NFL Nation: Jacksonville Jaguars
The NFL draft has come (finally) and gone and now it’s time to take stock of how it affected the teams around the AFC South.
The division was clearly the worst in the NFL in 2013, with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans combining for just 13 victories. The Texans had the No. 1 overall pick and the Jaguars were two spots behind. That means those teams needed a lot of help.
The Texans nabbed perhaps the best pass-rusher of the past 15 years in Jadeveon Clowney to pair with J.J. Watt but didn’t address an obvious need at quarterback until the fourth round.
The Jaguars surprised everyone by taking quarterback Blake Bortles with their first pick, then adding a pair of receivers in the second round, including first-round talent Marqise Lee.
The Titans went substance over style with their draft but did nab one of the top three offensive tackles in Taylor Lewan and may have found a replacement for Chris Johnson in Bishop Sankey.
The Colts had the fewest draft picks in the league (five) but didn’t address perhaps the team’s biggest need.
Division reporters Michael DiRocco (Jaguars), Tania Ganguli (Texans), Paul Kuharsky (Titans) and Mike Wells (Colts) help you figure out what it all means.
Have the Titans added enough to their hybrid 3-4 defense to make a leap?
Michael DiRocco: One of the key things about coordinator Ray Horton's defense is that it demands versatility, especially among the linebackers. They have to be able to play multiple spots, and that requires speed and athleticism. The addition of Wesley Woodyard from Denver certainly helps, because he can play inside and outside. Drafting Avery Williamson, however, doesn't seem to fit. He's an inside player who doesn't run well. I do like tackle DaQuan Jones, though. He can play multiple spots on the line. The one thing the defense is missing is a big-time pass-rusher and that's the key to making the defense work.
Paul Kuharsky: I don't know. The four primary outside linebackers can turn out to be a good group. I think Kamerion Wimbley will be a lot closer to the player the Titans paid big money to in 2012 now that he's back to the position in a favorable scheme. And Shaun Phillips was a smart signing considering production and price. The system is also a better fit for Akeem Ayers. I'm not as certain about Derrick Morgan, who's listed as a defensive end/linebacker but worked in position drills with the linebackers at the pre-draft voluntary minicamp. Ropati Pitoitua is much more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, and he's certain to play end in the three-man front. The Titans have a lot of candidates to play with him and opposite him, but none scream that they will consistently get into the backfield. Jurrell Casey was excellent last season with 10.5 sacks. I feel certain coordinator Ray Horton won't do anything to mess up the good thing the Titans have going with Casey. The pass rush will be better. But better enough? I would have liked to have seen a young edge guy added in the draft.
Mike Wells: It may eventually work in Tennessee, but don't be surprised if it takes a little time for the defensive players to adapt to the 3-4 defense. Ask Colts linebacker Robert Mathis if you need further proof. Mathis shifted from defensive end in the 4-3 defense to outside linebacker when coach Chuck Pagano brought his 3-4 defense to Indianapolis in 2012. Mathis went from 8.0 sacks in his first year under Pagano to 19.5 sacks last season. The Titans have some players who are familiar with the 3-4 scheme. Shaun Phillips (9.5 sacks in 2012 with San Diego), Wesley Woodyard and Kamerion Wimbley have all played in the 3-4 at some point in their careers. But will the rest of their defensive teammates pick it up right away? I'm not convinced it'll happen.
Will the Colts regret not trading up to grab a top safety to replace Antoine Bethea?
DiRocco: The Colts had only five picks, so that didn't give them a lot of ammunition to trade up. It would have been too costly to jump into the first round because it would have meant dealing future picks. The real problem is they failed to address the position in free agency, when there were several options available. That magnifies their failure to find a safety in the draft. Why is it a problem? Two reasons: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. To take the next step in the playoffs, the Colts are going to have to go through Denver and/or New England, which means dealing with Manning and Brady. The Pats pounded the Colts on the ground in a playoff victory last season, but the key to beating those teams is stopping the pass.
Kuharsky: There are going to be positions on virtually any team where the top guy on the depth chart doesn't look like a sure thing and the competition isn't topflight. The Colts believe Delano Howell can be an effective successor to Bethea and that they have sufficient guys to supplement him. Through an excellent career with the Colts, Bethea was a guy who consistently got to the right place at the right time and was a very sure tackler. It will be tough for Howell to match that. The bigger concern in my eyes is if LaRon Landry gets hurt and the Colts need another safety to step up. But given their lack of picks this year, trading up for a guy would have been awfully difficult and they certainly shouldn't dip into their 2015 picks.
Wells: It was going to be tough for the Colts to trade into the first round because they only had five picks total in this year's draft and very little interest in giving up a first-round pick in next year's draft. They are steadfast in saying running back Trent Richardson is their first-round pick. Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward was the best cover safety in this year's draft. He was the 30th overall pick by San Francisco. I didn't think not addressing safety would be an issue at first with Mathis leading the way on what should be an improved front seven. There wouldn't have been as much pressure on the Colts' secondary. But as everybody knows, Mathis has been suspended for the first four games next season, leaving the Colts without the 2013 league leader in sacks. I think the Colts may regret not trading into the first during Mathis' suspension, but they'll be fine with Delano Howell, the likely starter, when it's all said and done.
@MikeWellsNFL Lots of S were drafted early, so that leads me to think lots of good veteran S will be waived. No regrets, claim 1 on waivers.- Ben Meyer (@TheBigBenDiesel) May 15, 2014
Were the Texans right to wait until the fourth round to draft a quarterback?
