NFL Team Previews: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars are making a lot of news in the NFL preseason and for all the wrong reasons. The contract holdout of running back Maurice Jones-Drew continues to linger and the report s are that we should expect it to on a long time. Not exactly the way new coach Mike Mularkey was hoping to begin his second, and likely last crack, at being an NFL boss. Can the Jags turn around their fortunes after going 5-11 last season? TheSportsNotebook breaks them down…

OFFENSE: Jones-Drew didn’t build his successful seven-year stint in Jacksonville by himself. His offensive line helped. While this isn’t a dominant unit, it’s a decent front five, with 35-year-old veteran Brad Meester holding it together at center and Eugene Monroe providing quality at left tackle. There are no obvious weak points and given how much mileage is on Jones-Drew’s body at this stage, I wouldn’t overpay to get him into camp. Running backs come and go in the NFL and if you’ve got a competent line, as the Jags do, it’s possible to turn a nobody like Rashad Jennings or Montell Owens into a quality back.

What’s less easy to do is build an offense that has no playmakers anywhere, and that’s the bigger problem for this Jacksonville offense. Blaine Gabbert will enter his second year as the starter, and like a lot of young quarterbacks he’ll need to be more efficient. He’ll also need rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon to step up and become a real home run threat, because no one else among the wideouts can do it. Tight end Marcedes Lewis is a decent target, but after seven years in the league, scouts are growing tired of waiting for him to be more consistent.

So if we look at Jones-Drew’s absence in context, it’s not the running game per se that the Jags have to replace, it’s the ability to make something special happen. I like Blackmon a lot, so I still wouldn’t overpay, but there’s no question Jacksonville has to find way to chew up big chunks of yardage or they’ll have a lot of okay drives that will stall at midfield.

DEFENSE: The front seven of the defense is similar to the offense—a lot of decent players, but questions about who’s going to make the kind of plays that change games. The interior of the 4-3 defensive front can hold its own against the run, and the linebacking trio of Daryl Smith, Paul Posluszny and Clint Sessions is similarly competent, though Sessions is questionable for the opener on September 9. But if this defense is going to change games, then the ends need to put heat on the quarterback, finish it off with sacks and help force turnovers.

Jerome Mincey is the veteran option at end, with good speed on the edge and capable of making it happen. Andre Branch, a rookie out of Clemson, was a good selection at the other end. If Jacksonville’s defense is going to make impact plays in 2012, it has to start with these two. And pressure on the quarterback will be badly needed in another regard, but the secondary is mediocre at best, with only strong safety Dawan Landry being worthy of mention. The Jags will be vulnerable to the long ball.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 5—I’ve hit on the theme of playmakers through this article, because Jacksonville strikes me as the kind of team that would be a better bet on a week-to-week basis as a value underdog, getting a good number of points, able to keep game’s close, but not get over the top. I have my doubts how many games they can win, but in the end I think they can manage at least six and I don’t think they’ll do any worse than push the 5 number that’s posted. So a cautious endorsement of the Over is in order.