Jaguars team with a desperate need at the spot.

Kendall Wright was the sort of receiver the Titans were still missing as they look to become a more modern offense.

I like the additions for the Jaguars and the Titans, and at this point I’d certainly expect both guys to have good careers.

But I think early expectations for the two are unreasonably high.

Blackmon, still unsigned, is unlikely to pop in, learn the offense and make a bunch of plays for Blaine Gabbert on Sept. 9 at Minnesota.

Wright, just signed, is unlikely to take Kenny Britt's place if Britt isn’t ready or is suspended for the Titans Sept. 9 game against New England and produce like Britt could.

A.J. Green's 1,000-yard rookie year last season was the first for a receiver since Michael Clayton's for Tampa Bay in 2004.

Julio Jones made a big debut too, falling just 41 yards short of 1,000.

But receiver isn’t a spot where even highly-rated rookies generally get plugged in and make monstrous, immediate impacts. Maybe Green and Jones signified some sort of switch. But at this point I’m still inclined to see them as the exceptions rather than rewriters of the rule.

Per Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats and Info, 16 first-round receivers who played as rookies in the last five years have averaged 44 catches, 615 yards and 3.8 touchdowns. That’s nice production from Green, Jones, Jonathan Baldwin, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Britt, Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn, Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Anthony Gonzalez -- but hardly phenomenal.

That’s as many catches as Mike Thomas had for the 2011 Jaguars.

It’s not far off the stat line of 2010 third-rounder Damian Williams for the 2011 Titans -- 45 catches, 592 yards and five TDs.

Can Blackmon and or Wright be impactful players for their teams this year?

It probably depends on your definition of impactful.

Comparably valued players have provided roughly three catches for 38 yards with a score once every four games in their first year in the league.

Certainly it’s possible Blackmon and Wright do more. Are they going to be Week 1 fantasy football MVPs because of the monster numbers they put up early?

If I was making a bet, it wouldn’t be on yes.

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