AFC South: Russell Allen

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- With the third pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select ... Khalil Mack, linebacker, Buffalo.

That's what happened early Tuesday afternoon in the NFL Nation mock draft. Each of the bloggers who cover a team with a first-round pick acted as general manager and made picks they thought the team they cover would make. In doing my best David Caldwell impersonation, I grabbed Mack.

I actually went after Jadeveon Clowney. I had some discussions with Houston reporter Tania Ganguli to move up to No. 1 but I felt the price was too high. The Jaguars need to continue to build the roster and I thought losing as many picks as she wanted was not the best approach. Ganguli managed to work out a deal with Buffalo reporter Mike Rodak, though.

[+] EnlargeKhalil Mack
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesKhalil Mack could be the playmaker the Jaguars' defense sorely needs.
It was a pretty steep price: The Bills gave up their first-round pick (No. 9), their second-round pick (No. 41), their 2015 first- and third-round picks, and their 2016 second-round pick.

Nobody was jumping to No. 1 to take one of the quarterbacks, Mack or receiver Sammy Watkins so when I heard about the trade I knew I wasn't getting Clowney. Sure enough, the Bills took him.

St. Louis followed by taking offensive tackle Greg Robinson, which left me with an interesting dilemma: Mack or Watkins.

I couldn't really lose. Both are elite players and both would fill some pretty pressing needs, but the deciding factor was how deep of an offensive draft this is. While I couldn't get a player of Watkins' caliber later in the draft, the receiver position is pretty deep and I would be able to add a pretty good player later.

The draft isn't deep on elite pass-rushers and linebackers, and Mack fills both needs there.

The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Mack fits right into coach Gus Bradley's defense as a "leo," a hybrid end/linebacker whose primary responsibility is to rush the passer. The Jaguars certainly need help there after finishing last in the league the past two seasons in sacks (20 in 2012 and 31 last season). Mack also makes big plays, and that's where he can really help.

In addition to making 327 tackles in four years, Mack also recorded 28.5 sacks and forced an NCAA-record 16 fumbles. Look at what he did against Ohio State in the 2013 season opener: nine tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Take Paul Posluszny out of the mix and the Jaguars linebackers had two interceptions, two sacks, four pass breakups, one forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in 2013. That’s from Geno Hayes, Russell Allen, J.T. Thomas, John Lotulelei, and LaRoy Reynolds.

Mack brings a couple of other things the Jaguars desperately need at linebacker: athleticism and speed. He ran a 4.55 40-yard dash and played in coverage as well as being a pass-rusher at Buffalo.

I didn't really consider taking a quarterback at No. 3 because I wasn't completely sold on any of them that high. It would have been too risky of a pick and right now the Jaguars can't afford to take those kinds of risks.
With the NFL combine starting Wednesday, here's a look at the Jacksonville Jaguars' positions of need on defense and which prospects the team might be looking taking a closer look at in Indianapolis. Positions of need are listed in order of importance. We looked at the offense on Monday.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars have a lot of holes to fill on the roster and the next part in the process comes this week when general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley evaluate, watch, and interview prospects at the NFL combine.

Here’s a breakdown of what the Jaguars need, in order, on defense and some potential targets:

Babin
Leo: Call this need No. 1A, just barely behind quarterback. The Jaguars have finished last in the NFL in sacks in each of the last two seasons and desperately need someone that can affect the quarterback on a consistent basis. Jason Babin and Andre Branch manned this spot in 2013 but Babin is scheduled to make $6.175 million in 2014. The 33-year-old Babin led the Jaguars with 7.5 sacks in 2013 but he’s making elite defensive end money and he’s not an elite defensive end. He has said he'd be willing to re-negotiate his contract because he likes it in Jacksonville, but he also can declare himself a free agent because of a clause in the new CBA. It'd be a surprise if Babin is on the roster in 2014 under his current contract. Branch really improved in 2013 because defensive coordinator Bob Babich and defensive line coach Todd Wash got him to become more consistent with his effort. He’s a long way from being a 15-sack player, though, and that’s what the Jaguars need.

Potential targets: Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Anthony Barr, Khalil Mack.

Outside linebacker: Geno Hayes turned in a solid year in 2013 (78 tackles, two interceptions, three pass break-ups) despite playing through a nagging knee injury that eventually forced him to miss the last two games. But the Jaguars still need to upgrade both outside spots. It was partly due to his knee injury, but Hayes didn’t make very many impact plays and Russell Allen, the starter on the other side, made none. The leo spot is a hybrid end/outside linebacker that specializes in rushing the passer, so the outside linebackers don’t need to be elite pass rushers. They need to be athletic enough to play in coverage and have the ability to blitz if needed.

Potential targets: Ryan Shazier, Telvin Smith, Lamin Barrow.

