NFL 2014 preview: Jacksonville Jaguars

Blake Bortles (Stephen B. Morton/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year’s record: 4-12

Coach: Gus Bradley

2014 is about… Development. The Jaguars were not satisfied with a 4-4 record to end the season after an ugly 0-8 start, so they made drastic changes to their roster. The team was aggressive and brought in close to 40 new players, which should help upgrade even the most talent-laden roster in the league. Rather than focus on simply winning games—which still may be difficult at this stage for them—the Jaguars are concerned with building an identity. More than anything, that’s what this franchise has lacked for the better part of its existence.

Core players: Blake Bortles (QB), Luke Joeckel (LT), Johnathan Cyprien (S), Toby Gerhart (RB)

But they lost… Maurice Jones-Drew (RB), a three-time Pro Bowler and the NFL’s rushing leader in 2011 before injuries derailed his production; Justin Blackmon (WR), who is technically still part of the team, but the 2012 fourth-overall pick is already serving an indefinite suspension and he didn’t help matters when he was arrested for marijuana possession in late July—it’s highly unlikely he plays in 2014; Jason Babin (DE), who led the team in sacks (7.5) last season and quarterback pressures (19) last season.

Yeah, but they got… Toby Gerhart, the former backup to Adrian Peterson who will replace Jones-Drew as the workhorse running back. Gerhart was a highly productive college runner at Stanford when he was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy; Chris Clemons (DE), a veteran pass rusher who played under Bradley for three years in Seattle where he averaged over 11.0 sacks per season—he’s a clear upgrade on the 34-year-old Babin; Red Bryant (DE), who along with Clemons started at defensive end for the Super Bowl–winning Seahawks in 2013. Bryant reunites with Bradley where he will be the team’s primary run stuffer on the left side of the defensive line.

Growing from within: With Blackmon out, Marqise Lee (WR)—who surprisingly fell to the Jaguars in the second round of May’s draft—is pencilled in as the starter opposite Cecil Shorts. He and Allen Robinson were drafted to give the Jags a pair of young receivers they can build around; Jags GM David Caldwell, who came from the Atlanta Falcons, envisions Robinson and Lee as Jacksonville’s version of Julio Jones and Roddy White. Dwayne Gratz (CB), who played close to 500 snaps in his rookie season, is expected to be a full-time starter a left corner in 2014—quarterbacks produced just a 75.7 passer rating while throwing at Gratz last year.

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Why this team? Bradley is considered to be one of the rising stars in the industry. His infectious energy has drawn praise from around the league. That’s why his former players from Seattle were so eager to join a perennial bottom-feeder. Considering the team added talent on both sides of the ball, the Jags should see substantial progress. Especially since Blaine Gabbert isn’t on the team anymore.

Why not? As much as there is to like about the highly energetic Bradley, the whole program banks on the success of rookie QB Bortles. The Jags surprised just about everyone when they passed on sure things like Sammy Watkins and Khalil Mack to draft the raw quarterback from central Florida. It doesn’t help that Bortles already has issues with his throwing motion, and it could be in the team’s best interest to red-shirt him during his rookie season. It’s never a good sign if you can’t beat out Chad Henne.

Perfect for fans of… Florida Panthers: Just like their Florida counterpart, the Jags have been a mostly irrelevant franchise with a couple of playoff appearances mixed in. The two Florida teams have trouble attracting fans, but both appear to be on the way up with a good mix of veterans and intriguing young pieces. But they’re not ready for the playoffs quite yet.

How much hope? 5/10. The Jaguars remain a work in progress in the short term, but the arrow is pointing up. Quietly, they saw big improvements on defence in the second half of 2013. The offence was rebuilt over the offseason, but that may come with some growing pains—especially if Bortles is forced into action. Down the road, this franchise’s outlook is promising. They have a respected coach and general manager with a forward-thinking owner who is willing to spend. And a sweet mustache!

Will you be mocked for front-running? If anyone considers the Jaguars a frontrunner, they need to immediately see a doctor.

A Meme To Remember: Hopefully Jacksonville never runs out of Bort license plates:

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