The Sports Xchange
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The emergence of second-year quarterback Blake Bortles as a bona fide team leader and established NFL quarterback was the clear positive emanating from the Jacksonville Jaguars' preseason slate in which they posted a 2-2 record.
Entering training camp, everything about the Jaguars was qualified with a statement of "depending how much Bortles improves from a year ago." If that improvement was minimal, chances are the Jaguars' win total would struggle to reach five. If Bortles showed that he had made some good progress, tack on a couple more wins. If the second-year quarterback looked night-and-day different from his difficult rookie season, start talking about the possibility of a .500 season.
With what Bortles showed in the first three games - he sat out the fourth game like all the other Jaguars starters - gives reason for optimism. Bortles was sharp. He completed 39 of 60 passes (65 percent), good for 461 yards and a final quarterback rating of 93.8. He only threw for one touchdown pass, but more important, he didn't have an interception. One of the hopes for the 2015 season was to have Bortles totally flip his interception/touchdown ratio of 11-to-17 from last season. The 1-0 looks to be the first step toward that goal.
The numbers for Bortles actually would have been better had his receivers given him more help. At least 10 of his incompletions were classified as drops, which had they been receptions, would have pushed his completion percentage well into the 70 percent range, not to mention tacking on another 150 yards. Along that same venue, Bortles worked well with his offensive line, as he was sacked just twice in the 60-plus passing opportunities. With a pair of new linemen in place at the all-important right tackle and center spots, it was vast improvement on the 55 sacks that Bortles incurred a year ago.
Bortles even showed improved scrambling ability as he gained 42 yards on five scrambles.
All in all, it was a marked improvement for the Jaguars' starting QB. He continually drew raves from head coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell for leadership traits as well as his play on the field.
While the good news on Bortles was mandatory if the Jaguars hope to improve on their total of seven wins over the past two seasons, what cast a shadow over that good news was the hit that the Jaguars took on the injury front. In each of the four games, even in the final one when they rested all of their front-line players, the team suffered at least two key injuries to players that either sent them to injured reserve for the year or limited their play during the preseason.
With the regular season less than a week away there are several players who will not answer the call on opening day this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. The biggest loss is tight end Julius Thomas. He suffered a fractured hand in the first preseason game with the diagnosis that he wouldn't return until the regular-season opener. Last week that report was updated with the news that Thomas needed surgery to repair some ligament issues and he's likely to now miss at least the first three games of the season.
That's a blow to the offense as Thomas was destined to be the team's go-to receiver even from his tight end position. The Jaguars struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone a year ago and Thomas was signed to help resolve that deficiency.
Starting defensive end Andre Branch is another player who is expected to be sidelined for several games. Branch was being groomed to replace aging Chris Clemons as a starter. The Jaguars will turn to Clemons for third-down pass rush but will have to turn elsewhere on first and second down situations.
Offensive tackle Josh Wells, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood and receiver Arrelius Benn weren't going to start but all were slated to be key contributors off the bench. All three are done or the year, having been placed on injured reserve.
It leaves the Jaguars in a certain state of flux entering Sunday's game against Carolina. It's a home contest for the Jaguars, one that they need to win in order to establish some momentum and gain a positive attitude in the early going. With Miami coming to town the week after, the Jaguars have to secure at least one win in their first two games with tough road games at New England and Indianapolis the following two weeks.
--The Jaguars are rolling the dice with defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks by activating him off the Physically Unable to Perform list and inserting him on the regular roster. Marks had ACL surgery last January and has not practiced with the team since.
The Jaguars had hoped he would be ready for the regular-season opener but that doesn't seem likely now. But leaving him on PUP would have meant keeping him on the sideline for the first six weeks and they feel confident he'll be back in action before then.
"It may not be this week, but probably by Week 2 you'll start to see him go through some individual drills and stuff like that," general manager Dave Caldwell said.
Marks was the Jaguars' best defensive lineman last season. His ability to rush the quarterback often meant he drew double-team coverage, which made it easier for others.
Andre Branch was in a similar situation. The team considered placing him on PUP and while he won't play against Carolina, it might be within the next couple of weeks that he's ready to go.
"I'm hoping it's going to be somewhere around Week 4, but you never know," general manager Dave Caldwell said.
NOTES: SS Johnathan Cyprien will probably wear some type of cast on the base of his finger, but "nothing that would keep him from playing," according to Caldwell. Cyprien is expected to play in the opener this Sunday. ... WR Marqise Lee hopes to return to practice this week after being out with a hamstring injury since Aug. 5. Caldwell said it was probably 50-50 that Lee plays in the season opener and that if he misses that game it was more of a precaution move so that he can be ready for Week 2. ... RB Toby Gerhart did not play in the team's last two preseason games after suffering an oblique strain Aug. 22 against the New York Giants. But Gerhart feels he has made good progress in recent weeks and that he's confident about playing against Carolina.