DiRocco: Nope. They blew it, especially when they could have made a move back into the last part of the first round to get Teddy Bridgewater -- which is what Minnesota did. The Texans also could have taken Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo but instead went with a guard at the top of the second round. Coach Bill O'Brien did turn Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg into very good Big Ten QBs, and I'd rather have either of those guys than Tom Savage, who somehow became the hottest QB prospect in the weeks before the draft. The Texans are still talented enough to be a playoff team with the right quarterback in place. O'Brien apparently believes he can find one among Savage, Ryan Fitzpatrick, T.J. Yates and Case Keenum. Andre Johnson clearly doesn't agree.
Kuharsky: The Texans have a major question mark at the most important position on the team. But it's not like they could have waved a magic wand to get a guy, or that one of the more highly regarded quarterbacks in the draft would have been a sure thing. I imagine they would have opened the second round with Teddy Bridgewater if Minnesota hadn't traded into the last pick of the first round to take him. After that, it's wise the Texans didn't force a pick. But Tom Savage hasn't played a great deal of football in the past few years and I think a lot of people won't be surprised if the Titans do better with sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger than the Texans do with fourth-rounder Savage -- not that the odds of a pick in either range panning out into a reliable long-term starter are any good.
Wells: Yes. No Andrew Luck and no Robert Griffin III in this year's draft. There was no need for the Texans to use the No. 1 pick on a player they hoped could be as good as Luck one day. Teaming Jadeveon Clowney opposite J.J. Watt on what is already a solid defense gives the Texans better hope than with one of the quarterbacks selected in the first round. Give the Texans a serviceable quarterback with that defense and who knows what can happen. The highlight of taking Johnny Manziel -- in the first year at least -- would have made the Texans a national draw. But in the end, all that counts is wins and losses. Clowney will help the Texans win more games next season than what Manziel or any other quarterback taken prior to the fourth round would have.
@taniaganguli I would say yes. It's obvious Bortles could've been taken but we filled more needs by waiting. Still got our 'Prototypical' QB- Ryan Brackenridge (@GHS_Forever) May 16, 2014
Will Blake Bortles be the Jaguars' starting quarterback at any point this season?
DiRocco: I say yes, but I'm not as sure about when. This may sound like a cop-out, but it really depends on how he progresses. If he picks up the offense, fixes the lower-body issues that are preventing him from throwing the ball as hard and accurately as he can, and makes the transition from the spread offense, then he'll get on the field. I can see that happening by December, and if that's the case, then he'll get a start or two. At the very worst, he'll get a drive or a quarter within some games to get his feet wet.
Kuharsky: I really believe general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley will look back on what the previous regime did at quarterback and be super cautious. The Jaguars had no intention of starting Blaine Gabbert as a rookie. Then they cut David Garrard just before the season, watched Luke McCown struggle and had no choice. I don't know how much better Gabbert would have been if he was eased into NFL life, but it certainly would have been better for him. If Bortles needs time, they will resist temptation to start him even if Chad Henne struggles. In a way, this is an offensive line question, because if Henne gets hurt, they may not have a choice. They'll have three new starters in the interior to go with a healthy Luke Joeckel at left tackle. That group should fare better and increase the chances Henne is good to go for the whole season.
Wells: He has to be. It likely won't be in Week 1, but I expect it to happen at some point because the Jaguars aren't going to win the AFC South with Luck at quarterback for the Colts. More than 2,000 fans did not show up at the Jaguars' minicamp to watch cornerback Aaron Colvin. That was all about Bortles. The Jaguars need something to bring the fans out. The only highlight of the area is the nearby Atlantic Ocean. No offense to Chad Henne, but Bortles gives the Jaguars the best opportunity to bring some kind of excitement to the city. Look at it this way: He can't do any worse than Blaine Gabbert.
Until then, the five NFL Nation reporters from each of the top five teams will get together periodically to offer their thoughts on what they would do. Your comments are welcome.
Here's the first look:
1. Texans: Tania Ganguli picks Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. Of all of them, this is the player most worthy of the top pick. His talent is transcendent and the Texans need another pass-rusher. If they aren't sold on Clowney, I'd trade this pick to someone who is.
2. Rams: Nick Wagoner picks Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. I would give strong consideration to one of the top two offensive tackles but this is a rare opportunity to get the No. 1 receiver the Rams have lacked since Torry Holt's heyday. Since the Rams also have the 13th pick, I'd look to address the offensive line. Of course, trading down would also be a possibility.
3. Jaguars: Mike DiRocco picks Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo. There's a lot of temptation to take one of the quarterbacks, but general manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley don't believe any of them are ready to play right away. Despite adding players to the defense in free agency -- ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and linebacker Dekoda Watson -- the Jaguars still need a lot of help. Mack has the versatility to rush the passer and play in coverage. Plus, the defense needs to get faster and Mack fits that bill, too.
4. Browns: Pat McManamon picks Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. The first three picks from the ESPN.com reporters have put the Browns guy in a bind. Their preferred draft order should read Watkins, Mack, Clowney, but all three are gone. (If I'm the Browns and this happens, I might pull a Bill Belichcik, throw a hissy fit, trade out of the pick and take Craig Powell, Jr.) The three top guys on my board are gone. Which leaves Greg Robinson or a quarterback. Though none of the quarterbacks are exciting, Bortles has the size and arm strength and best potential of the three. I'm picking for the future, a selection that cements Brian Hoyer as the starter.