Defensive end: This is the spot opposite the leo in the Jaguars’ defense and it doesn’t call for an elite pass-rusher. The Jaguars want a big, physical end who can anchor the line of the scrimmage in the run game. Tyson Alualu held the job last season and was solid (44 tackles, eight QB pressures, three tackles for loss), but the Jaguars need more production there. The only other player at that spot is Ryan Davis, who spent most of last season on the practice squad. They’re also hoping for a little more pass rush production than what Alualu had, but it’s not the primary responsibility.

Potential targets: Brent Urban, Jackson Jeffcoat, Scott Crichton.

Defensive tackle: The Jaguars’ two starters are set with Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, but the Jaguars need to add some quality depth here. Marks is coming off a career year and was awarded a four-year extension. Miller battled a shoulder problem all season but underwent surgery after the season concluded and should be fine by the time OTAs begin in April.

Potential targets: Will Sutton, Caraun Reid, Deandre Coleman.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars' lineup in the regular season finale on Sunday is going to look very little like it did in the season opener.

Depending on how some players respond to injuries this week, the Jaguars may only start nine players in Week 17’s game against Indianapolis that started against Kansas City in Week 1. All teams have to deal with injuries to key players throughout the season -- the Denver Broncos just lost linebacker Von Miller with a torn ACL -- but turning over more than half of the starting lineup in four months doesn’t happen on a regular basis.

The Jaguars (4-11) didn’t exactly have a deep roster to begin with, but they’ve somehow managed the through the personnel losses to win four games in the second half despite having to rely on some young, unproven players -- especially at linebacker and receiver.

"We really didn’t make that big of a deal about it, but what we did talk about was to really go in there and sometimes special stories take place with opportunities," coach Gus Bradley said. "We really taught our whole team the mindset you’ve got to have to go in there."

The results have been hit and miss, which is what you’d expect from those players. Good plays -- like receiver Kerry Taylor catching four passes for 45 yards against the Titans -- and bad, like Taylor dropping an easy reception that would have converted a first down against Buffalo.

"You’ve just got to do it all the time," Bradley said. "There’s going to be times when young guys get [out of position or make a mistake] but we just need to limit that. That’s what we’re seeing right now and that’s what happens sometimes with younger players especially if they’re getting their first opportunity."

Here’s a breakdown of the missing starters:

WR Justin Blackmon: Suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, played four games, and then was suspended indefinitely for violating it again.

WR Cecil Shorts*: Placed on IR on Dec. 17 with a groin injury.

LT Eugene Monroe*: Traded to Baltimore on Oct. 2.

LT Luke Joeckel* (started Week 1 at RT): Suffered a fractured ankle against St. Louis on Oct. 6.

G Will Rackley*: Placed on IR on Dec. 17 with a concussion.

LB Russell Allen*: Placed on IR on Dec. 18.

G Mike Brewster: He replaced Rackley in the lineup and suffered a fractured ankle against Buffalo on Dec. 15.

DT Brandon Deaderick: He was on the field for starting DT Roy Miller, who did not play against Tennessee on Sunday, and suffered a dislocated elbow.

Here’s a breakdown of other starters who may miss Sunday’s finale:

LB Geno Hayes*: He did not play last Sunday because of a knee injury. He likely won’t practice this week.

DT Roy Miller*: He has battled a shoulder injury all season and did not play last Sunday. He likely won’t practice this week.

CB Dwayne Gratz*: He suffered a high ankle sprain last Sunday and likely won’t practice this week.

RB Maurice Jones-Drew*: He fought through a hamstring injury and started against Tennessee last Sunday but will be limited this week.

LT Cameron Bradfield: He joined the starting lineup after Joeckel was injured and suffered a high ankle sprain last Sunday and will be limited in practice this week.

*Denotes started season opener.

Jaguars' thin defense wears down

December, 22, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars were already banged up on defense before Sunday's meeting with the Tennessee Titans.

It got even worse during the game.

The Jaguars ended up being down five starters and it really showed up in the run defense. Tennessee ran for 182 yards and rallied from a 10-point deficit to down Jacksonville 20-16 at EverBank Field. It was the Jaguars’ third-worst performance of the season behind the 226 they allowed to Oakland in Week 2 and the 198 they allowed last week to Buffalo.

"We had some things we had to clean up, some things maybe that we counted on in the past due to some new personnel in there," coach Gus Bradley said. "We just had to tighten it up a little bit and it was hit and miss. There were some inconsistencies."

That’s to be expected with that many players playing different roles. The Jaguars didn’t have outside linebackers Russell Allen (concussion) and Geno Smith (knee) and defensive tackle Roy Miller (shoulder). That meant rookie John Lotulelei and third-year player J.T. Thomas -- mainly special teams players -- had to start at linebacker.

Brandon Deaderick, who had been inactive for the last two games, started for Miller. By the second half, Deaderick was out with an elbow injury and Jordan Miller, who was just activated from the practice squad this week, was getting snaps.

