Matt Weston is previewing the AFC South for the 2016 season by going from worst to first in Football Outsiders' projections. Up first is the Jacksonville Jaguars, with a projection of 6.9 mean wins.
It happened. It finally happened. The Jaguars have moved on from a desolate roster riddled with tumbleweeds to something you can call a real football team. The years of top draft picks have accumulated. Free agents were coaxed into joining their glittery vision thanks to the Jaguars' cap space and the culmination of a rising salary cap. All of this melted together into one roster-churning offseason for Jacksonville. For the first time since 2007 (man, that is so sad), the Jaguars may actually pull off a winning record. But before that happens, there are some questions to ponder.
Gus Bradley Finally Has A Talented Jacksonville Defense
The biggest question for Jacksonville entering this season is whether Gus Bradley is a good coach or not. He accepted Seattle's defensive coordinator position all the way, way, way back in 2009. He survived the Jim Mora era when Pete Carroll arrived in 2010 because of their Monte Kiffin ties. During their time together from 2010 to 2012, the Seahawks had a DVOA of 29th (12.0%), -7.1% (10th) and -14.5% (2nd).
That was four years ago.
Since Bradley took the head coaching job, Jacksonville has a record of 12-36. Their best defensive season was in 2014, when they had a DVOA of 1.5%, good for 20th in the league. Now, one could claim the reason why Bradley hasn't had success was because of the roster. Jason Babin led the team in sacks in 2013 and Alan Ball started fifteen games. In 2014, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons provided a small bump in production after leaving Seattle with a Super Bowl title, and Sen'derrick Marks was great. Other than that, it was littered with barely employable players. Last year, the bottom fell out of the pass rush and the secondary was one of the worst units in the league.
On the other hand, there isn't a reason why there's a defensive mastermind or great head coach hiding underneath all that skin, aside from some Monte Kiffin word of mouth. In Seattle, Bradley ran Pete Carrol's defense. From 1977 on, Carroll grew up with and was molded by the 4-3 under defense and its principles. He ran it when he was at USC, crushing his way to national titles. Carroll brought the same principles to Seattle, where he was and still is crushing it. He spent thirty years building this defense and its ideology. The top ten defense that helped Bradley get the Jaguars head coaching job was because of Carroll.
Seattle's defense also had incredible talent. Bradley didn't make something out of nothing. He called plays and game planned against offenses with a defense that had three current All Pros and four future Pro Bowlers on it. Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril, etc. all played under Bradley. Talent is subjective. What is objective is how Seattle's defense performed after Bradley left. With him at his new beach house in Jacksonville, they only finished first (-25.9%), first (-16.8%), and seventh (-10.5%) in defensive DVOA. They didn't lose anything at all after Bradley left--they got even better.
There are more factors pointing to Bradley being an abysmal head coach than him being the man to reward the Jaguars' patience. The defense he led in Seattle was the creation of Carroll, was filled with talent, and played better when he left. His record with Jacksonville has been fetid, putrid, and terrible. Even if you claim a lack of talent, which is the only shield Bradley has, instances are rare that show him sucking the most out of his players or him putting them in the best position to succeed.
Despite the extension he signed back in January that will keep him in Jacksonville until 2017, this is a make or break year for him. After spending the majority of draft capital on the offensive side of the ball, with Jared Odrick being their biggest defensive signing, the Jaguars finally made a conscious effort to upgrade the defense.
The roster of last year's team has been dismantled and dissipated. This year's defense is like a logo change. They used six of their seven draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. They selected Jalen Ramsey (DB), Myles Jack (LB), Yannick Ngakoue (DE), Sheldon Day (DT), Tyrone Holmes (OLB), and Jonathan Woodard (DE). In free agency, they signed Malik Jackson (DE), Tashaun Gipson (FS) and Prince Amukamara (CB). Oh, and their 2015 first round pick, Dante Fowler, will play this year after missing all of last season with a summer ACL tear. In one offseason, the Jaguars added a possible six new starters to their defense.
They were dying of thirst for defensive talent. Last season, they ranked 26th in defensive DVOA, 31st in pass defense DVOA, 24th in adjusted sack rate, 30th in pressure rate, 17th in run defense DVOA, 31st in points allowed, and 27th in turnovers forced.
With these additions, they are replacing sub-replacement level talent with real NFL caliber players. Gone are the days of Tyson Alualu playing 689 snaps as a member of the Michael Griffin All-Star Team (crappy first round picks who somehow find their way into a second contract with the team that selected them). No more will Chris Clemons make 14 plays in 662 snaps. They could actually live in a world where Paul Posluszny doesn't have to play on third down.
