As the beginning of the 2016/17 NFL Season approaches the experts at Jags Illustrated sit down for a round table conversation prior to the Packers arrival at Everbank! There seems to be a pretty common theme to this week's discussion.
Kerry Belkin: Win the line of scrimmage
If the Jaguars want to even have a chance at a winning season at the end of the year, then the line play on both sides of the ball will have to significantly improve from what they’ve been able to do these past years.
Since Blake Bortles took over as the teams’ franchise quarterback in 2013, the offensive line has allowed him to be sacked 106 times. In two seasons. That’s terribly bad. The run game was much better last year than it had been in years past, but at some point, Bortles is going to need some time to stand in the pocket. The front office, while succeeding in filling this team out with talent at just about every other position, hasn’t done much to help the offensive line. Since 2010, they’ve only drafted 7 offensive lineman, whereas in comparison the Patriots have drafted 12. Of those lineman, the highest profile was Luke Joeckel, and he has been a relative bust since being drafted. The biggest question for the Jaguars this offseason has been the offensive line, and for good reason.
Last year, the Jaguars let Bortles get sacked 51 times. In comparison, the Jaguars only registered 36 sacks. They ranked 24th in total yards allowed on defense (29th in pass yards allowed, 15th in rush yards allowed). The overall performance of the defense starts with the performance of the defensive line. Not being able to rush the passer will cost you games, especially considering the way the NFL is a passing league. The good thing is that the Jaguars have a lot of talent on the defensive line, much more so than the talent they’ve had since the last time they made the playoffs. Look for Ngakoue, Fowler Jr., Jackson, and Odrick, to perform well this season. If they don’t then there is a good chance that they Jaguars won’t have a winning record by seasons end.
Ben Freid: Strength of the Linebackers
The Jags have addressed this issue in the offseason by drafting Myles Jack, the best coverage linebacker the NCAA had seen in a long time. It’s rare to see a middle linebacker move from sideline to sideline with the size and speed Jack showed in college. However, he will most likely start at the strong side at linebacker for his rookie season.
The Jags have struggled greatly in short yard passing situations. That is mostly due to linebacker coverage. Though Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny are great tacklers, they have struggled in coverage. We saw this against the Bengals as both Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill caught short passes they took for big gains or touchdowns.
Third down has always been a struggle for this Jags defense, and often we see them with third and short situations. This cannot continue against the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers or Andrew Luck all of whom they will see this season. If the Jags want a winning season, they need to step up in terms of linebacker coverage.
Zac Blobner: 40-plus team sacks
It's no mystery that Jacksonville need to step up their pass rush this season for a chance at finishing with a winning record for the first time in a long time. When David Caldwell spent draft picks on Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue, & Sheldon Day back to back to back in Chicago, it was clear where the main focus was in shaping the future of the Jaguars. Combine that with the fat pay day the team handed out to bring coveted free agent defensive tackle Malik Jackson to town, and a healthy Dante Fowler ready for his first full season in the league and on paper the problem is fixed. A strong secondary should also help force opposing QB's to go through more of their progressions and WR's when looking for the open man; and the more time they spend in the pocket the more likely they are to eat dirt. So whether first round pick, Jalen Ramsey is locking down opposing speedsters or Tashaun Gipson is flying around destroying routes, the path to more sacks should come easier in 2016.
Unfortunately, just because it looks good in the off season doesn't mean it'll translate into real games and wins. Over the past 5 years, the team to win the Super Bowl had 40 sacks or more with the exception of the Ravens in 2011/2012. That Ravens team had Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs on it, mind you. The Jags on the other hand have finished at or near the bottom in sacks over the past six years (26, 31, 20, 31, 45, and 36) and hope to climb up out of the basement this season. If Jacksonville can rack up some QB takedowns and specifically sack the state sheet, then they will win this season and win often. The NFL is built for the Von Millers and JJ Watts of the world to be successful and for the teams that produce players of that caliber find them self in the post season quite often.