5. Raiders: Paul Gutierrez picks Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M. Well, this is not at all how I thought this would go. The Raiders need a playmaker, a Watkins-type for newly acquired Matt Schaub to throw the ball to in this revamped offense. But since he's gone, if I had my druthers, I'd trade down and pick up Mike Evans to become Schaub's Andre Johnson 2.0. But since we're not trading in this particular exercise, I suppose I could just gamble and use the pick on Evans, right? Thing is, those two stud tackles are still there and Matthews could be the best player in the entire draft, regardless of position. You build a team on the lines, so I'm going with Matthews at No. 5 for the Raiders to continue their "reconstruction" … for now.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The NFL’s owners, coaches and general managers gathered in Orlando this week for the owners meetings.
Some of the topics discussed were potential changes to the kicking game, Colts owner Jim Irsay's DUI arrest, expanded playoffs and racist/discriminatory/profane language. The league tabled any action on adjusting or eliminating PATs. No playoff teams were added. But the owners did discuss sensitivity and sportsmanship issues.
As for the Irsay situation, commissioner Roger Goodell said he'll wait for the legal process to play out before deciding what kind of punishment Irsay will face.
But don't worry, four of ESPN's NFL Nation reporters -- Michael DiRocco (Jaguars), Tania Ganguli (Texans), Jeff Legwold (Broncos) and Mike Wells (Colts) -- were at the meetings and took a run at those issues.
What should the owners do to fix the kicking game?
Michael DiRocco: I'm in favor of the decision to extend the goalposts several feet to eliminate some of the ambiguity of whether some field goal attempts are successful. Kickoff returns are among the most exciting plays in football, but they are also among the most dangerous. I don't see a realistic way to make them any safer without eliminating them completely. As for PATs, I'd be in favor of moving them back to a 40- or 45-yard attempt. That increases the difficulty. But how about adding a radical change as well by giving teams the option of a 3-point PAT by attempting a kick of 55 yards? It certainly would make game strategy more interesting.
Tania Ganguli: The league tabled the discussion about moving the extra point back to the 25-yard line and will experiment by moving it to the 20 during some preseason games. I'll be interested to see the result of the trial period. I don't have a problem with the fact that extra points are so often effective. There is still strategy in deciding whether to kick it or go for two. It doesn't always play into game strategy, but it can, and that means it isn't a meaningless play. My bigger concern would be safety issues that come with kickoffs.
Jeff Legwold: Not sure I understand the rationale of removing something from the game because the players have become too proficient at it. Sure, 1,267 extra points were attempted in the 2013 season and all but five were made. Four of the extra-point attempts were blocked and only one was missed (Minnesota's Blair Walsh), but it seems misplaced to remove it simply because kickers, snappers and the rest of those lined up have become mind-numbingly good at it. That's a bad precedent. In 1970 there were no quarterbacks who threw for even 3,000 yards. In 1980, only two quarterbacks crossed the 4,000-yard barrier. In 2013 there were nine quarterback who threw for at least 4,000 yards and two -- Peyton Manning and Drew Brees -- topped 5,000 yards. So, if the league's passers get much better, they'll have to ditch the forward pass.
Mike Wells: The NFL can do away with extra points because they're pointless. There were only five unsuccessful PATs last season. Does anybody even watch teams kick extra points? That's usually the time to get an early jump to the bathroom so that you're back in time for the kickoff. Moving the PAT back to the 25-yard line doesn't provide any more excitement. Automatically give teams seven points for scoring a touchdown with an option to get another point by going for a conversion. About the only bad thing with eliminating PATs is that Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee may get upset that he can't punt, kick off, kick field goals and kick PATs, something he wants to accomplish at some point in his career. But something tells me he'd get over PATs being eliminated from the game.
How should the commissioner handle a misbehaving owner?
DiRocco: Owners should be held to at least the same standard as players when it comes to off-field behavior, but I'd argue that they should be held to an even higher standard because of their status -- especially when it comes to something that endangers the public, such as driving under the influence. The first thing the league must do is ensure that Jim Irsay gets the help he needs with his problem. Suspending an owner wouldn't make any impact on the field and taking away a draft pick would be too harsh. A significant fine ($500,000?) that would be donated to one of the league's various charities or a substance-abuse awareness or treatment program is the best course of action.
Ganguli: The commissioner could do nothing and get away with it. After all, he technically works for the owners. But maintaining credibility is important. Irsay's situation should be handled with a proportionate response to how a player's situation would be handled. It can't be the same just by virtue of the differences of their jobs. At the same time, it's important in dealing with such a situation -- with executives or players -- that the league is sensitive to what it means to have an addiction and what it takes to move past it.
Legwold: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made personal conduct by everyone employed by the NFL or one of its franchises a hallmark of his tenure. He has consistently said the higher the authority of the person involved, the higher the standard. By that standard he has no choice but to punish Irsay. In 2010 he fined Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand $100,000 and suspended him for 30 days after Lewand's guilty plea for driving while impaired. A franchise owner is even higher on the corporate flow chart than a team president, so Irsay's punishment should fit that if Goodell sticks to the framework he's put in place. One thing is certain: A large group of players who haven't always been supportive of Goodell's discipline standards for them is watching closely.
Wells: Late Tennessee owner Bud Adams was fined $250,000 for giving some fans the bird in 2009. Not that money is a major issue to Irsay, but Goodell should fine him at least $1 million and suspend him for at least eight regular-season games. The latter part will really hit home to Irsay because he loves the game so much. He has a serious problem and Goodell needs to send a serious message to him and the rest of the NFL that breaking policies or the law will not be taken lightly. The rest of the league, especially the players, will be paying close attention to see what actions Goodell takes. A minor slap on the wrist will not sit well with the players, especially because the rules are made for the players and front-office officials.
@MikeWellsNFL $500,000 fine and half season suspension. No contact, similar 2 Sean Peyton suspension.- Bob Borden (@Rmb7884) March 25, 2014
Should the league add playoff teams?