Cornerback Dwayne Gratz had to leave the game with an ankle injury but the Jaguars are much better equipped to handle an injury in the secondary than in the front seven.

The lack of depth really showed in the second half. The Titans ran for 68 yards in the first half but ran for 58 on their second drive in the third quarter. They had 114 yards rushing in the second half. The Jaguars were especially hurt up the middle, which was a byproduct of a worn-down defensive front that had just three healthy defensive tackles: Miller, Deaderick and Sen'Derrick Marks.

"We had some new guys step in but those guys, they’ve been here and they’ve practiced with us so it’s no blame on them for giving up plays," defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks said. "We gave up some plays and we weren’t as sound as we usually have been. Our thing is if a guy goes down we’ve got to have another guy to step in and make sure them we surround them and make sure he does what he’s supposed to do."

The Titans put together two long drives in the third quarter that lasted 11 and nine plays and resulted in touchdowns. The Titans ran the ball on 14 of those 20 plays, including quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 3-yard scramble on fourth-and-2.

By the time that second drive ended, the Titans had a 20-16 lead just 35 seconds into the fourth quarter. You could see the Jaguars’ defensive players were gassed.

"It always takes something out of you but it’s what we do," Marks said. "You’re supposed to be in shape. You’re a professional football player. We’ve just got to go out and get the stop and try to get off the field."

The Jaguars did that in the first meeting with the Titans. They held Tennessee to 83 yards rushing, including 30 yards by Chris Johnson. He had 90 and Shonn Green had 91 on Sunday.

Bradley understands the limitations he has with his roster, but even so he’s expecting more from the reserves when they do get on the field.

"Even though they got limited reps [in practice] when their number is called upon they have to perform," Bradley said. "I sure we will see some good things that they did on tape. It’s just the consistency. That’s what you have to battle through sometimes."

Rapid Reaction: Jacksonville Jaguars

December, 22, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 20-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans:

What it means: The Jaguars (4-11) were unable to overcome a slew of injuries and pick up their second victory at EverBank Field this season. It's just the second time in franchise history the Jaguars have won just one game at home. They went 1-7 at EverBank last season and 1-6 this season (they played a home game against San Francisco in London).

Stock watch: The Jaguars' group of no-name receivers did a solid job against the Titans. Injuries have left the Jaguars with little experience at the position. Entering the game, the team's four active receivers (Ace Sanders, Kerry Taylor, Mike Brown and Lamaar Thomas) had a combined 75 catches this season. None of them have more than a year of experience in the NFL. The group responded, especially Brown and Taylor. Brown caught five passes for 71 yards and one touchdown while Taylor had four catches for 45 yards.

Honoring Meester: The Jaguars had a quick postgame ceremony to honor center Brad Meester, who is retiring at the end of the season after 14 years with the team. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch tried to send him out in style by calling a screen pass for Meester that was designed to get him a touchdown. Meester made the catch but cut left instead of right and got tackled at the 4-yard line. Hard to criticize him for making that wrong cut, though. As former Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli joked at halftime, it's not like offensive linemen regularly read blocks.

Depleted defense: The Jaguars were already without three starters (linebackers Russell Allen and Geno Hayes and defensive tackle Roy Miller) and they lost two more key players during the game: defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick (elbow) and cornerback Dwayne Gratz (ankle). That forced the Jaguars to use defensive tackle Jordan Miller, who was active for the first time this season, and start inexperienced linebackers J.T. Thomas and John Lotulelei. You could see the drop off. The Titans ran for 182 yards and had most of their success in the passing game in the middle of the field.

What's next: The Jaguars end the 2013 season at Indianapolis on Sunday.

Jags unsure of Jones-Drew, Cyprien

December, 18, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It won’t be until Friday -- or possibly later -- before the Jaguars will know whether running back Maurice Jones-Drew or safety Johnathan Cyprien will be able to play in Sunday’s game against Tennessee.

Both players missed last week’s game against Buffalo and the plan is for each to not practice this week and test their injuries on Friday. Jones-Drew has a hamstring injury and Cyprien has a thigh injury.

“Both are in good spirits,” Bradley said. “You can tell they’re going the right direction but just how fast we don’t know yet.”

Jordan Todman started for Jones-Drew against Buffalo and ran for 109 yards and caught four passes for 44 yards in the 27-20 loss. Winston Guy started for Cyprien and had a strip sack and six tackles.

In other injury news, the Jaguars placed linebacker Russell Allen on injured reserve with a concussion.

Linebacker Geno Hayes (knee) and defensive tackle Roy Miller (shoulder) did not practice Monday. Defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, and center Brad Meester were given a veteran’s day off.

Reserve receiver Jeremy Ebert, who has three catches for 18 yards, suffered an ankle injury during Monday’s practice and was taken from the practice field on a cart.

Jags stop the run, but not much else

November, 17, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks has said for a while that it would be pretty simple to fix the Jaguars’ porous rush defense.