This is what their 2015 Week One 4-3 under front looked like. It resembled this throughout the season, except there was more Josh Evans than Sergio Brown.
In 2016, it could look something like this.
And on pass rushing downs, where they ranked 24th in adjusted sack rate and 30th in pressure rate, they can bring out a unit like this, with Ramsey and House on the outside and Amukamara in the slot.
These are two entirely different defenses. It is remarkable what Jacksonville was able to do in one offseason. What I love about this defense in August is the versatility. Myles Jack can rush, cover, and stop the run. He can play nickel linebacker. He can rush off the edge. He can cover tight ends. Malik Jackson can play both the penetrating "3" technique" and the two gap play-side defensive end. Jalen Ramsey is listed as the team's number two corner, but he can play safety too. They could be just giving him experience covering NFL receivers so they can unleash him all over the field when things matter. Amukamara can play in the slot and on the outside. This is a fluid defense. All over the place, they can plug and replace.
Unlike previous years, the Jaguars have a real NFL defense loaded with talent. Gone are the days that no one will miss when Alan Ball started fifteen games. It's now time for Bradley to do something with this defense. The excuses are over. It's a monumental step towards the path of relevancy for this team whether the results are good or not. After this season, the Jags will know what they have in Bradley and they can make a real decision. No more will they wobble on the fine line between patience and wasting one's life.
I like Blake Bortles. He's big and strong and his hands are large. Except for the occasional blindside pressures that strip-sack him, Bortles has a good feel for the pocket; he knows when to run and when to stick it out. With his arm strength, he's able to chunk it deep and has the aggressiveness to actually do it. My favorite thing about Bortles is that his strengths match his offense.
First off, their offensive line isn't good. This year they are doing what they should do--have an all out competition for the five spots. They brought in Kelvin Beachum and Mackenzy Bernadeau. These two and the incumbent starters from last year will be thrown into the pit to compete for five spots. This may mean benching Luke Joeckel or moving him to left guard, or paying new additions to never play a down. They are going into this season with marginal talent and letting them go at it.
Bortles has the ability to get by alright without a great O-line because of his size, speed, and pocket ability. Last season, Bortles had a DVOA of -45.6% under pressure and averaged 4.2 yards a play. This was good for 9th and 8th in the league. Additionally, his DVOA split from under pressure and no pressure was -79.7% (5th) and he broke 12 tackles, eleven of which were behind the line of scrimmage. When he did decide to run, he picked up 320 yards on 42 attempts and had a DVOA of 24.5% (8th). Offensive lines are important, but they aren't as important when you have a quarterback like Bortles.
With Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, all Bortles needs to do is get the ball into their magnetic field. They have the leaping ability to levitate and snag passes over most cornerbacks in the league. The margins are wider for Bortles. The best part is that he actually uses his arm. Most teams are risk averse and don't take shots deep. Bortles is different. During his rookie season, 12% of his passes were marked as deep or bomb. Last year it jumped to 26%. He led the entire league in passes completed for over twenty yards with 72. Of those, Robinson caught a league -eading 23 and Hurns added 19 of his own, good for 8th. As long as Robinson and Hurns keep doing unspeakable, despicable, incomprehensible things, Bortles and this team need to keep chucking.
The problem is that there are two problems. The first is his accuracy. He's yet to complete more than 60% of his passes. Part of this is because Jacksonville throws the ball deep as often as they do. Still, there's a large majority of incomplete passes because of bad throws and loony decisions.
This play comes from Week Four against Indy back when Matt Hasslebeck was tearing up the league. Jacksonville is on the prowl to win the game before overtime by trying to get into field goal position. On the snap, Allen Robinson runs right past Vernon Davis, who's completely stuck. Bortles has a huge pocket to fit the ball in after Davis and before the safety. Instead, he underthrows Robinson towards the sideline on a curl when Robinson is running a fade. Rather than complete a minimum twenty yard pass, the receiver flails into nothingness.
These are plays that need to be made for an offense to be productive. Drives can't be sustained. Life can't be nurtured when easy, open plays like this aren't converted. As a result, Jacksonville's offense stutters more than it should.
The other adversary facing Bortles is the Geno Smith gene. Smith has the accuracy, the touch, the arm strength, the nostrils and the anticipation to play the quarterback position. If you watched 97% of Smith's plays, you would think of him as an average starting quarterback. The dilemma is that Smith makes three hideous decisions a game that dismantle his team's chances of winning. There's this ogre on his shoulder that tells him to throw the ball into triple coverage.
Bortles Bortles too often. Last season Bortles threw 18 interceptions, was credited with 26 adjusted interceptions, fumbled 14 times, and was sacked 51 times. Like Geno Smith, he makes three bad decisions a game that derail comebacks or put his team into a hole. If these plays are removed, there wouldn't be a wait and see if he's a bust or not. He would be solidified as a starter. But three times too many every week, he listens to the snarling one instead of the angelic one.
