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2017 AFC South Preview: Marqise Lee And The Jaguars’ Offense

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We take a look at one of the Texans’ divisional opponents next season and how their offense might look.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Talking about the Jaguars’ offense is a painful experience for a variety of reasons. It’s so exceptionally loaded with talent, yet it consistently seems to come up short on fulfilling its remarkably high ceiling.

If you want a example of this, look no further than the season Allen Robinson had. Robinson managed a rather interesting statistic anomaly last season of having 150+ targets and under 1,000 receiving yards. It’s something that DeAndre Hopkins also did, but Robinson had five less receptions and didn’t even hit 900 yards. This is a stark contrast to Robinson’s sophomore season, in which he had 1,400 yards and 14 TDs on 153 targets and 80 receptions. This strong campaign was propelled by the fact that Robinson’s YPC was 17.5, which was better than notorious deep ball threat Ted Ginn. Robinson feasted on Blake Bortles’ willingness to throw it deep and his own ability to win in contested catch scenarios. Robinson’s fall from grace wasn’t because of any particular failing on his own part. Anyone who watched the tape would have seen Robinson routinely do dope stuff like this:

That’s Robinson on the top of the screen executing a perfect double move by feigning a cut back towards the middle of the field before stepping off his right foot and driving down field. It’s a move of elegant beauty with a stutter step that would make James Harden proud.

Robinson’s strength as a deep ball receiver and route runner was slightly negated by the Jags’ shift in offensive game plan. This is perhaps reflected no better than in the difference in Jacksonville’s average YPA in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. In 2015, the Jags posted a YPA of 7.3, which had them ranked 13th in the league, whereas in 2016 they posted a YPA of 6.3, good for 29th.

To make up for this lack of vertical passing attack, the Jaguars decided to test defenses laterally. Their offensive game plan was to establish the run early and often before relying on short tunnel screens, swing screens, and the occasional end around to get the ball out of Blake Bortles’ hands and into the hands of his playmakers on the outside. The problem herein was that the Jags are just not good at those things. I quite like T.J. Yeldon as a receiver; he’s a solid option, but he’s been stifled as a runner. He’s been unlucky to have injuries, the addition of Chris Ivory, and an offensive line that changes every season. The churn on the offensive line has meant that for the past two years, the Jags have fielded completely different lines, with the exception of Brandon Linder. All this has naturally led to the Jags struggling to run the ball, which has in turn stalled their offense, leading to them being behind more and more in games, forcing Blake Bortles to make more throws.

The Jags have made an obvious effort to remedy that over the off-season with the addition of Leonard Fournette at RB and Cam Robinson at left tackle. That still doesn’t solve the problem that is Blake Bortles and the strengths of his two primary receivers, Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson. Bortles’ 2015 season had the vague appearance of being good. He had 35 TDs and threw for 4,000+ yards, thanks to two 6’3” WRs who excelled at attacking the deep ball. The problem was that those stats were often accumulated whilst the Jags were considerably behind. Fourteen of Bortles’ 35 TDs were scored while the Jags were 10+ points behind. Simply put, the Jags gave up a lot of points and had to throw in the ball a lot in order to stay competitive. Here’s the glorious box score from the 2015 Saints-Jags game; all four of Bortles TDs came while the Jags were 10+ points behind.

That is the encapsulation of the wonder of an offense that gave Blake Bortles the ball and told him to throw it as far as he could to Allen Robinson.

Brief tangent aside, it still leaves us with the quandary of what version of the Jags offense we’ll see in 2017. Is it the one that leans heavily on a Leonard Fournette run game, or is it one that bombs the ball deep down the field to its two stud receivers?

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The 2016 Jaguars offense wasn’t a complete wash in terms of providing us with a few interesting things to watch. One player in particular benefited from the emphasis on shorter passing and used it to have his best season in his career. I am of course talking about Marqise Lee. Lee struggled his first two seasons largely due to a bunch of nagging injuries and the emergence of Allen Hurns as the Jaguars’ WR2 behind Robinson. Lee showed potential last season and enjoyed a consistent slew of solid performances as one of the key elements in the Jags’ passing attack. His season started slowly and rather unfortunately with a drop that led to a pick.

As you can see, Lee is sluggish out of his break and loses concentration once he has the ball. That leads to a turnover that Green Bay scored from. This wasn’t to be the norm with Lee, however. As the season progressed, so did the urgency with which Lee seemed to play. The Jags often used him as the fake man running the end around to try and draw the defense into shifting its alignment out of its shell. Weirdly enough, it was done more as a fake than an actual option, as Lee only had six rushing attempts on the season. What really stood out while watching Lee in 2016 was just what the Jags were trying to do with him throughout the season. For a player who had been seen as a distant third option behind two really good wideouts, Lee was often the focal point of Jacksonville’s attempts to shorten their passing game.

Here are two examples from the Week Four game against the Colts in London. The Jags use Lee as a glorified checkdown that Bortles could get the ball to as soon as he received the snap.

Here, Jacksonville shifts the entire play to one side with Bortles throwing to Lee in the flat:

Here they bring Lee as the motion man in an end-around play fake before dumping the ball to him in the flat for some YAC.

If you can think of a way to scheme open a wide receiver for a short pass, chances are the Jags used it to get the ball to Marqise Lee last season.

When Lee isn’t getting plays schemed for him, he does show a lot of really interesting traits. One of these is Lee’s ability to release at the line of scrimmage. Take this example against the Chargers from Week Two.

Lee is lined up at the top of the screen opposite Jahleel Addae and is running a slant over the middle to exploit the space in between the middle linebacker and deep safety, both of whom are in Cover Two zone assignments. What Lee does here is initially feign his release towards the boundary. He takes one step out towards the boundary before planting hard on his left foot and flipping his hips at light speed whilst driving off of his left foot. This gives the DB little chance to disrupt or undercut Lee as he flips his entire body back inside so quickly that he creates a body barrier between the DB and any pass that might come Lee’s way. The play obviously doesn’t reward that nifty release; rather, some quick thinking on Lee’s part to scramble and stick with Bortles allows for a completion.

The more you dig with Lee, the more he shows off a well-rounded skill set. The Jags ran a lot of concepts that allowed for Lee to use his rather nifty feet and ability to escape to create extra yards. Here’s Lee doing his best impersonation of Hermes Conrad, sliding under a defender’s tackle before gaining a few extra yards.

At USC, Lee had always had great timing with then-QB Cody Kessler when it came to the back shoulder throws. Typically Kessler would place the ball low and away, allowing Lee to snap his hips and shield the ball from the defender. While those passes usually ended up with a contested catch at shoulder height, Lee has shown an ability to go up and get the ball. Take this red zone example against Detroit, where the Jags throw to the 6’0” Lee instead of 6’6: Marcedes Lewis and 6’3” Allen Robinson.

Here’s another example of Lee demonstrating excellent body control to snag this one clean out of the air.

Whatever possible form the Jaguars offense will take this season, the improvement and development of Marqise Lee can only be a blessing for the Jaguars’ offensive capabilities going forward.

What do you expect of the Jaguars; offense for next season? Do you think it’ll be a pass heavy affair, or will they go the way of meth-loving colleagues from Nashville and introduce the world to Glitter Kitty Smashmouth? What do you think of Marqise Lee’s play from last season?