DiRocco: Sure, and let's give every team that didn't make the playoffs a trophy at the end of the season for trying really, really hard as well. Twelve of the league's 32 teams -- roughly 38 percent -- already make the playoffs, and that's enough. The argument that good teams sometimes miss out because they play in a tough division doesn't make sense to me. The Arizona Cardinals were playing pretty well at the end of the 2013 season but didn't qualify. Too bad. They should have played better in September and October. Making the postseason is a reward for the teams that have played the best throughout the season. It should be hard.
Ganguli: The more teams with something at stake late in the season, the better. But you don't want to dilute the accomplishment of making it to the playoffs. Further, the margin for error is so small in the playoffs, the chances for upsets in the early rounds are high. I'd hate to see football's regular season diluted that much. Two more teams might be fine, but any more than that and then you get to the point where half the teams make it. The playoffs are, and should be, a reward for all the work that came in the months prior.
Legwold: This looks suspiciously like a trade-off. Goodell dislikes the look of preseason football and has floated the idea of an 18-game regular-season schedule for some time. But there has been little support for the idea of an 18-game schedule among the players. So, in terms of television revenue, which would have increased with an 18-game regular season, the next best thing is two more teams in the playoff field. The format would award just one team in each conference a first-round bye. But it's unnecessary and waters down the postseason field enough that 43.8 percent of the league's teams would make the playoffs.
Wells: Leave it alone. That's the easiest way to put it. Expanding the playoffs sets the stage for possibly having teams with a losing record making the postseason. It was embarrassing when the Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2010. You'll have some teams with strong records -- New England (11-5) in 2008 and Arizona (10-6) last season -- miss the playoffs, but that doesn't happen as often as we would see teams with a losing record make it if the format were to change. Every game is important with the current playoff format; there's very little wiggle room for mistakes. Only one team in each conference would get a bye in the first weekend of the expanded playoffs compared to two in the current format. That's not being rewarded.
How should the league deal with racist, discriminatory and profane language on the field?
DiRocco: For better or worse, profanity has been, and always will be, a part of football. Trying to police that would put an additional burden on the shoulders of an already overloaded group of officials. Racist or discriminatory comments, however, are more serious. Those should not be tolerated. However, most of the Jaguars players I spoke with about this topic last season said they rarely encounter that on the field. But again, how do you enforce that? Is saying the N-word worse than using a gay slur? If one black player calls another the N-word, is that less serious than if a white player does it? Bottom line: Let the players police these themselves during the game. If an official hears something from the sideline or players are screaming at each other after a play has ended, then a fine is warranted.
Ganguli: The competition committee made it clear Wednesday that this would be a major focus for 2014. It wants professional athletes to set a better example for younger athletes. I wouldn't necessarily include racist, discriminatory and profane language all in one category. The nature of profanity in the English language, and what exactly is considered profanity, changes constantly. Whose standard are you using? Racism and other forms of discriminatory language should be regulated with a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. This isn't about regulating thoughts. It's about making it absolutely clear that the NFL does not tolerate expressions of hate.
Legwold: As those on the league's competition committee pointed out last week, the rule to enforce a ban on the N-word or other discriminatory language is already on the books. And officials will be told before the season to throw the flags if they hear those words used during games. The decision has been made and officials will be "empowered" to throw the flags, as St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, a co-chairman of the league's competition committee, has said. It has caused some to wonder why the league hasn't been nearly as aggressive with "Redskins," but it's clear the league's decision-makers want to address the N-word and other slurs based on sexual orientation and have put it in the hands of the officials to do it.
Wells: Let me get this out of the way: There's no place in the game for racist, discriminatory and profane language. But at the same time, officials already have a difficult enough time throwing flags. How many times have you watched a replay and noticed they made the wrong call or missed a call? And now you expect them to be watching the play while also listening for bad language during the game? That's asking them to do too much. Can you imagine the players informing the officials that an opposing player used inappropriate language?
Even with a ton of cap space, Jacksonville will not find their franchise quarterback in free agency. However, they could find quality pass-rushers, and overall the Jaguars should be buyers in free agency, so their roster will should be noticeably improved from where it stands today.
Still, this will be a team that has plenty of draft needs. It would be a total shock if the Jaguars did not select one of the top three quarterback prospects or Clowney with this selection. Think Gus Bradley could properly use Clowney? Wow.
Whom does McShay have the Jaguars drafting at No. 3? Let's take a look :
If that were the case, postgame tirades by former head coaches Jim Mora and Dennis Green would not continue to pile up YouTube hits.
Two of the six new head coaching hires who had never served at the NFL level until this season will meet Sunday. Mike McCoy’s San Diego Chargers travel to Florida to take on Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Doug Marrone in Buffalo is a game back at 2-4. Marc Trestman’s Chicago Bears leads the pack at 4-2. And Bradley’s Jaguars bring up the rear at 0-6.
McCoy honed his coaching chops working as an offensive assistant under coach John Fox in Carolina and at Denver, including four seasons as the Broncos offensive coordinator. Like every NFL coach, McCoy adheres to a rigid daily schedule, and is a stickler for details.
McCoy also understands the importance of hiring coaches that make your job easier. His coaching staff includes a former head coach in offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and defensive coordinator John Pagano, who has been with the Chargers’ organization since 2002.
“The great thing is, I’m surrounded by a bunch of good people,” McCoy said. “That was the most important thing in putting this staff together and bringing certain people in throughout the organization to help out, because when you surround yourself with good people, good things will happen.
“If I don’t have the answer to something, I can quickly ask someone else and they’ll have the answer for me. I’m still learning. I’ve made some mistakes. Whether it is in day-to-day operations around here on the field, there are some things, when I look back, I wish I could change. I’m making notes as we go along. I think the most important thing is the players are buying in to what we’re trying to do here. That’s the key. It’s all about the players.”