In their first match-up against Houston, Jacksonville had a real shot of winning. Entering the fourth quarter, they had a 74% win probability. One of the key plays in this game came right before the half. Down 14-10, Jacksonville had the ball at the Texans' ten yard line and faced second and two with zero timeouts.
Jacksonville is running posts on the right side. The back is looking for the blitz and then running a short curl route that will never get thrown because they have zero timeouts. The left side is running a lazy corner/fade on the outside and another post in the slot. To counter, the Texans are showing blitz in both A gaps and the right side B gap. In the secondary, the Texans are playing a zone with four under and four covering the end zone.
Bortles assumes blitz. He thinks he'll have to get the ball out immediately. When he gets the snap, he stares at the center of the field and looks for Julius Thomas, his $7 million red zone target. Thomas gets squeezed off his route by the man playing the under zone. Andre Hal, covering the end zone, reads Bortles' eyes and breaks on the ball for the interception.
It's a red zone trip where Jacksonville has two downs for a touchdown attempt and will at least walk away with points. Instead, they get nothing. Bortles assumes, but ends up facing no pass rush, stares down the tight end, and throws into double coverage.
Bortles is still young at 24, even if his hair isn't. He hasn't played the position for long; he will still learn and grow. As the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, he'll get more time than most. He has traits that stand him out from other quarterbacks: size, arm strength, machismo to use that arm strength, and pocket presence. If Bortles can manage to improve on these two glaring holes, he'll be a real quarterback. If he doesn't, Jacksonville won't be a productive yard-churning offense. They will continue to boom and bust.
Regression Numbers Are For Nerds
Every year, there are one or two teams who were abysmal before that make a quick turnaround and reach the playoffs. Usually these teams are possible to spot because of a combination of talent and bad luck cursing them the year before. The bad luck can be measured by statistics that look at things that fluctuate year to year, or things teams don't have control over. Turnover differential, one possession record [shifts glasses higher up the bridge of the nose], and Pythagorean win total are all examples.
Since the conclusion of the draft, brains were rumbling that the Jags could be one of these teams because of the talent they added on defense, Bortles' maturation, and the explosive offense he leads. These are fair reasons to come to this conclusion. But the numbers don't spotlight the Jags as being one of these teams.
|One Possession Record||4-6|
|Turnover Differential||-10 (29th)|
|Expected Win Loss||6.4 (-1.4)|
|Fumble Recovery %||58.4% (5th)|
|Adjusted Games Lost||68.9 (20th)|
|2015 Strength of Schedule||-6.6% (28th)|
|2016 Strength of Schedule||-0.7% (18th)|
Nothing jumps out for Jacksonville, aside from turnover differential. However, they weren't an extreme outlier like Dallas, who was missing Tony Romo and had a turnover differential of -22. They didn't suffer terrible luck. Jacksonville's turnover differential was a case of Bortles tossing the ball around carelessly and not hanging onto it, plus them having a crappy pass rush and secondary. In fact, their turnover differential should have been worse. They had a fumble recovery rate of 58.4% and Bortles threw eight less interceptions than expected.
Everything else is pretty middle of the road. Their record improved a bit. They won 1.4 games less than expected based on their point differential. Jacksonville players lost 68.9 games due to injury, mostly because of Dante Fowler. In one possession games they went 4-6. To top it off, they played the 28th ranked schedule in the league and still managed to win only five games.
This wasn't a team that played great and lost because of inerrant mistakes or factors beyond their control. It's a team that was bad, young, and maybe should have won six games instead of five. That's it. Jacksonville is not like Carolina, who had talent, an improving young quarterback, yet couldn't win close games and saw their record skyrocket once they did. The Jags have just been a bad football team.
The Jaguars are going to be SO MUCH FUN this season and will push it to the limit. Hurns and Robinson are incredible. The defense is stuffed with versatile players and young talent. Bortles is a young and interesting player. The thing is there are too many questions to expect the fun to morph into a playoff team this season.
Is Gus Bradley a good coach? Can Bortles fixi his flaws without having a reliable offensive line or run game? Can the young defensive talent produce immediately? Also, there aren't any measurable reasons why Jacksonville will make the playoffs. The only reason why is because they did a lot this offseason. That's not enough to think 9-7 is in reach. They will be better, and for the first time since the old logo, it will actually be enjoyable to watch this team play once a week for sixteen weeks. The Jags will be a playoff team one day, but today isn't that day.
Prediction: 7-9, 3rd in the AFC South