Everyone just needed to do their job. Stay in their assigned gap. Quit freelancing. Just do what you’re supposed to do on each play.

Turns out he was correct.

[+] EnlargeGus Bradley
AP Photo/Stephen MortonGus Bradley and the Jaguars held the Cardinals to 14 rushing yards on Sunday, but were burned for several big plays through the air.
The Jaguars held Arizona to just 14 yards on the ground in a 27-14 loss at EverBank Field. That’s the second-lowest single-game total in franchise history, behind only the 10 yards the Jaguars yielded to Kansas City in 2007.

It also is pretty much the only positive thing you can say about the defense on Sunday.

Carson Palmer threw for 419 yards and two touchdowns, including a 91-yarder to Michael Floyd in which three players missed a tackle, and the Cardinals controlled the ball for nearly 36 minutes. But the defensive front -- which was without middle linebacker and leading tackler Paul Posluszny (concussion) -- showed up.

"Just like I’ve been saying the whole year, every time we’ve had runs get out on us, we have a guy out of a gap," Marks said. "Our thing was after the bye we had to hold everybody accountable. We’ve been doing it ever since we came off the bye week. We’ve got guys in the right gaps, and everybody is where they’re supposed to be.

"Everybody’s been accountable, and when you do that you tend to stop the run."

Rashard Mendenhall gained 14 yards on 13 carries. One of which was a 5-yard touchdown run, which means he managed just nine yards on his other 12 carries. Andre Ellington, a speedy breakaway threat, managed just 3 yards on eight carries. The Jaguars entered the game giving up an average of 153.0 yards per game rushing.

"We were aware of the run game, and we did not want that to get going," head coach Gus Bradley said. "We did a good job attacking the run and controlling Ellington."

The defense certainly felt the loss of Posluszny, who is by far the team’s best defensive player. He has two interceptions, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. Posluszny didn’t practice all week, and was finally ruled out on Saturday morning. Russell Allen, who normally starts at outside linebacker, filled in and made seven tackles, but failed to deliver a big play.

Actually, he made one but it didn’t count. He stepped in front of Palmer’s pass to Larry Fitzgerald inside the Jacksonville 20-yard line in the third quarter, but officials announced that the Cardinals had called timeout before the snap.

"I think you grow to appreciate Poz and what he’s all about, but for Russell to step in and manage the defense like he did ... then he had the interception that would have helped out," Bradley said. "He did a nice job managing the defense. If he got more reps [during the week] we would see even better."

The Jaguars were certainly better against the run than in stopping Palmer, Fitzgerald, Floyd, and whichever tight end happened to be in the game at the time. Floyd caught six passes for 193 yards, including a 91-yard catch-and-run in which Allen, safety Josh Evans, and cornerback Will Blackmon missed tackles.

Fitzgerald caught a modest six passes for 61 yards and one touchdown, but tight ends Jim Dray, Jake Ballard and Rob Housler combined to catch nine passes for 117 yards -- continuing the trend of tight ends taking advantage of the Jaguars’ rookie safeties (Evans and Johnathan Cyprien).

Things could have been even worse had cornerback Alan Ball not broken up four passes in the first half.

The Tennessee Titans had similar trouble on the ground (83 yards) and success through the air (288 yards, two TDs) last week. The biggest difference is the Jaguars forced the Titans into four turnovers. They didn’t get any against the Cardinals.

"We feel good about how we played against the run, and we felt like it was something we were going to be able to do going in, but unfortunately we gave up too many big plays in the passing game," Allen said. "Any time we can give our offense a short field it’s important, giving them an opportunity to put points on the board. Getting some breaks ... would have helped a lot."

Rapid Reaction: Jacksonville Jaguars

November, 17, 2013
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 27-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

What it means: The Jaguars were trying to achieve something that hasn't happened since 2010: win back-to-back games. They beat Tennessee and Oakland in consecutive weeks in December that season but have won just eight games since. There is a silver lining in the loss, though. Tampa Bay was routing the Falcons, which leaves the Jaguars as the league's only team with a single victory and puts them in the lead for the No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 draft.

Stock watch: Punter Bryan Anger had perhaps his best game of the season, averaging nearly 50 yards per punt and pinning the Cardinals deep in their own territory. In the third quarter alone he forced the Cardinals into starting drives on their 9-, 10- and 2-yard line. Anger kept the Jaguars in the game while the offense sputtered in the second half. Cornerback Alan Ball had a solid game, too, by breaking up four passes in the first half -- three of which were intended for Michael Floyd.

TOs overturned: The Jaguars had what appeared to be two turnovers deep in Arizona territory wiped out. Patrick Peterson fumbled a punt at his own 10-yard line. Three Jaguars pounced on the ball but somehow Peterson came out with it and the Cardinals retained possession. Replays appeared to show long-snapper Carson Tinker coming out of the pile with the ball and the Jaguars challenged the play, but officials upheld the ruling on the field. Two plays later, middle linebacker Russell Allen intercepted Carson Palmer's pass to Larry Fitzgerald, but officials announced after the play that the Cardinals had called timeout before the snap.