Like McCoy, Bradley said earning the trust of his players has been one of his main goals as he tries to turn things around in Jacksonville. Bradley saw up close how the rebuilding process works during his time as defensive coordinator for Pete Carroll in Seattle. Bradley was hired by Jim L. Mora to serve as Seahawks defensive coordinator in 2009, then stayed on when Carroll took over a year later.
Before that, he coached linebackers for Tampa Bay under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and head coach Jon Gruden.
So Bradley understands how to balance being patient with the progress of his team, along with instilling a sense of urgency in the daily performance of his players and coaching staff.
“In this profession, especially being a head coach, your convictions are going to be challenged,” Bradley said. “I think that going through that with all of those guys, I think it’s given me an opportunity to really have some solid convictions about how we want to go about doing it.
“If you came down and visited us, you would see a flavor of Seattle with Pete [Carroll], a flavor from Jim [Mora], a flavor from John Gruden -- you might feel all of that. But I think the biggest thing for me is I just want to stay true to myself. I’m not Pete Carroll and I’m not Jon Gruden, but I like some of their ideas and how they approach things. As long as it fits my personality, then you will see that flavor here.”
More Mojo: Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said he wants to get Maurice Jones-Drew more than the 17 carries he had against St. Louis last week. That’s a solid plan, but the Jaguars are going to have to do a better job early in the game of getting the running game going. The Jaguars ran for 49 of their season-high 96 yards in the fourth quarter. They were able to do that because it was a seven-point game. If they’re able to have success on the ground early, they can get Jones-Drew more work and shorten the game.
Henne time: As I wrote in the Stat of the Week post on Thursday, having Chad Henne at quarterback is actually good news for receivers Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Henne joined the Jaguars in 2012 he has done a much better job than Blaine Gabbert of getting the ball to Shorts and Blackmon. Henne has thrown nearly twice as many touchdown passes to Blackmon and Shorts as Gabbert (nine to five) and less than half the interceptions (four to nine).
Moreno problems: Everyone talks about Manning and his trio of receivers, but running back Knowshon Moreno has quietly had a solid season. He is third in the AFC in rushing (331 yards) and his success makes Manning’s play-action fakes even more effective. The Jaguars gave up 143 yards rushing to the Rams last week and are last in the NFL in rush defense (160.6 yards per game).
Ace in the hole: Ace Sanders did what he was drafted to do last week: He returned a punt for a touchdown. It was called back because of a questionable illegal block penalty but Sanders flashed the speed and elusiveness that make him a good returner. A couple big returns could provide a spark for the offense, and if he can take one back for a touchdown he’d be the first Jaguars player to do so since Mike Thomas against Indianapolis on Dec. 19, 2010.
There are, however, plenty of interesting storylines in this one. Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan was once the front-runner to be the Rams’ majority owner before Stan Kroenke exercised an option to purchase the team.
Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert is a St. Louis native and returning for his first game in his hometown as the much maligned starter.
Those are just a couple of the topics to watch heading into this week. ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup.
Wagoner: Well, Mike, it looks like there may not be two teams struggling more right now than the Rams and Jaguars. Jacksonville is losing by an average of 24.5 points a game and the Rams have lost their past two by an average of 24. It’s a bit of a broad question because everything seems to go hand-in-hand in this league, but what would you say is the main thing causing the Jags to struggle so much through the first quarter of the season?
DiRocco: Like you said, it’s hard to list just one reason, but if I had to pick one, it would be that some of the veteran offensive players the team had counted on haven't performed. The defense has issues but it’s serviceable. The interior of the offensive line -- Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri and Will Rackley -- has not played well, and that has pretty much doomed the running game. Left tackle Eugene Monroe wasn't playing that well, either, but he is one of the better young tackles in the league and his departure via trade to Baltimore will affect the stability of a line that already has given up 18 sacks. Maurice Jones-Drew doesn’t look the same, but he has had very little room to maneuver. With Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games, third-year receiver Cecil Shorts wasn’t able to be the playmaker the offense needs and has compiled most of his catches in the second half when the games have been out of reach. Plus, tight end Marcedes Lewis has played just two snaps this year because of a calf injury.
Speaking of not performing, what is the Rams’ stance on Sam Bradford? Is he in their long-term plans or are they getting ready to move in a different direction since he hasn’t developed the way they expected?
Wagoner: The Rams insist Bradford is their guy. As recently as last week, there were reports that they’d sign him to an extension were he willing to do it now. That was before last week’s game against San Francisco but that one game surely didn’t change their mind. Bradford had some good moments in the first two games but has struggled the past two weeks, but it’s not all on him. The offensive line has been battered, the Rams have no run game to speak of and there aren’t many receivers making plays after the catch.
While we’re on the subject of quarterbacks, Blaine Gabbert is coming home to St. Louis this week and it looks like the Jaguars are sticking with him. What has held him back from developing and how much longer do you expect Jacksonville to keep him as starter?
DiRocco: Several things. He’s had three head coaches, three offensive coordinators and three offensive systems to learn in his three seasons. That would be tough for anyone to handle, but consider that Gabbert was only 20 years old when he entered the league. Plus, he’s had some injuries (toe, shoulder, forearm, ankle, thumb, hand) that have cost him eight games. He hasn’t exactly had an all-star lineup of receivers at his disposal, either. All that being said, Gabbert still has some of the same issues he had as a rookie: He’s hesitant to take shots down the field, he makes questionable decisions with the ball and he rarely steps up into the pocket to avoid pressure and make throws. The 2013 season will be his chance to prove to new coach Gus Bradley and new GM Dave Caldwell that he can be a franchise quarterback. If he struggles again, the Jaguars will almost certainly go quarterback with their first-round pick in the 2014 draft, which is looking more and more like the No. 1 overall selection.
Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans teams were tough teams that popped you in the mouth again and again, even on offense. Has he gotten the Rams to that point yet?
Wagoner: I thought that he had; last year’s team was as tough and feisty as any in the league. Save for one or two games, they battled tooth and nail to the very end. So far this year, there has been a clear regression in all areas, including that toughness. They brought linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar back this week and he should at least give them a boost in that regard. There are a lot of tough players in that locker room, but for whatever reason, it’s not coming through on Sundays. You mention the idea of popping a team in the mouth on offense. Most of that is predicated on the run game. The Rams have none to speak of right now; certainly no Steven Jackson or Eddie George or any other backs that have had success under Fisher.
Of course, it seems if the Rams were going to ever get a running game going, this would be the week for it. It looks like teams have been able to run all over the Jaguars this year. How much of an issue is that in terms of opening up everything else and allowing offenses to do pretty much whatever they want?
DiRocco: The biggest problem with the Jaguars’ run defense is it has given up too many big runs. The Jaguars gave up seven runs of 20 or more yards against Oakland, one against Seattle and one against Indianapolis. It’s mainly due to blown assignments. For example, defensive end Jason Babin got caught inside on Terrelle Pryor’s long run off a read-option play. Those big plays are one of the reasons the Jaguars have given up the most yards rushing in the NFL (657, 164.3 per game), but it’s also partly due to the fact teams have been up big on the Jaguars and are trying to run clock. Opponents are able to take advantage of play-action and make plays over the top, which is compounded by the fact that the Jaguars are starting a pair of rookie safeties.
The Rams are obviously in a division that includes two powerhouse teams in Seattle and San Francisco. We know the Jaguars are not even close to being able to contend for a playoff spot, but how far away are the Rams?
Wagoner: Further away than most everybody thought entering the season, at least in their current form. The Rams raised hopes around here last year, going 7-8-1 and posting a 4-1-1 record in the NFC West. They then went out and had an offseason that drew critical acclaim for their moves in free agency and the draft. Right now, none of the things that needed to come together to push the Seahawks or Niners have come to fruition and one could argue that Arizona is at least even with the Rams in its rebuild. This is again the youngest team in the league and it should be better in November than it is right now, but the youth is no excuse for the backward steps we’ve seen to this point.
Oakland showed a flash of life in a 21-17 loss at Indianapolis last week and Jacksonville struggled mightily in a 28-2 home loss to Kansas City. Many see the Raiders and Jaguars as the two most downtrodden teams in the NFL, but somebody has to win, right? It’s not like they can play to a scoreless tie, unless … in any event, these two hook up Sunday in Oakland.
Paul Gutierrez: So, the Jaguars are the 32nd-ranked team in ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings, and the Raiders are 31st. Not exactly a clash of the titans, but there were several silver (and black?) linings in Oakland’s 21-17 loss in Indianapolis last week. Primarily, the play of newly anointed starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor. To a man, the Raiders said there is no such thing as a moral victory. Yet there was a feeling of promise in the Raiders’ postgame locker room not felt in a while. What was the feeling like in the Jags’ locker room after they not only lost their starting quarterback, but lost the game to Kansas City in such dispiriting fashion, and does it already feel like another long season is in store in Jacksonville?
Michael DiRocco: Disappointment, but not just at losing. The offense played poorly in all phases, which was somewhat surprising because it had shown signs during the preseason of being competent. Most troubling was the play of the offensive line, especially the interior, where center Brad Meester and guards Uche Nwaneri and Will Rackley really struggled. Six sacks and not crossing midfield until the fourth quarter was embarrassing. But the Jaguars were missing starting receiver Justin Blackmon (suspension) and starting tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf), so that mitigates things somewhat. While the team believes it can certainly play significantly better than that, the veterans are realistic and understand that this is one of the youngest teams in the NFL and the new regime has begun a rebuild that will take three years. You've got to feel for Matt Flynn. Goes to Seattle and gets beat out by Russell Wilson. Then ends up in Oakland and gets beat out by Pryor, who played well in the season opener. He made a lot of plays with his feet but certainly has a way to go as a passer. Is he the long-term answer for the Raiders at quarterback or will we see Flynn at some point this season?
Gutierrez: Yeah, the humanistic side has to feel for Flynn’s predicament. Then the snarky side comes out and thinks he and his millions -- remember, he signed a two-year, $11.5 million contract extension with $6.5 million guaranteed after the Raiders traded for him this spring -- will be just fine, thank you very much. But your point is taken. Especially since Flynn was second-year general manager Reggie McKenzie’s handpicked choice to be this rebuilding franchise’s, ahem, franchise quarterback. And really, the case can be made that Flynn is a better prototypical NFL quarterback than Pryor. But that’s with a solid offensive line and a strong running game and trusted receivers. The Raiders, really, are still looking for those things. So until that trifecta comes in for Oakland, the playmaking Pryor is the Raiders’ best hope for winning games. Even if he was not the new regime’s choice and it inherited Al Davis’ last draft pick. At this point, it seems Flynn is destined to be a career backup, albeit a well-compensated backup. And speaking of clipboard holders, what’s taking the Jags so long to ink Jacksonville’s favorite son, Tim Tebow (you knew there’d be a Tebow question somewhere, right?), especially with ticket sales needed and Chad Henne being no Blaine Gabbert, and vice-versa? Or is it too soon?
