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AFC South camp preview: Nowhere to go but up for Jaguars

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The consensus among those who closely follow the Jacksonville Jaguars is that they will be better in 2015, maybe even doubling their win total.

Even if that were the case, it won’t make them a contender to reach the playoffs, not when you go from three wins to six wins.

Truth of the matter is that Jacksonville has been one of the worst teams in the NFL in recent years. Seven wins over a two-year period is an indication your franchise is in trouble.

Not necessarily so for the Jaguars.

Granted it could be labeled a make-or-break year for coach Gus Bradley. The cupboard was pretty bare when he inherited his first head coaching job two years ago.

Are seven wins in two seasons a reason for optimism? Normally not, except the Jaguars have revamped the roster with enough talented young players to suggest that better times are ahead.

Fans, players, the administrative staff and team owner Shad Kahn are all still behind Bradley. But there need to be signs that the franchise is indeed heading in the right direction and it needs to happen in 2015.

The Jaguars played well for a half in several games a year ago before caving in the final two quarters. They played several other teams tough right to the wire, only to come up short.

Now it’s time to turn the good “half-game efforts” and the close calls into victories. There are enough additions to the roster either through free agency or the draft for the Jaguars to improve.

There’s enough depth along the offensive and defensive lines that even with some injuries along the way, there shouldn’t be a significant drop-off.

Some of last season’s starters are still with the team but now find themselves in a backup role. Competition for the right guard, center and running back spots should be intense.

It’s not to say that everything is of a positive nature for the Jaguars.

Losing talented rookie defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. was a crushing blow for what he would have brought to the defensive line, already one of the strongest units on the team. The depth at linebacker is woefully thin.

If one of the trio of starters should go down for any extended time, the Jaguars will be vulnerable at that spot.

And while there is reason for optimism on offense with the additions of right tackle Jermey Parnell, center Stefen Wisniewski, tight end Julius Thomas and running back T.J. Yeldon — all of whom could become instant starters — the Jaguars’ fate will likely rest on the arm of quarterback Blake Bortles.

The Jaguars didn’t want to play Bortles on a regular basis as a rookie, hoping instead to bring him along at a learning pace.

Instead he was thrown into the fray at halftime of the third game and he remained the starter the rest of the season.

While the results weren’t good (17 interceptions, 11 touchdown passes, 55 sacks), Bortles should now have the worst behind him. He learned much more playing in the team’s final 13 1/2 games than he would have holding a clipboard all season.

Hope comes with the fact that Bortles cut his interceptions to three in his final six games. He worked on his mechanics during the offseason to correct some flaws.

And he now has the benefit of operating under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Greg Olson, one of the league’s best at that spot.

Bottom line is that if Bortles can show a moderate improvement in his numbers in the passing game, the offense will be better and will allow the Jaguars to be in the thick of a lot of games.

A solid defense already looks to be stronger, the special teams have some of the league’s best kickers and with an influx of new coaches to the staff, there is plenty of reason for optimism.

Playing a last-place schedule should also benefit the Jaguars.

CAMP CALENDAR

July 27: Rookies report

July 30: Veterans report

July 31: First practice

–Team strength: Defensive line.

Deep and talented. What makes this unit among the Jaguars’ top groups is the fact that it will be able to replace starters with backups without any notice of a drop-off. The team is deep enough that it might keep as many as 10 linemen, and that doesn’t include talented DE Dante Fowler, who would raise the level of play even higher had he not suffered the torn ACL in a rookie practice session during the spring. The talent is so deep that Chris Smith, who came on strong last year and was contending for a starting spot, could now find himself as the odd man out on the roster, probably ranking no better than the 11th best D-lineman. The Jaguars had 45 sacks a year ago and feel they can improve on that total with more quality and quantity from the line this year.

–Breakout player: Quarterback Blake Bortles. Quarterbacks generally encounter more pressure than players at any other position, but none more so for the Jaguars than Bortles. The second-year player really struggled in his rookie season, something the team had hoped to avoid. They wanted to bring him along slowly but once he was inserted into the game at halftime of the third game, there was no turning back. He went through plenty of growing pains, throwing more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (11) and throwing way too many ill-advised passes. In his defense, however, the Jaguars offensive line was horrendous, there was virtually no running game and the receivers were anything but reliable. All three areas have been upgraded and that alone should take a lot of pressure off Bortles. If the surrounding cast takes its game to a higher level, Bortles will likely do the same.

–Work in progress: Linebacker. This unit remains the group that still needs the most work, not so much the starting unit as the depth behind it.

Starters Paul Posluszny and Dan Skuta will make this a much more effective group this season. Telvin Smith, the starter at outside linebacker for 10 games in his rookie season in 2014, appears to be bigger and stronger than the 218 pounds he played at a year ago.

So while the three starters form a solid unit, there are too many questions about who would be the backup and how effective they would be. LaRoy Reynolds has played in 28 games for the Jaguars in his first two years in the NFL, but shows only 22 total tackles. After that, there are few players with NFL experience. Khairi Fortt and Jeremiah George would probably be the next two as backups, but both are coming off rookie seasons in which they saw action in a combined 10 games with no starts. The starting unit must stay healthy. The loss of any of the three linebackers will weaken an already questionable defense.


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