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Jaguars hope to have TE Thomas, S Cyprien back for opener

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Was there more good news or bad news coming out of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 23-21 win over Pittsburgh in the preseason opener last Friday?

That’s a question that has drawn a variety of answers, from one extreme to the other. The good starts with the performance of quarterback Blake Bortles, who showed command of the offense in directing the first unit to a pair of scoring drives in his three series.

He showed solid presence in the pocket, and his statistics — 11 of 15 (three dropped passes) for 118 yards and a passer rating of 96.0 — were met with approval from the coaching staff and fans.

But weigh that against the bad news — the double whammy that the Jaguars received when they learned that two of their top players, tight end Julius Thomas and safety Johnathan Cyprien, suffered broken hands.

The injuries are different. Thomas’ fracture was on the top of his right hand while Cyprien’s was to his right index finger. Both players have been ruled out for the remaining three preseason games, with the target return date set for the season opener against Carolina on Sept. 13.

“My gut feeling is that it looks pretty good (for a return against the Panthers),” coach Gus Bradley said. “The arrow is up that we’ll get them for the first game.”

That’s now three front-line performers the Jaguars will be hoping to get back for the opener. Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is out until at least then as he continues to mend from offseason ACL surgery. He hasn’t taken part in any drills, still has a sturdy brace on the knee and appears to be a long shot for the Carolina game.

If there is any good news resulting in Thomas and Cyprien’s injuries, it’s that both players can be active in some of the drills. Both will be wearing heavily padded casts on their injured hands but will be able to take part in non-contact drills.

“(Cyprien’s) situation is probably a little bit better because he is a defensive back,” Bradley said. “A DB can play with a splint on it for tackling.

“(With Thomas), the good news is that he can still get reps. It’s just that Julius can’t catch the ball, can’t fall down, so you can see him go through a lot of walk-through reps and some of the group install maybe on the field.”

The Jaguars can ill afford the loss of either player once the season starts. Thomas’ presence on the field can cause a lot of mismatches with the defense. If he’s matched one-on-one with a linebacker, you can plan on Bortles making every attempt to go his direction. Thomas has been close to unstoppable in training camp, especially in red-zone plays. That’s where the Jaguars had hoped to utilize him the most, to duplicate the 12 touchdowns he has hauled in during each of the last two seasons.

Cyprien is the vocal leader of the secondary. He has recorded 209 tackles in his first two years in the league and brings a physical style of play that no other safety on the roster can match. There would be a significant drop in talent to backups Josh Evans or Craig Loston if Cyprien were not able to play.

Thomas and Cyprien are probably two of the team’s best half-dozen players. But the one player who continues to draw the most interest and following is Bortles. The Jaguars can’t be expected to improve on their seven-win total the last two years unless Bortles raises his level of play. He seems more confident and more sure of the offense compared to his rookie season in 2014, where he was learning on the run.

But Bortles is also counting on those around him to be better. He can’t be sacked 55 times like he was in the 13 1/2 games that he played last year. He’ll need better production from the two tackle spots, including Luke Joeckel, who is under fire to improve on a mediocre year last season, and Jermey Parnell, who signed a lucrative contract to become a full-time starter in the NFL for the first time.

Bortles’ supporters were enamored with what they saw from the second-year quarterback last Friday. Subtract the three dropped passes and he could have posted 14-of-15 passing numbers for close to 200 yards and at least one touchdown.

Just the notion that those types of numbers are being discussed is good news for Jaguars fans. Whether it’s good enough to displace the bad news of the Thomas and Cyprien injuries remains to be seen. The Jaguars aren’t deep enough throughout their lineup to be able to compensate for the loss of key players. The depth is better than it has been in recent years, but it’s way too early to be testing it.

–Joeckel is already under the watchful eye of the coaching staff and fans in the stands and doesn’t want any more attention directed his way. Such was the case, however, early in the Pittsburgh game when Steelers linebacker James Harrison used a rip move around the corner to get past Joeckel and sack Bortles.

But that appeared to be Joeckel’s one bad play of the first half. Joeckel, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, drew praise from Bradley for his play.

“I thought he performed well. He lunged on it and got beat,” Bradley said in describing the sack play. “It was a sack-caused fumble, but I thought Luke did much better when you look at his protection. Those things can happen. Harrison is a very good player, a talented player, and there are going to be times when sacks happen. But the consistent play is what we’re looking for. That’s what I think we saw out of Luke. I thought in the run game you saw toughness from him, as well as the whole offensive line. (We’re) very pleased with the progress, very pleased with where he’s at.”

–Defensive end Chris Clemons is the oldest Jaguars player at age 33 (he has Josh Scobee beat by eight months), one of just five who are at least 30 years old. That makes Clemons’ time left in the league a hot commodity. It’s partially what disturbed a lot of fans (and some teammates) when Clemons elected to bypass the Jaguars’ organized team workouts. What further incensed some was Clemons’ decision to not report to training camp on time (the only player not to report). While he came in the following weekend, he immediately went on the non-football injury list (a personal situation).

Clemons apparently has rectified matters; he returned to the playing field this week. The Jaguars need his presence on the defensive line. His eight sacks were second on the team (Marks had 8.5) and he’s a proven veteran. He’s been in the league for 12 seasons, the last five of which were with Bradley in Seattle and with the Jaguars. Bradley said he was happy to have the veteran defensive end back on the field, but he didn’t say when he might see game action.

“It’s great to see (Clemons) out there,” Bradley said. “We’ll work him back and Jared (Odrick) and Roy (Miller) and those guys back into it. I think those guys are working back into it to where they have a chance to have confidence in what they came through, and I think it’s important.”

Strength and conditioning coordinator Tom Myslinski told Bradley that Clemons seems to be in very good condition and the coaches are working him up to speed.

Bradley hesitated when asked if Clemons would play in two weeks against Detroit.

“I don’t know. We haven’t talked much about that. Hopefully I know more towards the end of the week,” he said.


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