The Eagles can tell you all about what injuries can do to an offensive line. Second-overall draft selection Luke Joeckel was lost for the year after sustaining an ankle/foot injury against the Rams on October 6. That setback aside, only two linemen played the entire 2013 tilt: right guard Uche Nwaneri (released by the Jags this past March) and eternal center Brad Meester, who retired after the season.
In other words, none of the Jaguars starting offensive line played the entire 2013 season for the team. The only projected starter to play more than five games for the team last season was Cameron Bradfield (11 starts).
The lack of continuity resulted in the second-worst rushing yards per attempt last year (3.33), and the worst third-down success rate (31.11%). The Jaguars' 50 sacks allowed were second-worst in the NFL.
The biggest move made to shore up the line was the signing of former Bronco Pro Bowler Zane Beadles, who comes to town on a five-year, $30M deal. He'll play left guard next to Joeckel, providing reliable power on Chad Henne's blindside.
At center, sixth-round draft pick Luke Bowanko has the task of replacing Meester, who anchored the Jaguars line reliably for 209 games. With frequent waiver-resident Jacques McClendon and veteran Bradfield on the other side, the Jaguars bring this somewhat cobbled-together line into the season. In the preseason, Henne and Blake Bortles were sacked a combined seven times, while primary backs Toby Gerhart and Jordan Todman averaged a paltry 2.53 YPA.
Henne Starts Over Bortles
Bortles, the third overall draft pick, couldn't unseat Henne this summer, despite an especially-impressive outing from Bortles against the Bears on August 14. Henne doesn't seem likely to steer Jacksonville toward a deep playoff run, so odds are that Bortles will assume the starting role as the season wears on.
The Jaguars owned the third-worst team passer rating last season, a miserable 71.84 (16 TD, 21 INT). Henne at least steered the passing game out of first-round bust Blaine Gabbert's doldrums, with the current starter throwing 13 TD and 14 INT on close to 61 percent passing (76.47 rating).
Gerhart to Start
The succession of running in Jacksonville has passed from James Stewart to underrated Fred Taylor to the compact Maurice Jones-Drew. With 'MJD' off to the Raiders, the mantle is given to the powerful Toby Gerhart.
Gerhart, in his career, started six games for the Vikings, playing in 61. The 234-pounder averages 4.73 YPA, scoring eight total touchdowns (five on the ground). He's also an accomplished pass-blocker, which will come in handy as Henne tries to navigate behind an unproven line.
Gerhart himself is unproven over long stretches as a back. In just nine games has Gerhart run the ball ten or more times, and only once has Gerhart broken 100 yards (vs. the Redskins, 109, December 24, 2011).
In the five games in which Gerhart has run 16+ times, his average dips to 3.98 YPA (95 carries, 378 yards). Speedy, downhill runner Jordan Todman is expected to take much of the load off of Gerhart's shoulders, especially if the veteran struggles to handle the responsibilities of a primary back on a weekly basis.
Rebuilding the Vertical Game
Keeping in tune with the Jaguars' general offensive woes, Jacksonville's offense last season only generated 10.75 yards per completion, the NFL's third-lowest average. To remedy this, Jacksonville has added copiously to their receiving corps, all from the well of youth.
USC standout Marqise Lee was taken 39th overall, despite at one time being touted as a first-round selection. All the better for the Jaguars, as his speed in the vertical-passing game makes him hard to press on, despite weighing a dash under 200 lbs. His downfield blocking will also come in handy for a team that struggled to find cruise control a year ago. Conversely, Gus Bradley recently questioned Lee's work ethic, citing that Lee seemed to phone in his routes in the preseason match with Tampa Bay.
Twenty-two picks later, the Jags took Allen Robinson out of Penn State. Robinson (6'3, 210) makes up for Lee's lack of size, but isn't as adept a vertical-threat as the more elusive Lee. Robinson's best use is on quick slants, where he won't be immediately blanketed, and can accelerate through some smaller defenders.
One of the newsmakers out of Jacksonville has been undrafted rookie Allen Hurns. Hurns finished the preseason with 232 yards on 14 catches and a touchdown reception. Those totals include seven catches for 113 yards against the Lions on August 22. Hurns knows offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch well, having played for him as a Hurricane in college.
D-Line Built to Fix Last Year's Woes
Bradley began his patchwork makeover of the Jaguars defense a year ago, bringing in veteran corner Will Blackmon and waived linebacker John Lotulelei from their fellow ex-employer Seahawks. This year, Bradley brings in two minted champions from the defensive line.
Veterans Red Bryant and Chris Clemons bring only six combined sacks from a season ago, but were key starters from a defense that boasted a 35.19 third down percentage. The vaunted Legion of Boom gets much of the credit, but the line could be just as disruptive. Seattle's defense allowed only 3.85 YPA rushing (seventh in the league), so the edge-speed of Clemons and the forceful girth of Bryant will book-end a defense that needs structure.
Jacksonville's defense recorded a mere 31 sacks last year, tied for worst in the NFL with the Bears. Their 11 interceptions were also near the pits of the league. For the Jaguars to improve the defense as a whole, the front line needs to bring the disruption that Bradley's seen his two acquisitions supply.
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