Oh! It's that lovely time of year. Every team in the NFL thinks that they are THE team to represent their conference in the Super Bowl and why shouldn't they? The beloved GM (in all cities not named Miami) made all the right moves during Free Agency and the Draft, and now the fan loyalty will finally pay off as the team prepares to prove to ESPN that there are other teams in the NFL outside Dallas and New York.
Luckily we are fans of the Jaguars and, like Browns fans, we know better than to immediately believe in the hooplah. We've "seen it all before" as Amos Lee might sing. The early-season hope seems to have unfortunately taken a cynical turn since we started the longest-lasting streak of top-10 picks in the NFL, but with a new owner that doesn't understand failure and a new head coach that believes in the team's ability to win....well, let's say success seems real. I've actually become "All In".
In order for this season of "All In" to happen, the Jaguars have some questions to answer. It won't happen in a week. It may not happen in the first quarter of the season, but most questions seem answerable and some might even favor a bit of a success story when the end of the year rolls around.
The Sack Count Must Go Up
While most analysts pile on the Jags about not having an effective receiver since Jimmy Smith, I view that as the second-worst issue. You have to attack the opposing quarterback and the Jaguars have largely been ineffective at pressuring and sacking the quarterback for too many seasons now. Sure, there are spurts: Derek Landri in the playoffs, Aaron Kampman before knee injury #2, and the emergence of Jeremy Mincey last season. While Mincey remains a fan favorite and a guy people genuinely want to see succeed, he can't do it alone. So, can rookie 2nd rounder Andre Branch lend a helping hand? Can the now-healthy edition of Tyson Alualu use his "violent hands" to disrupt the way he did in college? Does Aaron Morgan continue his pre-season run? Time will tell.
The Receivers Must Stand Out
We all know by now about how effective rookie 1st rounder Justin Blackmon played in the pre-season. We know how effective Free Agent Laurent Robinson played for Dallas in 2011. We have all assumed Mike Thomas will flourish in an underneath role akin to the Patriots' Wes Welker. We've all got opinions on Brian Robiskie (possesion guy?) to Kevin Elliot (red-zone?), but do they force opposing coordinators to game plan against them? I'm not so sure that other teams worry about the Jags, except maybe for Blackmon. Can they step up? Do they become a unit that worries coordinators? I have no idea. It all depends on....
The future is here, right? Taken 10th overall in 2011, the hopes that weren't quite ready to be worn on the sleeves of fans were sported as proudly as a redneck wearing American flag swimsuits on July 4th when the team finally addressed an oft-criticized position that had not been addressed since the last "hope" heard his name called on draft day. After a season ranked awful by most standards, does Gabbert rank in the midst of Byron (not Brian) Leftwich at the end of his career? Does he turn it around in 2012? There's plenty of support and stability from the owner to GM, right down to every player comment we, as fans, have been exposed to. He looked great in the pre-season, let's all hope he continues to give fans reasons to scream for the good, and not the very ugly.
Stability On The Offensive Line
It seems as though the Jaguars have an inability to keep the same 5 guys on the offensive line. It doesn't matter what they try to do, there is always something wrong. It's been a pain to watch. You know those guys break themselves out there practicing in blood, sweat and tears and now? Well it looks like all but second-year guard Will Rackley will participate. I consider this a lucky circumstance. Let's all just hope more than anything that these guys stay healthy, because this can be a unit that ranks near the top of the league at the end of this season. So, do they last? Do the Jags get stability out of this unit? Last, but not least....
The Running Committee
At the most pivotal position in all things Jaguars, we have the running back. The best players in Jags history are almost all here. For me, it was first Natrone Means wearing a tinted visor on an ad at a pizza place when I was 11. Then it was Fred Taylor hurting people. Taylor still remains my all-time favorite player and a worthy Hall Of Fame candidate. You will frequently hear me mention the greatness that was and is Fred Taylor.
After Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew took the starter reigns and never gave reason to disappoint. Jones-Drew put the Jags back in the national spotlight! After earning the rushing title in one of the worst situations in recent league memory, he wanted a new contract and chose to hold out of training camp to send a message. I don't blame him, I just watch so I tend to try not to have an opinion until it leaves an effect on his performance. If he plays like he always has, all will be forgiven.
Rashad Jennings proved during the pre-season that he is the above-average back that many around draft circles thought he could be. I heard as high as a second-round grade on him and when the Jags took him in the 7th round, I felt as though they cheated. RB/FB/ST Ace Montell Owens always delivers. This preseason Owens proved, in short snippets, that he could still run. After all, he played running back in college. I watched his Maine Black Bears embarass my Miss State Bulldogs in 2004. It's a stained memory.
So, can these guys work well with Jones-Drew as a backup for week 1 or more? Do we notice such a distinct difference that the "ease him in" attitude gets thrown out with all the other bad decisions a la Matt Jones? Do we learn that we need to immediately sign Rashad Jennings? Do we miss players such as Brock Bolen?
One thing we do, these guys have given it their all this off-season. I'm excited to watch a possible success story build. Remember all those Saints fans that were there from the beginning? If you're reading this, I doubt you just walked on this metaphorical fan train at the last second. Cue the Khan reference, I've been on the whole time. Let's GO!