It’s year four of Gus Bradley’s reign at EverBank and there is a sense of optimism that hasn’t been there in years.

They sold out a game for the first time since “All About That Bass” was number one on Billboard charts.  They’re one of the most improved teams coming into 2016. They’ve built a core of talented young players with big-money signings to plug up the rest of the holes. The consistency of the same system for three years (with the offense at least). You can argue the Jags have drafted pretty well in recent years, except for that one guy. The strength schedule isn’t so onerous (T-23rd) and the Jaguars play in the AFC South, which the NFL ranked as the seventh-best division. There are eight divisions. This is a good thing! I have as much faith in the Titans, the Texans and the Colts as I do in our education system. On behalf of the media, I apologize for how many times you’re hear going to hear the “dark horse” cliche.

Hear it from the fan’s:

And I don’t think these good feelings are misplaced. As the Jaguars race to redevelop downtown, they’re actually building something resembling a coherent football team to watch at the eight seven home games they play. Trust the process: Shahid Khan spent many a million on the rebranding effort, the pool, the amphitheater and the scoreboard that cost the GDP of Grenada. Shahid Khan ought to be beating his chest like Russell Crowe from “Gladiator” for all he’s done to entertain the fans, so the setup’s there for a winning season.

But Jags’ fans have seen more wasted promise than M. Night Shyamalan. They were exceptional in the beginning, descended into mediocrity and “Oh my God, why am I putting myself through this?” levels of apathy. In the Jags eight-year playoff purgatory, the concept was usually cool, but was there was never any execution. I think redemption is on the cards. What I’m saying is the Jaguars could be the NFL’s version of “The Visit” if they try hard enough.

The dam of optimism could burst. If Gus wins less than eight games, his days are most likely numbered. I mean, you can only throw out the “THEY’RE A YOUNG TEAM,” narrative so many times.

The offense gives you plenty of reasons to sit up and pay attention. Can the Jags avoid nine years without a playoff berth? From the outset, I think so. The offense, the best product they’ve put out since the Leftwich/Garrard years, has to be the catalyst.

Quarterbacks

Blake Bortles

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The success of an NFL team is unfairly hinged on the quarterback position. Plop Aaron Rodgers into this team and they go 13-3. Blake Bortles had a poor rookie year, but if last season was any indication, Blaine Gabbert he is not. He quietly had a much better season, keeping in mind he had an offensive line the football equivalent of saran wrap. There’s also Chad Henne, a unremarkable if not serviceable backup. More on him later.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Unfortunately, the Jaguars didn’t get the memo that the running game is something you do just to call play-action. It’s the most devalued position in the NFL. But now the Jaguars have two running backs with different strengths. You’ve got T.J Yeldon as a well-balanced, pass-catching back and Chris Ivory as a goal-line power rusher.  Second-year pro and 2015 second round pick, Yeldon is expected to start despite his spectacularly average rookie season (182 ATT, 740 YDS in 12 games). They spent too much money on Chris Ivory (I want to make a poaching joke, but I’m above it). Managing the carries is a problem, but I have faith in this group. 

They cut Jonas Gray, which some Juggalos weren’t happy about. 

How’d your summer go Denard?

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Oh.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers

I had an authority figure in my life tell me something about unsuccessful relationships — there’s usually a winner and a loser. That is, the loser is the better person who has to prop up the other and the burden eventually causes the whole thing to collapse (see: Dalton, Andy and Green, A.J). I don’t think that’s the case between Bortles and his incredibly talented receivers. Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns (both with +1,000-yard seasons) and Marqise Lee form the best receiving corp (core?) since the halcyon days of late-90s.  

Grade: A-

Tight Ends

Julius Thomas disappointed in his first season (46 rec, 455 yds, 5 TD) after signing for too much money from the Broncos. He did miss the first four games of last season and is more of blocker anyway. The Jaguars section on his Wikipedia page is depressing:

julius thomas snip

Marcedes Lewis, 32, has been in Jacksonville longer than institutionalized racism (sorry is that too real?).

Grade: C

Offensive Line

Oh no. The Jags O-line wasn’t good: 19th in run blocking, 22nd in pass blocking and 1st (!) in penalties. Luke Joeckel, man. A friend of mine went to a kids charity function where a personable Jaguar, Dante Fowler, was supposed to speak. Fowler bailed, so a player stepped in to replace him. The first thing the excited horde of kids hear is a droning “Hey, I’m Luke Joeckel,” and they all fall silent. The guy they overpaid to replace Joeckel (who’s moving to left guard) at left tackle is hurt.

Grade: C-

Stray Thoughts

— Since my dad suffered through the later Lloyd Carr years at the University of Michigan, I thought I’d ask him about the two former U of M quarterbacks on the Jaguar’s roster: “Henne was actually good [in college]. Denard Robinson was small and fast but he got hurt a lot.” When I asked about Denard’s accuracy problems, he laughed and replied, “Oh yeah, he was terrible.”

— I’m going to drastically harm myself if I hear one more sportswriter/person I know say the following: “HUR DUR THE JAGS HAVE TWO RECEIVERS WITH THE FIRST NAME ALLEN, I NEED TO POINT THAT OUT WITH A CLEVER QUIP.”

— Receiver Arrelious Benn is the Jags’ player that has the name that sounds the most like a “Hunger Games” character. I wanted to say that before he got cut. Also: he featured in the 2006-2008 Fighting Illini and 2009 Raheem Morris-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers. God, how much disappointment can the man take?

Next up: the defense/special teams