Sneaky: The Jaguars scored their first touchdown on an interesting fourth-and-1 call. They lined up at their own 38 with extra tight ends. The Cardinals played run all the way, and the play-action fake allowed recently acquired tight end Danny Noble to get behind the first level of defenders. Chad Henne hit him with a good pass and Noble broke a tackle to score a 62-yard touchdown. What made the play work is the fact that Noble is a blocking tight end who had played in only five games and never had a catch until Sunday.

What's next: The Jaguars will play at Houston on Sunday.
Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s Jacksonville Jaguars-Arizona Cardinals game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

Peterson
Peterson
Shorts vs. Peterson: Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson usually shadows the opposing team’s best receiver. In the Jaguars’ case, that’s Cecil Shorts (48 catches, 607 yards). Can the 6-foot, 202-pound Shorts handle the 6-1, 219-pound Peterson? Shorts cannot get completely taken out of the game, because the Jaguars’ other receivers aren’t good enough to carry the passing game. Mike Brown is a solid No. 3 receiver but the only other healthy receiver is Kerry Taylor.

The Honey Badger: Tyrann Mathieu was a ballhawk at LSU, and he’s doing the same with Arizona. He has two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. He starts at safety, and he’s also talented enough to cover slot receivers man-to-man. The Jaguars need to be aware of where he is pre-snap, because he’s also a decent blitzer.

Who’s in the middle: Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny is questionable because of a concussion. He’s by far the defense’s best player (88 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles), so not having him on the field would be a huge loss. Outside linebacker Russell Allen would take his place. Though he has played all three spot in his five-year career, Allen hasn’t started a game in the middle since his rookie season (2009). Allen’s replacement would be rookie John Lotulelei, who has played in just two games this season.

Can Mojo get going? The Jaguars have struggled to run the ball all season, and now they’ll be facing the No. 3 run defense in the league. The Cardinals are allowing only 86.9 yards per game on the ground. Jones-Drew has rushed for 432 yards, and is averaging 3.0 yards per carry, more than a yard less than his career average. The offensive line might be without starting left guard Will Rackley (concussion), too.

The end zone: The Jaguars haven’t been in one in EverBank Field this season. The last TD the team scored there came in the first quarter of a Week 16 loss to New England in 2012. The Jaguars have been out-scored 89-11 in three games at EverBank this season.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jacksonville Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny missed his third consecutive practice with a concussion, but coach Gus Bradley said there’s still a chance Posluszny could play in Sunday’s game against Arizona.

Posluszny
Bradley also said starting left guard Will Rackley is doubtful because of a concussion. Reserve receivers Stephen Burton (concussion) and Stephen Williams (Achilles) are out.

But it’s potentially not having Posluszny that hurts the most. He is the team’s best defensive player and responsible for three of the defense’s 12 turnovers. He has a team-high 88 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.

"We’ll see how Paul feels in the morning," Bradley said. "We still have tomorrow morning to evaluate it and see where he’s at."

Posluszny, who suffered the concussion in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars’ 29-27 victory against Tennessee last Sunday, did not practice all week.

Outside linebacker Russell Allen, who has started 39 games in his five seasons, will start in place of Posluszny. Allen set career highs in tackles (201) and pass breakups (eight) in 2012, and has 40 tackles and two fumble recoveries.

"Fortunately we’ve had all week of practice with Russell in there and he’s done a nice job this whole week," Bradley said. "He was thrown into a little tougher situation last week with the limited amount of reps, so at least this week he got multiple reps.

"That’s where Russell’s so important to us -- in other ways, too -- but the flexibility to play multiple positions."

Rackley missed last week’s game with a concussion suffered against San Francisco on Oct. 27. He was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday, but did not practice Friday.
Reading the coverage of the Jaguars ...

A doctor uninvolved in Blaine Gabbert’s case thinks the Jaguars’ timetable for his recovery from a thumb fracture is too ambitious, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

To which I say: The countdown to him being ready to practice for the opener against Kansas City starting on Sept. 4 is on.

The Jaguars cut receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and offensive lineman Jason Spitz, says O’Halloran. They will count for $315,000 in dead money.

To which I say: It’s unfortunate Massaquoi didn’t pan out, but it means good things about Ace Sanders and Mike Brown.

Receiver Cecil Shorts and linebacker Russell Allen are ready to return from injuries, but Luke Joeckel is still troubled by a hip flexor, says Hays Carlyon on the Times-Union.

The Gabbert announcement ended the suspense and started the most important stretch of Gabbert’s career, says John Oehser of Jaguars.com.

Andre Branch’s ineffectiveness in the Jets game was glaring, says Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country.

What to watch: Jaguars-Jets

August, 17, 2013
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Three things I’ll be paying special attention to Saturday evening when the Jacksonville Jaguars play the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.