DiRocco: The Tebow ship has sailed for the Jaguars. General manager Dave Caldwell said earlier this year that the Jaguars were not going to sign Tebow -- who at the time was still under contract with the New York Jets -- "even if he's released." He's sticking to that. As for the ticket sales argument, there's no way to quantify whether sales would increase and by how much if he was signed. Plus, the Jags are actually doing pretty well in the ticket department. The team hasn't had a blackout since 2009 and averaged at least 62,331 fans at every home game over the past three seasons. The No. 1 task for the new regime is to find out whether Gabbert can be a franchise quarterback and the player around which to build the team over the next decade. The only way to determine that is for him to play the entire season. Barring a rash of injuries to free-agent quarterbacks, I just don't see a scenario in which Tebow returns to his hometown. Sebastian Janikowski, who went to nearby Florida State, is one of the more colorful players in the NFL. There are a lot of colorful stories floating around about him both in the locker room and off the field. What's your favorite -- at least among the verified ones you can tell?
Gutierrez: Wow, you caught me off guard. This is, after all, a family website, no? I kid. Kinda. But yeah, the evolution of the wild child formerly known as Jano (he hates that name, by the way) has been a unique experience. He is now a doting father to twin girls. No word, though, on how strong their kicking legs are yet. Off the field, he’s become a proficient golfer. When he arrived in Oakland as a first-round draft pick way back in 2000, he had never touched a club before in his life. Then Shane Lechler, his long-time running, er, kicking mate, introduced him to the links. Now? He’s a regular in the Lake Tahoe Pro-Am. Then there was the time he had to punt for an injured Lechler against Kansas City in the rain. It was as ugly a punt as it was effective -- the Chiefs player fumbled the ball away and the Raiders recovered. It went down in Oakland and the crowd loved it. Speaking of guys known by one name or simple initials, how much does MJD have left in the tank for the Jags? Can a return “home” this weekend rejuvenate him?
DiRocco: That is a good question, because there is some uncertainty regarding whether MJD can again reach the level at which he played in 2011, when he led the NFL in rushing. He did miss 10 games last season with a foot injury. Nobody expects him to rush for 1,600 yards but he does need to be a 1,000-yard rusher for this offense to be effective and help take a load off Gabbert/Henne. Another thing to consider is that Jones-Drew is in the final year of his contract. He'll need prove that at 28 he's still one of the league's better backs in order to have a chance to sign the kind of deal he wants -- whether it's in Jacksonville or elsewhere. Speaking of running backs coming off an injury, hasn't that been the biggest knock on Darren McFadden? What kind of odds would you give on him playing all 16 games?
Gutierrez: Ouch. The biggest knock on Run DMC has been his inability to stay healthy throughout his career. He has never played in more than 13 games in any of his first five seasons and he has missed 23 games in his career. He insists he’s not injury-prone, though, and that each injury is a freak occurrence. Maybe, but based on his track record, it’s not a question of if McFadden gets hurt but when, and how the Raiders are equipped to deal with his absence. Harsh? Maybe, but also true. And based on that history, odds are low that he'll play all 16 games this season. Then again, he is in a contract year. And after being neutralized last week by the Colts to the tune of 48 yards on 17 carries, what better time for him to get going than against the Jags? In two career games against Jacksonville, McFadden has carried the ball 35 times for 176 yards.
Fast-forward: Gabbert suffered a cut on the top of his right hand late in the game that required 15 stitches to close and he will not play in Sunday’s game at Oakland. Chad Henne will get the start, and that may not necessarily be a bad thing. In the first nine games of the 2012 season, the Jaguars averaged 263.6 yards per game, 185.3 passing yards per game and 14.1 points per game under Gabbert before he went on IR with a forearm injury. The team averaged 326.3 yards per game, 233.3 passing yards per game and 15.3 points per game in the final six games in which Henne started.
Job safety: The Jaguars’ top priority this season was finding out if Gabbert can be a franchise quarterback and the player around which to build the team under new GM Dave Caldwell and new coach Gus Bradley. One game certainly isn’t enough to make that determination, so Gabbert will return as the starter even if Henne plays well against the Raiders.
Prediction: Top receiver Justin Blackmon is suspended so No. 2 receiver Cecil Shorts (60 career catches) becomes the main target. The rest of the receivers -- Ace Sanders, Mike Brown and Stephen Burton -- have a combined 11 career catches. Could be another rough day.
Preseason: 31 | Last Week: 29 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002
Well, that didn’t take long.
Thanks to an abysmal performance in a 28-2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1, the Jaguars have dropped to last in ESPN.com’s NFL Power Rankings. They began the season ahead of the Bills, Raiders and Jets. Those teams are now Nos. 29, 31 and 27, respectively.
There’s no chance to even argue against the drop to last place, either. The Jaguars had only 178 yards of total offense and Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith was hit only four times in 34 drop backs. There are plenty of other stats to show how poorly the team played, but listing them all is just piling on.
Here’s what was written in today's Power Rankings comments to accompany the last-place ranking:
"The Jaguars' offense didn't cross midfield until the fourth quarter. The Raiders present a chance to get back on track, but Seattle looms in Week 3."
Might that be the best thing for the Jaguars’ offense?
Henne sparked the offense in the final six games of the 2012 regular season. Gabbert started the first 10 games of 2012 and suffered a forearm injury after throwing just two passes in the 10th game. In those first nine starts by Gabbert the Jaguars averaged 263.6 yards per game, 185.3 passing yards per game, and 14.1 points per game.
