Football is almost upon us, and Jacksonville is more excited than it’s been in years.
After a season in which the Jaguars’ offense often looked promising, and an offseason in which the team pulled in two of the best defensive players in the draft and had one of its largest spending sprees ever in free agency, the city is pumped to see what this season could bring for the Jags.
With the start of the season now just days away, many fans believe that the team is on the verge of a huge breakthrough in the form of a playoff berth, and possibly more. Some are being more cautious – they like the moves the team has made, but they’re not convinced that it’s going to lead to immediate on-field success.
So what can we realistically expect from this Jaguars squad in 2016? Let’s break it down:
Offense: All eyes on Bortles
Big things are expected out of third-year QB Blake Bortles.
Bortles is coming off a season in which he threw for over 4,000 yards and connected in the end zone 35 times. With the continued presence of star receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, and the chance at a full season with tight end Julius Thomas, those numbers are expected to improve steadily this season.
Consistency will be the key to a successful season for Bortles. Last year he was all over the map – he scored 5 TDs in a loss against the Titans, but threw two or more interceptions in 5 of 16 games. His completion percentage (58.6%) was among the lowest of qualifying QBs last season. To advance his game, he must improve his accuracy – it’s that simple.
The offensive line will factor greatly into the team’s success as well. Luke Joeckel has to stay healthy, and needs to be effective at left guard. The Linder-at-center experiment needs to be a success as well. Part of why Bortles ended up making a lot of bad throws was a lack of protection. In the last game of 2015 vs. the Texans, arguably his worst game of the season, he was getting hammered by the defense on almost every play.
We’ll have to wait and see whether Bortles and the O-line are up to the challenge, but their success could make or break the team’s season. The offense has one important thing going for it: aside from the addition of Chris Ivory, there wasn’t a whole lot of change, meaning the chemistry of this unit should continue to grow and thrive.
Defense: How will they fit together?
Unlike the offense, the defense has been completely renovated. Through a combination of the draft and free agency, the Jaguars acquired an impressive collection of defensive talent that includes rookies Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, and veterans like Malik Jackson and Prince Amukamara.
The big question going into the season will be how well this unit will work together. The defense struggled a bit in the preseason, but preseason action is rarely a good indicator of regular season success. Realistically, it may take a few games for everything to click – it’s pretty rare for a rapidly-assembled defense to play perfectly from the beginning.
That being said, if and when this unit does click, it could become one of the better defenses in the league. That’s assuming everyone remains healthy, and the young guys like Ramsey, Jack, and Fowler Jr. develop rapidly. Obviously that’s a best-case scenario, but it’s still certainly reasonable to expect the team’s defense to end up around the middle of the pack by the end of the season.
The pressure will be on for the Jaguars this season. Owner Shad Khan gave general manager Dave Caldwell free rein to spend as needed, in the interest of assembling a playoff team. Khan has been as patient as an owner will ever be, but everyone knows he wants to win. If all of these moves fail, or if the team tumbles backwards, it could spell trouble for Caldwell.
It wouldn’t be great news for head coach Gus Bradley either. Bradley, who is under contract through 2017, had his best season with the team last year but still has yet to reach the playoffs. Another season under .500 may put him at risk.
The intangible factors aren’t all negative though. The team will benefit from a renewed interest within the city. Sunday’s game against the Packers is sold out, and if the team starts out hot that trend will likely continue. Jacksonville loves football, and a winning culture could unite the city around the Jags in a way that hasn’t been seen since the days of Brunell and Taylor.
It seems perfectly reasonable to be optimistic about the upcoming season. It’s just important to be realistically optimistic.
Will the Jags make the playoffs? It’s possible – if the defense jells together and the offense maintains consistency, the team will certainly look like a playoff contender.
It’s important, however, to not be deterred if the team falls just short of a playoff berth. A solid season of visible growth shouldn’t be discounted. Fans should be content with 7 or more wins, which seems like a realistic goal for the season.
Of course, we certainly hope the team far exceeds even the wildest expectations – and either way, we can’t wait for the season to start.