1. The quarterback. Blaine Gabbert was poor last week in his preseason debut, but he didn’t have a lot of help. Many of the team’s best players didn’t play. He was sacked, one of his passes was dropped, and he had accurate pass tipped and turned into an interception. But he has to help make things better, not be a victim and he has to take more command. The coaches want him to be their quarterback -- that's part of the reason he's getting a second start instead of playing behind Chad Henne. What he does in this game isn’t likely to make a giant difference in whether he's the starter or not. Every chance he has, however, he can gain something. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew and receiver Justin Blackmon are slated to play with him.

2. Speaking of Jones-Drew ... He downplayed his re-emergence and that’s not a bad approach on his part. But he has not been involved in a game since Oct. 21, 2012, when he suffered the Lisfranc injury in his left foot at Oakland. He remains the franchise’s most notable player and while receiver Cecil Shorts may turn out to challenge him as the team’s best and most productive skill player, MJD holds that slot for the time being. The scheme has changed some under new coordinator Jedd Fisch. Let’s see if the Jaguars can get some push up front and how Jones-Drew looks getting into a hole, through it and bouncing off defenders.

3. New guys on defense. I believe second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien, the safety, has a chance to be the biggest impact newcomer on defense in the division. He sat out the early weeks of camp with a hamstring issue, but started practicing on Monday and is slated to play in his first preseason game against the Jets. Let’s see how he settles in, if he carries the practice attitude we saw in the early summer into game action and what sort of bearing he can have on the rest of the secondary. Another guy to watch on defense could be president of the undrafted rookie class. With Russell Allen hurt, outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds is expected to get a start. He’s been a playmaker in camp and can really introduce himself to the league in this opportunity.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

J.J. Watt lobbies to play on offense and Gary Kubiak left the door open that he could get in on a goal line play at some point, says Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

The Texans currently have second-year players manning both guard slots with Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones, say John McClain and Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle.

Undrafted rookie cornerback A.J. Bouye is making a big push to be part of the roster, says Smith.

A look at the Texans new scoreboard and what the franchise is doing with new technology, from Taylor Bloom of SportTechie.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are taking it slow with running back Ahmad Bradshaw as he returns from a foot injury, but they expect to see him running angry once he’s all the way back, says Mike Chappell.

Tight end Coby Fleener suffered a concussion in the preseason game against Buffalo and will not go through the recovery protocol, says Chappell.

A look at the work of the first-team offensive line in the loss to the Bills, from Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Paul Posluszny doesn’t consider himself elite. “I need to find a way to make game changing plays, to make more impact plays, whether it’s interceptions, whether it’s when there’s an opportunity to rush the passer, I have to make plays there. Forced fumbles. They’ve got to be plays that help the team win,” he told Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

After a lackluster practice by the Jaguars, Marcedes Lewis gathered the teams and offered a measured message about how it wasn’t acceptable, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

With Russell Allen out with an ankle injury, undrafted LaRoy Reynolds is working as the strongside linebacker with the first team, says John Oehser of the team’s website.

Tennessee Titans

Damian Williams is faster than he’s ever been after summer work with Olympic sprinters, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Shawn Jefferson "might be the best thing to happen to Kenny Britt since the Titans drafted the wide receiver in 2009, and he could be the reason rookie Justin Hunter turns into a star some day. That’s the best-case scenario, of course,” says Wyatt.

Receivers have a focus on blocking as they know they are a big piece of springing Chris Johnson, says Craig Peters of the team’s website.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Through the late years of Jack Del Rio’s nine-season tenure and Mike Mularkey’s one awful year, plenty of Jacksonville Jaguars lacked faith in the coaches above them.

New coach Gus Bradley believes trust is as important as any ingredient in his team, and in the early stages of a big rebuild he has earned a great degree of it from his players.

“It’s been really refreshing, his whole approach from day one,” said Jason Babin, the team’s most proven pass-rusher. “The way he’s laid out how we’re going to do things, the way we’ll go about our business, the way things are going to be here is genuine. As you know coaches often say one thing, and it’s not always entirely true.”

“To have a coach like that with the genuine sincerity is special. You believe him when he talks to you, and he’s done a great job developing relationships.”

Belief is big for a team that is coming off a disastrous 2-14 season, lacks a proven quarterback and has some areas of questionable talent. Bradley has preached a simple, core theme from the very start. He’s not talking playoffs, he’s not talking wins, he’s not talking success. He’s constantly talking improvement.

Bradley is high energy, and while he’s not trying to stamp his personality on his players, the enthusiasm can’t help but be contagious.

“He’s like a breath of fresh air, it’s like night and day,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said. “I’ve always said you can have good coaches but bad people. He’s actually a great coach and a good person who actually cares about you. You can tell when you come into work. It’s just a better working environment.

