Optimism in Jacksonville
Optimism is running rampant in Jacksonville as they prepare for Sunday's regular season opener with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. After several years as one of the worst teams in the NFL, the Jags are given a real shot at respectability and maybe even stealing an AFC South title. Jacksonville is a modest (+285) to win the division, not far behind the 2-1 co-favorites in Indianapolis and Houston. The Jaguars' Over/Under for wins is 7.5.
To put this optimism in perspective, let's remember that Jacksonville has only played .500 football - the minimum required to cash an Over - one time in the last eight years. They went 8-8 in 2010 and have otherwise been a losing team. In the first three years under current head coach Gus Bradley, they've averaged four wins a year. Why are we supposed to assume this year's Jags will suddenly win at least eight and maybe hang in the playoff race?
It starts with quarterback Blake Bortles. Entering his third year, Bortles is seen by the optimists as a rising star, thanks to his 35 touchdown passes of a year ago. But while Bortles can stuff a Fantasy League scoring line, there are serious questions that those who handicap actual football have to consider.
Bortles is extremely erratic. He also threw 18 interceptions and the 3.0% of passes he was intercepted on ranked 32nd among qualifying quarterbacks. His 58.6% completion rate ranked 31st. Bortles does have a nice arm and his 7.3 yards-per-attempt was respectable, ranking in the middle of the league. But it's comparable to Alex Smith and the injured Teddy Bridgewater, neither of whom are known as gunslingers. And unlike those two quarterbacks, Bortles relies on his big-play ability to make up for the poor completion percentage and interception problems.
Then there's the question of Jacksonville's defense, which ranked 31st in the NFL in points allowed. Suffice it to say, a mistake-prone quarterback and leaky defense are not exactly sufficient reasons to assume a radical jump in performance to at least 8-8 and possibly more.
That's the negative spin. There's another side to this though, that leads us to understand where the optimism is coming from. Jacksonville did exceptionally well in the draft. They got corner Jalen Ramsey from Florida State and linebacker Myles Jack from UCLA, both of whom were arguably the best players on the board at their respective positions.
On the free agent market, they shored up the interior of their defensive front with Denver Broncos DT Malik Jackson. They got veteran secondary help in corner Prince Amukamara and safety Tashaun Gipson. They further shored up the offensive line with the free agent signing of left tackle Kelvin Beachum.
Furthermore, the problems Bortles has had can be reasonably attributed to inexperience and the third year would be a logical point in his career arc for a big improvement.
All of those are reasons we aren't dismissing Jacksonville. We're looking seriously at how they match up with Green Bay, as the Jaguars get (+5.5) at home this Sunday. But in the big picture, we have to be cautious - the personnel changes are positive, but assuming 8-8 and competing with Andrew Luck and J.J. Watt in the AFC South is a lot to assume in the first year with all these new players.