JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There might not be a hotter team than the Jacksonville Jaguars right now.
Off the field, anyway.
The town is buzzing with the $63 million renovations to EverBank Field, which include the largest video boards in the world above each end zone, additional premium seating and two pools in the north end zone. Stories about the pools have appeared in various publications, including on The New York Times front page.
Owner Shad Khan, who has pumped $31 million of his own money into the renovations as well as a new locker room and weight room, is being treated as Jacksonville royalty. He received thunderous applause from the 52,000-plus people who packed the stadium for the video board unveiling and Carrie Underwood concert July 26, and he is being feted and celebrated by city business leaders.
That adds a lot of pressure for the on-field part of the organization. The Jaguars must show progress in the second year of the GM David Caldwell/coach Gus Bradley regime, or all the off-field momentum the team has generated will go pfft.
"There’s a lot of positive things going around this team, and it’s not just the football-related stuff," Caldwell said. "It’s the scoreboards. It’s the stadium. It’s Shad. It’s [team president] Mark [Lamping] and [senior VP of fan engagement] Hussain [Naqi] and those guys. They’ve done a great job. Hopefully we can match what they’re doing [and] that we don’t let them down. They’ve raised the bar for us to be more competitive."
That means not losing their first eight games by double digits and finishing 4-12 like the Jags did in 2013. It means being competitive in games into the fourth quarter and stealing a victory or two and at least being somewhat of a factor in the AFC South.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. The Jaguars had one of the league’s worst defenses last season (27th overall, 29th against the rush) and spent a lot of money -- $53.5 million over the next four years -- to improve the defensive line. The additions of defensive ends Chris Clemons ($17.5 million) and Red Bryant ($19.5 million) and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood ($16.5 million) should make the Jaguars better up front. Clemons has had some pretty good one-on-one battles with left tackle Luke Joeckel during camp and has been the best pass-rusher so far. Bryant has proven to be a load, and the offensive linemen have had a hard time moving him around and handling his power.
2. The Jaguars were even worse on offense than defense in 2013. They ranked 31st overall and scored a league-low 15.4 points per game. Poor offensive line play was an issue, but so was a lack of weapons. Things look better in 2014. Toby Gerhart is a young, low-mileage running back who can play on three downs because he’s a good receiver and pass-blocker. Gerhart had a solid start to camp and runs with power between the tackles. He also has been more involved in the passing game than anticipated. Receiver Marqise Lee has been the best rookie in camp. The former USC standout was lining up with the first team even before Cecil Shorts (hamstring) got hurt. Quarterback Chad Henne said he has been impressed by Lee’s ability to understand coverages and adjust his routes, something they both attributed to Lee playing in a pro-style offense at USC.
3. There is no quarterback competition in Jacksonville. Henne is the starter and the plan is to keep Blake Bortles, the third overall pick, on the bench the entire season. That is a decision that benefits the Jaguars in both the short and long term. Henne is more comfortable and confident in his second year in Jedd Fisch’s offensive system and has thrown the ball well so far in camp. He completed 14 of 22 passes for 75 yards in last weekend's scrimmage, moved the offense well and didn't make the big mistake. He is making quicker decisions and getting the ball out quickly, too. Henne is practicing at the highest level since he came to Jacksonville in 2012.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. The Jaguars tried to address the interior of the offensive line by signing guard Zane Beadles in free agency, but there are still question marks at center and right guard. Mike Brewster has been working as the starter at center, but the knock on him has been a lack of lower-body strength. The coaching staff gave Jacques McClendon some reps there a few days ago. It was partly to rattle Brewster’s cage a bit but also a message that he needs to perform. Brewster is still having some trouble with bull-rushers and hasn't been able to create much space in the middle on run downs. He also is entering his third season and has played in 26 games but has never snapped in a game. Third-round pick Brandon Linder had taken over as the starter at right guard until he suffered a foot sprain. He has been more consistent than McClendon.
2. The injuries at wide receiver are concerning. There's no timetable for Shorts' return. Allen Robinson is battling a hamstring injury after having missed nearly all of OTAs and minicamp with a similar injury. Tandon Doss, whom the team signed as a free agent, suffered a severe ankle sprain last week and is out indefinitely. The team was already without Ace Sanders (leave of absence/suspension), so the Jaguars are going to be forced to rely on unproven players such as Kerry Taylor, Allen Hurns and Lamaar Thomas for a while. That's not exactly conducive to a productive offense. Plus, Robinson is a rookie, so the time missed will severely hurt his chances of contributing this year.
3. The defensive line has been upgraded, the cornerbacks are solid and the safeties look set with Johnathan Cyprien (who has drawn raves from coaches and teammates in camp) and Winston Guy. But the Jaguars have to make strides at linebacker. Paul Posluszny was pretty much the only linebacker who made plays in 2013, and he has been just as consistent in camp. Adding Dekoda Watson in free agency and drafting Telvin Smith in the fifth round was a start, but Watson has yet to practice because of a groin injury. Smith needs to gain weight (he's 219 pounds), but his speed and instincts have put him in position to make several plays in camp. He has gotten some first-team reps but has mainly gotten on the field on third down, and it appears that's where the Jaguars want to use him.
Bradley said Joeckel, who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the fifth game of his rookie season in 2013, has looked very good. He is moving well and showing no signs of the injury. He is benefiting from one-on-one battles with Clemons.
It will be interesting to see how the new Otto linebacker position develops over time. With Watson out, LaRoy Reynolds has gotten the majority of the reps there and has adapted pretty well. He had an interception in last weekend's scrimmage that was wiped out because of a penalty, but he read the route, stepped in front of tight end Marcedes Lewis and made a leaping catch.
A young player to watch is cornerback Demetrius McCray, who has gotten a lot of first-team reps in place of injured starter Alan Ball (ankle), who returned to the field on Monday. McCray, a 2014 seventh-round pick, has the size (6-foot, 185 pounds) and length the Jaguars like in their cornerbacks. Fourth-round pick Aaron Colvin, who is on the PUP list with a torn ACL suffered in the first days of Senior Bowl practice, should be the starter opposite Dwayne Gratz next season, but McCray’s development will earn him a lot of playing time this season and next.