"When he first came in and we met him, I thought his enthusiasm was fake. Like it wouldn’t last. But that’s who he is, every single day. You can’t do anything but appreciate it.”

While Bradley would like his team to start fast, his bigger emphasis is on finishing strong. For a team that might not have a lot of success in the standings, it seems a smart approach. Because if you talk all about starting fast and you don’t, then what?

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
AP Photo/John RaouxThis season could be Blaine Gabbert's last chance to assert himself as Jacksonville's QB.
1. The quarterback. The Jaguars steered clear of a quarterback in the draft, as they didn’t see an answer to their issues and had plenty of other areas to address. So they move forward with Blaine Gabbert’s big, and final, chance. The new offense is tailored to help Gabbert be better -- he will roll out and go on the move more. His weapons are better and more reliable, with the emerging Cecil Shorts paired with Justin Blackmon (once he’s healthy and after a four-game suspension to start the season) along with Ace Sanders and Mike Brown, who has been quite good in camp. The protection is far better with No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel at right tackle. The initial depth chart has Gabbert as co-No. 1 with Chad Henne, and the team will pump up the competition for as long as it can. But those boosting Henne and suggesting he’ll win the job haven’t seen practices where Henne rarely seizes real command and is regularly worse than Gabbert.

2. Maurice Jones-Drew’s foot. He looked good during my visit, very much the same guy we’ve become accustomed to. He could easily be the centerpiece of the offense just as he was before he suffered a serious Lisfranc foot injury in the team’s sixth game last season. We need to see him in games, over time show that the foot isn’t an issue. We need to see how effective the rest of the team can be so that it’s not overreliant on him. And we need to see how he takes on the final year of his contract when he desires a big new deal, but exists in a league where even effective running backs are devalued as they approach 30. While the team will run more zone plays, MJD said the rush offense won’t look that different from what we saw in the last few years of Del Rio’s regime.

3. The shape of a new scheme: Bradley ran Seattle’s defense under Pete Carroll, and the scheme put a heavy emphasis on big physical cornerbacks and pass-rushing Leos. Do the Jaguars have the guys to fit those roles? Third-round pick Dwayne Gratz looks like a good get. But Babin is the team’s best rusher, and he was let go by the Eagles during the season last year, not a great sign. The second option at Leo, 2012 second-rounder Andre Branch, remains mostly invisible. Jacksonville had 20 sacks last season. The end pool hasn’t really changed, though Tyson Alualu has shifted outside. The new interior guys -- Sen'Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick -- will solidify the run defense. But will they penetrate and get quarterbacks to move off their spot?

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeGus Bradley and Dave Caldwell
Phil Sears/USA TODAY Sports Coach Gus Bradley, left, and GM Dave Caldwell have made a positive impression as they rebuild the Jags.
David Caldwell and Bradley. The new GM and coach are both in their jobs for the first time. They are enthusiastic partners in building this team, not afraid to say there are things they don’t know yet, as opposed to storming in and claiming they have all the answers. We won’t be able to judge them for a few years as they need to assemble and deploy talent. And we don’t know too much about Bradley’s staff. But people who have worked with Caldwell and Bradley in the past, and people who are working with them now, have great reviews. I’m impressed with both, and they are the best thing the team has going for it right now.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The talent gap. How many Jaguars would start for the two-time defending AFC South champion Houston? Joeckel would be the right tackle. Paul Posluszny, if he fit into a 3-4, could be a two-down inside guy next to Brian Cushing. Shorts would be a top-three receiver. That’s probably it. The Jaguars might be moving in a good direction, but the distance between their talent and the talent at the top of the division, conference and league is substantial. The more talented teams don’t always win, but you’d rather not be the team that has to remind itself that all the time.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Denard Robinson is listed as a running back, a quarterback, a receiver and a kick returner on the team’s initial depth chart. The team already has tried to trim his workload -- he’s not involved as a punt returner for now -- to help him get good at a smaller role, and so he can really concentrate on ball security. They will definitely use him in the Wildcat. But Caldwell said he’s not really expecting anything from Robinson early on.
  • All the receivers are learning all the spots. So while Sanders and Brown both look the part of slot guys, don’t pigeonhole either as strictly inside guys. And while Shorts and Blackmon look the part of outside guys, they could well get opportunities lining up inside, too. Mohamed Massaquoi and, to a larger degree, Jordan Shipley don’t seem to be very big factors right now.
  • Alualu looked good as an end when I focused on him. Hopefully his knee is sound and he will be able to put things together in his fourth year. Meanwhile, Jeremy Mincey is going the other direction. He has added about 15 pounds and his primary role is likely to be as a nickel tackle.
  • After what he did, and failed to do, in his chances in Houston last season, cornerback Alan Ball seemed like an uninspired signing to me. But he has been better through camp so far than I would have expected.
  • Undrafted rookie linebacker LaRoy Reynolds is flashing regularly at practice. At this point, I expect he’s on the team and given a chance to be a special-teams ace. Maybe he even pushes starter Russell Allen. Look for six to eight undrafted guys to make the initial 53-man roster.
We pick up our series in which ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, ranks the AFC South position-by-position.