Those are significant increases in yardage and it would seem Henne would be the better option in 2013. However, he didn’t show enough during OTAs, minicamps or training camp to convince new general manager Dave Caldwell or new coach Gus Bradley to name him the starter. Even after Gabbert missed the second half of the preseason with the thumb injury and didn’t start throwing again until the weekend before the opener, Bradley decided to go with Gabbert against Kansas City.
Now he’s got no choice and Sunday may present Bradley with an interesting dilemma. If Henne plays well against the Raiders -- which held Andrew Luck to just 178 yards passing on Sunday -- one week after Gabbert played so poorly ...
"That would be a good thing," Bradley said.
But that would mean a quarterback controversy, especially if Gabbert is cleared to play the following week against Seattle.
"We don’t even think like that," Bradley said. "… We hate to see anybody get injured but because of that competition that we had where the total reps were close to 370 apiece through the whole process there’s one good out of that in that now we have a guy that’s seasoned and has played a lot of football for us. We have a lot of faith in Chad. I know that he’s a guy that we felt strongly about going through the whole process and hopefully we won’t miss a beat."
Maybe a better figure of speech might have been better there, because the offense certainly had no rhythm in the Jaguars’ 28-2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. It started with Gabbert, who completed 16 of 35 passes for 121 yards with two interceptions. One of those interceptions came when he threw a screen pass right at linebacker Tamba Hali, who walked into the end zone with a 10-yard touchdown return.
Gabbert had a total QBR of 1.2 -- the range is 1-100, with 50 being average -- and ESPN’s Kevin Seifert wrote that Gabbert’s yards per attempt of 3.46 was the seventh-lowest in an NFL game (minimum 20 attempts) since 1960.
Granted, the offensive line played poorly (six sacks), the Jaguars were without top receiver Justin Blackmon (four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy), and Gabbert was playing with a hairline fracture in his right thumb after not playing for 22 days. But an angry fan base is tired of hearing excuses for why the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft isn’t getting any better.
So they’re getting their wish with Henne -- for this Sunday, at least.
It's unlikely to be a long-term switch because Bradley and Caldwell have to find out if Gabbert can become a franchise quarterback and the only way that can be done is on the field.
Can Blaine Gabbert go this Sunday? Gabbert suffered a cut on the top of his right hand that required 15 stitches to close, and that puts his status for Sunday’s game at Oakland in doubt. Gabbert was able to play against the Chiefs despite still recovering from a fractured right thumb that he injured during the second preseason game. But this latest injury could be too much to overcome. Fifteen stitches is a significant number and means the cut was pretty substantial. Gabbert said the cut is near his pinkie finger, which means there shouldn’t be too much strain on the area when he throws the ball. However, there’s always a risk of tearing the cut open again. Gabbert said his thumb was not an issue against the Chiefs, but Sunday was by far the most pounding it took since it was injured. How it responds the next day or so will be telling.
Playmakers have to emerge: The offensive line struggled all day, which played a huge role in the offense’s struggle (only 178 total yards) and was the main reason the Jaguars had few explosive plays. However, the Jaguars’ top playmakers weren’t able to get loose and make big plays, either. Maurice Jones-Drew gained 45 yards on 15 carries, but he had 19 yards on two of those carries. That means he averaged 2.0 yards per carry on his remaining 13 carries. Cecil Shorts finished with three catches for 40 yards, but he didn’t have his first catch until midway through the fourth quarter. Not having tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf) was unfortunate because he would have helped as a blocker, and his presence as a receiver in the middle of the field would have given Gabbert a matchup the Jaguars could have exploited.
Secondary was solid: There was a blown coverage on one touchdown pass, but overall, rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz and rookie safety John Cyprien played pretty well in their professional debuts. Both had three tackles, and Cyprien had one of the Jaguars’ four quarterback hits. Certainly one of the day’s few bright spots.
The second-year pro is sitting out the first four games because he violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy and the affect his absence has on the Jaguars’ offense was painfully evident in Sunday’s 28-2 loss to Kansas City.
Cecil Shorts, who was second on the team with 55 receptions last season, was a non-factor against the Chiefs. He didn’t catch his first pass until midway through the fourth quarter and finished with just three catches. The Chiefs didn’t do a lot of double-teaming but they did try to bracket him at times.
Shorts had 11 passes thrown his way, but caught only three for 40 yards.
With Shorts essentially taken out of the game, the Jaguars needed help from rookie Ace Sanders and Mike Brown. They didn’t get much. Sanders was targeted nine times but caught just three passes for 14 yards and Brown caught just one pass for 14 yards.
That’s not good enough to make up for not having Blackmon, who caught a team-high 64 passes last season.
"We just didn’t play as a group," quarterback Blaine Gabbert said. "We didn’t capitalize on our opportunities with the ball. It starts with me at the quarterback. We have to find ways to execute our offense."
It’s really not fair to have to rely on a rookie in Sanders and a first-year player in Brown, a converted college quarterback who spent 15 weeks on the Jaguars’ practice squad last season before being active for the final two games. Neither had caught a pass in an NFL game until Sunday and Brown seemed to have trouble with the physical play of Kansas City’s defensive backs.
There’s not much help available although the coaching staff does like Stephen Burton, whom the Jaguars claimed off waivers on Sept. 1. But the 6-foot-1, 223-pound third-year player got on the field only on special teams against the Chiefs.
Fifth-round pick Denard Robinson is also a converted quarterback, but he touched the ball only twice as a Wildcat quarterback. He gained 1 yard on two carries and didn’t have a pass thrown his way.
So unless the Jaguars find a way to get Shorts the ball more, it’s going to be a chore moving the ball through the air until Blackmon returns.
"We’ve got to improve and we will," Shorts said. "It’s Week 1. Not giving excuses, but you’ve got to improve."
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