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NFL: Optimism in force as Jacksonville Jaguars under new leadership

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The Sports Xchange
Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars are looking to build off last season. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars are looking to build off last season. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

JACKSONVILLE -- The Jacksonville Jaguars will begin training camp with as much enthusiasm as in recent years.

Sure there was optimism a year ago when the team was coming off a successful season offensively, but there were still a number of question marks about the defense. Turns out those two units had contrasting successful seasons.

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A defensive that included many new faces came through better than expected as the Jaguars suddenly became tough to move the ball on or score against. But it didn't take that many points beat Jacksonville because the offense was a major disappointment, with scoring and passing numbers taking a huge hit.

It looks like 2017 could be a different story.

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Once again, there are new faces on both sides of the ball. But those new players have either proven themselves or have the markings of being elite.

The defense returns several regulars and has strengthened some of its weak areas. The addition of cornerback A.J. Bouye, strong safety Barry Church and defensive end Calais Campbell should make significant improvements in the defense. If the experiment of moving middle linebacker Paul Posluszny to strong-side linebacker, and shifting the talented Myles Jack from outside to the middle, is successful, the defense has the horses to make this an elite group.

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There is talent on the offensive side but it comes with too many unanswered questions heading into training camp, the biggest of which is who is going to start on the line. There are a number of good options but none is in the elite category, ready to challenge for All-Pro honors.

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There's solid competition at four spots on the line. It's always good to have strong competition for a starting job as it should make the eventual starter even better. The bad news is the competition can curtail the amount of time a unit has to develop as a group.

Beyond the offensive line, there is still doubt about the ability of quarterback Blake Bortles to turn the Jaguars into a winner, let alone a playoff contender. Bortles worked hard with a pair of quarterback coaching gurus in California during the offseason in hopes of fine-tuning his mechanics and overall game.

Two off-field additions could also have an influence as to whether this team can reverse its doldrums. The franchise has suffered through six consecutive losing seasons, was last at the .500 mark in 2010 and hasn't seen a winning record since 2007, when it went 11-5 and made the playoffs.

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Doug Marrone takes over as the team's head coach, having served as the interim head coach for the final two games of last year's 3-13 debacle. And returning to the franchise is Tom Coughlin, the team's original head coach (1995-2002) who is now the executive vice president of football operations.

Coughlin was the leader of the franchise during this year's free agency acquisitions and the Jaguars draft movement, one that was geared to enhancing the areas around Bortles.

It's a different atmosphere permeating throughout the locker room and onto the field with Marrone and Coughlin now spearheading Jaguars' fortunes after four seasons with Gus Bradley as the head coach. Marrone and Coughlin are both old-school -- strict on discipline and rare to sing the praises of players, at least publicly.

Coughlin was especially a stickler for adhering to rules, time-codes and locker room embellishments. Marrone is built from the same mode and showed such during the team's final two games in 2016 and through last spring's OTA workout sessions.

Bradley always touted the positive spin of the Jaguars' efforts, while Marrone is inclined to point out flaws and weaknesses that the team must improve on. Perhaps that style could lead to more than five wins this season; that hasn't happened since 2010.

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TOP THREE TRAINING CAMP GOALS

--Finalize the starting offensive line. In the past four years, the Jaguars have not had more than two players in any season start all 16 games. That's the first inconsistency. The second is that the Jaguars haven't retained the same players from year to year. Of the starting five who were regulars one season, no more than two of those players also started the following season. That could change this year as right tackle Jermey Parnell, right guard A.J. Cann and center Brandon Linder are likely to start again in 2017, although Cann and Linder could be at new positions. The problem that this year's unit faces is that only Parnell is a lock to start at his position. The other four spots will be determined in training camp and preseason games, which limits the amount of time that the eventual starting five will get to work together. That could make it tough to develop a running game with rookie Leonard Fournette likely to be the starting running back.

--Get Blake Bortles in a good flow. Bortles continues to be bashed by national media, some of whom have predicted he'll lead the league in interceptions. That isn't likely to happen because if Bortles gets off to a slow start and is throwing a lot of picks, the Jaguars will likely bite the bullet and make a change at quarterback. The team has surrounded Bortles with enough talent, bringing in tackle Brandon Albert and tight end Mychal Rivera through free agency and drafting talented rookies in running back Leonard Fournette and tackle/guard Cam Robinson. If receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns can produce the type of numbers that they did in 2015 when both were 1,000-yard receivers, Bortles will have more than enough weapons to lead a potent offensive attack. But he'll need to make better decisions on the field and maintain the good mechanics that he enhanced during the offseason with his work in California with specialized coaching. The offense starts and ends with Bortles. If he's good, the Jaguars will be as well.

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--Be sure the secondary is healthy for the regular-season opener. No one seemed greatly concerned that strong safety Barry Church, free safety Tashaun Gipson and nickel back Aaron Colvin were sideline-only participants during the team's OTAs as well as the mandatory veterans camp in the first week in June. Starting cornerbacks A.J. Bouye (missed the first four OTA sessions) and Jalen Ramsey (out for all of the team's mandatory veterans camp) also missed time during offseason workouts. It left little opportunity for the group to work together. Church (back injury), Gipson and Colvin (foot), and Ramsey (core muscle injury that required surgery) all had various injuries, but Jaguars officials were reluctant to comment about the severity of each player's injury. Ramsey's surgery was on June 15; a six-week recovery process was expected. That would take it to the first full week of training camp. As for the other injuries, head coach Doug Marrone declined to say in mid-June if he was confident Church, Gipson and Colvin would return by the July 26 reporting day for fall camp. That's the last thing the Jaguars need to worry about -- injuries before training camp even begins.



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PROJECTED CAMP DEPTH CHART

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Blake Bortles. Backups -- Chad Henne, Brandon Allen.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Chris Ivory. Backups -- Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant, FB Tommy Bohanon, FB Marquez Williams.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Mychal Rivera. Backups -- Marcedes Lewis, Ben Koyack, Neal Sterling, Alex Ellis.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee. Backups -- Dede Westbrook, Rashad Greene, Arrelious Benn, Shane Wynn, Amba Etta-Tawo, Jamal Robinson, Larry Pinkard.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Branden Albert, LG A.J. Cann, C Brandon Linder, RG Patrick Omameh, RT Jermey Parnell. Backups -- LT Cam Robinson, G/C Tyler Shatley, C/G Chris Reed, T Luke Bowanko, T Josh Wells, G Chris Reed, G Jeremiah Poutasi, G Earl Watford.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Yannick Ngakoue, DT Malik Jackson, DT Abry Jones, LDE Calais Campbell. Backups -- DE Dante Fowler, DE Dawuane Smoot, DT Sheldon Day, DE Lerentee McCray, DE Jonathan Woodard, DT Stefan Charles, DT Michael Bennett, DE Carroll Phillips.

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LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Paul Posluszny, MLB Myles Jack, WLB Telvin Smith. Backups -- OLB Audie Cole, MLB Blair Brown, OLB Josh McNary, MLB Hayes Pullard.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB A.J. Bouye, RCB Jalen Ramsey, FS Tashaun Gipson, SS Barry Church. Backups -- CB Aaron Colvin, FS Peyton Thompson, CB Taurean Nixon, SS Jarrod Wilson, SS James Sample, CB Jalen Myrick, CB Josh Johnson, CB Doran Grant, CB Tracy Howard.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jason Myers, P Brad Nortman, LS Carson Tinker, KOR Corey Grant, PR Dede Westbrook, PR Rashad Greene.

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