Today, we examine linebackers.

Williamson’s AFC South linebacker rankings:
1) Texans (Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Whitney Mercilus, Tim Dobbins, Darryl Sharpton, Sam Montgomery, Trevardo Williams)
2) Colts (Robert Mathis, Jerrell Freeman, Bjoern Werner, Erik Walden, Pat Angerer, Kelvin Sheppard, Kavell Conner)
3) Titans (Akeem Ayers, Zach Brown, Colin McCarthy, Moise Fokou, Zaviar Gooden)
4) Jaguars (Paul Posluszny, Russell Allen, Geno Hayes, Julian Stanford, Brandon Marshall)

Everybody’s got uncertainty somewhere in their group.

My questions for Williamson based off of his list:

SportsNation

Matt Williamson's ranking of AFC South linebacking units is:

  •  
    63%
  •  
    24%
  •  
    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,250)

Your overall assessment, please:

“Ranking the linebackers in this division was pretty clear to me. Maybe it helped the Texans and Colts that they feature four starting linebackers -- and really, guys like Robert Mathis are equal parts defensive end and linebacker to me, but he is an outside linebacker for this exercise. I would say Cushing is the best linebacker in the division and Houston's outside linebackers should be improved from a year ago. But even though I ranked them first, there are many linebacking corps around the NFL that I take over Houston's. – among them San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina, Dallas and Arizona.”

Based on what you know about what the Texans have and the guys in question, do you put Sharpton or Dobbins beside Cushing inside or move Reed inside to put Montgomery or Williams outside?

“Houston doesn't play a typical 3-4 scheme. They are more like a 5-2. I have serious doubts if Reed can transition inside in either scheme and I think that move is an indictment upon Houston just not being happy with his edge pass rush. Montgomery seems much more like a traditional 4-3 end, but Williams seems like an ideal fit for the Texans at outside linebacker, and he is who I am most excited about opposite Mercilus.”

How much of a believer are you in Walden and Werner? Any signs of a slowdown for Mathis?

“I thought Indy WAY overpaid for Walden and it was amongst the worst UFA signings of the season. I see him as a third outside linebacker in a 3-4 and ultimately, that is what he should be if Werner lives up to the hype. I do like Werner though in this scheme as the heavier OLB (think Jarret Johnson when he was there and Courtney Upshaw now in Baltimore), which frees Mathis to be more of the edge pass-rusher. I don't expect Mathis to slow down, but of course, that day could be coming soon and it might be wise to use Walden more on early downs and keep Mathis fresh for passing situations.”

Could Fokou beat out a healthy McCarthy? If McCarthy gets hurt again, how much of a drop off would there be if Fokou ends up a two-down MLB?

“I am not a huge McCarthy fan, so I would say the drop off would be minimal."

How do Ayers and Brown rank as a pair of young OLBs in a 4-3?

“I do like the overall upside of Ayers/Brown/Gooden. Gooden and Brown are very similar run-and-hit guys with extreme speed, while Ayers is more of a 3-4 outside linebacker type, which is useful when varying their fronts as well as bringing an edge blitz presence.”

How much could Posluszny suffer if the guys outside him, likely Allen and Hayes, aren't particularly good?

“There is quite a bit on Paul's plate at middle linebacker for the Jags. Not only are his outside linebackers average on a good day -- although Allen flashed some playmaking skills -- but the DTs in front of him are not great at keeping him clean. Maybe the new defensive tackles will help in that regard, as Poz is just an average take-on linebacker. His strengths are that he takes few false steps, is quick to read and is decisive”

As for me…

I need to see Hayes and Allen in the new Jaguars scheme, but heading into the season I have questions about their ability to get off of blockers to make plays consistently. That could mean Posluszny has to run around and get in on every tackle, and they can’t ask too much of him.

Before McCarthy in 2011, the Titans traditionally had a two-down middle linebacker, the exception being Randall Godfrey. As soon as the Titans go to nickel, McCarthy or Fokou should leave the field and the two backers should come out of Brown, Gooden and Ayers. Bernard Pollard will drop down from strong safety and function as a linebacker at times. If McCarthy wins the job, this work reduction may help him stay healthy.

Dobbins and Sharpton both have issues staying healthy. That could be a big factor in how the Texans starting linebacker group shakes out. They have a lot of options after adding Montgomery and Williams, and options are the next best thing to a lineup already set as camp starts.

Run defense was priority one for the Colts as they revamped their defense, and Walden may help a lot there. But Werner needs to be able to have an impact early for the Colts to have a chance to rush sufficiently, otherwise offenses will be able to focus on Mathis in a way they rarely could when Dwight Freeney was also on the field with him. (Yes, I know Freeney missed games and Mathis still had success.)

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