It may seem hard to fathom a competitive Jaguars team — they’re a franchise that’s missed the playoffs eight years in a row, finishing at or below .500 every season since 2007.
Yet here they are, a team with an intriguing blend of young, talented offensive players and explosive, promising defenders, with valuable veterans blended in on both sides of the field.
At the core of that is quarterback Blake Bortles, a 24-year-old, No. 3 pick in 2014, who’s charged with leading the Jaguars into NFL relevancy.
After an offseason that included signing former Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson to a $90 million contact, running back Chris Ivory, cornerback Prince Amukamara, safety Tashaun Gipson, and drafting two top prospects, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, Bortles is ready for the challenge.
“I think what [head coach] Gus [Bradley] and [GM] Dave [Caldwell] did was really good,” Bortles told Business Insider while promoting his collaboration with New Era. “You know, with all the free agency pickups and obviously the draft, I think they did a really good job and definitely put the right pieces in place to kind of let us be successful.”
Bortles raised eyebrows in 2015, when after a somewhat lacklustre rookie campaign, he broke out for over 4,400 passing yards, seventh most in the NFL, and 35 touchdowns, second most in the NFL. Despite the improvements, however, he continued to struggle with turning the ball over, throwing 18 interceptions, most in the NFL, with a 2.97% interception percentage, worst of any quarterback who started all 16 games. And as a rookie, he flirted with Peyton Manning’s rookie record for most interceptions.
Bortles knows changing this is a huge key to taking the next step.
“It’s really half and half between bad decisions and then just accuracy of the throw,” Bortles said of improving his turnover tendency. “So, I think obviously, physically, continuing to throw and improve accuracy is part of it. And then just the decision-making, which I think will only get better going into my second year in the same offensive system. It’s something that I hope and expect that those numbers will decrease and we’re able to be more efficient and not turn the ball over.”
Working in Bortles’ favour is one of the most dynamic receiving duos in the NFL in Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Both players broke out for huge seasons in 2015, catching 1,400 receiving yards and 1,031, respectively, with 24 combined touchdowns. “They definitely make my job easier,” Bortles said.
“Both of them definitely have their niches and what they do really well,” Bortles said, describing Robinson as a “down-the-field, deep-ball threat” that he likes to target in one-on-one situations. Hurns, he said, is “kind of always in the right place at the right time,” a guy who runs good routes and can dissect a defence to know where he needs to be.
But perhaps the most exciting part of the Jaguars offseason is the defensive potential, which will ease the burden on Bortles and co. to outscore opponents. With Jackson, Amukamara, Gipson, Ramsey, Jack, and the return of 2015 No. 3 pick Dante Fowler, the Jaguars’ defence could be a force to be reckoned with after finishing 26th in defensive DVOA last year. Bortles already notices the difference.
“In practice it’s been fun to go against those guys because they have gotten a lot better with the guys that have been there another year, the guys that they brought in through free agency and the draft.”
In particular, Gipson has stood out to Bortles.
“I think Tashaun Gipson, the safety we brought in from Cleveland, was kind of a guy that really stood out to me and how fast he is, his ball skills, and his ability to get sideline to sideline was really impressive.”
He quickly noted, “I think everyone that they brought in, they all look really good and worked really hard.”
It won’t be easy for the Jaguars. As of now, this team, while impressive on paper, is largely dependent on potential. But while the Jags may need to claw their way to playoff contention in the improved AFC South, Bortles has already shown he has more than just potential. If Bortles can take the next step in Year 3, it would go a long way in turning the Jaguars from a laughingstock to a young, scary threat in the NFL.
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