Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has a lot to prove this season, as most feel the season will go how he goes. During the 2016 NFL season Bortles performance crashed from his 2015 season, but even with that he was still the second most aggressive quarterback in the NFL according to Matt Harmon of NFL.com.
We’ve actually covered this previously, but I wanted to re-hash it now that we’ve done everything through the offseason and we know a general idea of what the Jagaurs want to do offensively after free agency and the 2017 NFL Draft.
Now in this instance being “aggressive” doesn’t necessarily mean just going down the field. It’s more so a combination of throwing down field as well as throwing into tight windows. As Harmon describes it, it’s the "percentage of passes thrown into tight windows." The “tight window” is defined by the targeted wide receiver having less than a yard of separation from the nearest defender. Not all tight windows are bad decisions by the quarterback or lack of ability by the wide receiver, but it’s clear some quarterbacks, including Bortles, throw into these tight windows more often than the others.
Here’s what Harmon had to say about Bortles in that regard:
2) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (24.4 percent of his passes)
Much like Cam Newton, Blake Bortles took one of the sharpest declines of any player from 2015 to 2016 and threw 24.4 percent of his passes into tight coverage this year. Bortles crashed down to earth in his third season by throwing just 23 touchdowns after dropping 35 into the end zone last year. In a similar fashion to the Panthers offense, the Jaguars scoring attack doesn't offer their quarterback many high-percentage passes for easy completions. While Bortles and receivers like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns appeared to be on the complete positive side of variance on those plays in 2015, they thoroughly tilted to the other side of the scale this year. There's no better example of that regression than on their deep passes. Bortles attempted 37 percent of his passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air into tight coverage (eighth-most) but ranked just 27th in his completion rate on those throws.
Most of all, Bortles' coming in with the second-highest percentage of passes thrown into tight windows represents a failure on his part to read defenses and progress in the mental side of the game. Consistently forcing passes when they just aren't there presented a "live by the sword, die by the sword" proposition for the Jaguars quarterback, which played out on both ends of the spectrum in his last two seasons. He threw six interceptions on his attempts in tight coverage this year, which was tied for third-most. Bortles will almost certainly face competition for his starting job this offseason, and he is no lock to retain it if he can't progress past these issues.
There are two key things here Harmon mentioned, which are things that I’ve brought up in the past, so it’s nice to see someone with an outside viewpoint recognize them. First, I’ve mentioned before that in 2015 the Jaguars had a lot of high variance plays high roll in their favor. A lot of those contested catches by Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson didn’t go their way in 2016, and that was a big part of the crash in offensive production. Obviously, you cannot rely on those high variance plays consistently, but they fueled the Jaguars offense in 2015.
The second part Harmon beings up is the “live by the sword, die by the sword” which is exactly what the Jaguars offense did the past two seasons and what they cannot afford to do this upcoming season. We’ve all talked about the Jaguars needing to lower their turnovers and it’s been a focus this offseason.
That’s the big question. Can Blake Bortles play that type of game? Can he function in a more ball control oriented offense? Bortles seemed to both thrive and crash and burn in a more uptempo pass heavy offense and he got a lot of his production out of volume, so can he perform when his attempts are significantly reduced?
The big key for the Jaguars will first be if they can run the ball, and assuming that they can, can they not turn the ball over when it’s time to pass the ball? We saw Bortles look a lot better, at least statistically, in the final two games of the season under head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, but how will the new offense look when we get to training camp and the season? Even in those final two games Bortles still threw the football nearly 40 times and I would expect that to be a rare occurrence during the 2017 season.
So not only will the passing chances likely significantly decrease, in doing so the team will need to manufacture easy passing options for Bortles rather than living on these high variance chunk plays. They’ll want to consistently move the chains and take shots, rather than go for the big chunks. Not all of that is on the offensive calls either, as a lot of it is actually up to Bortles to take what the defense gives him and pick up those easy gains rather than going for the home run shot that he’s prone to do.
A lot of people are focusing on Bortles mechanics, rightfully so to a degree, but the real improvement in Bortles is going to come from his decision making and really a change in his play mentality. He’s going to have to be a lot more measured and pick his spots to take those shots. He’s going to have to go through something like Read 1, Read 2, then maybe pick up some yards with his legs if it’s there or dump the ball off to the back. That’s going to be the big change, more so than his throwing motion, just the decision making when the games are live.
It’s a delicate balance, because you don’t want to beat that big play mentality totally out of Bortles and turn him into David Garrard 2.0, where he’s taking all the safe throws and when you need him to go down the field it’s a chore. You want to find that blend of careful safe throws and then going for the jugular when it’s there. Bortles has the physical tools to make all of that work, it’s just a matter of if he can switch that mentality from being so gung-ho to being more calculated.