The proliferation of the passing game in the NFL has made it imperative to have a No. 1 receiver on the roster to compete with the elite teams in the league.
The lead receiver is now the second-most important offensive position in the game (behind quarterback). In many cases, the No. 1 wideout enhances an elite quarterback's ability to pick apart the league's top defenses, while also serving as the primary playmaker on offense. In other instances, the presence of a dynamic go-to target can mask a serious deficiency at quarterback and allow an offense to thrive despite questionable play from the signal-caller.
In Jacksonville, the arrival of Justin Blackmon should ignite an offense that struggled mightily a season ago with a shaky Blaine Gabbert under center, putting the Jaguars in position to compete in the AFC South.
Some will certainly scoff at the notion of Blackmon making a major difference on the offense, due to the Jaguars' suspect quarterback play. But here are three reasons why the rookie playmaker will make the biggest impact of any offensive rookie in the league:
1) Blackmon is the quintessential No. 1 receiver.
The term "No. 1 receiver" has been loosely applied to productive receivers throughout the league, but the role requires more than putting up big numbers at the position. A true No. 1 serves as the anchor of the passing game and flashes the ability to dominate the game with his playmaking skills on the perimeter. From moving the chains on critical third-down receptions to providing big plays on vertical routes, a No. 1 receiver routinely sparks an offense.
In Blackmon, the Jaguars have landed the most dominant receiver in college football. He was an unstoppable force in the Big 12, compiling 252 receptions for 3,564 yards and 40 touchdowns in an illustrious career at Oklahoma State. Most of that production was compiled over the past two seasons, when opponents knew Blackmon was the Cowboys' top option, yet found few solutions for slowing him down on the perimeter.
I witnessed the difficulty of defending Blackmon when I watched Oklahoma State and Stanford duke it out at the Fiesta Bowl in January. Blackmon was unquestionably the best player on the field on that day, and deservedly walked away with the MVP award after finishing with eight receptions, 186 yards and three touchdowns. That's quite a feat, considering the outstanding performances of fellow first-round picks Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden in that contest.
When I evaluated Blackmon's college tape, I saw a routinely dominant playmaker with exceptional skills. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Blackmon is a big, physical pass catcher with outstanding hands and ball skills. He excels at using his size and strength to create separation from defenders at the top of routes, and is at his best when working over the middle of the field. Blackmon is not a polished route runner, but routinely runs away from defenders on in-breaking routes like slants and square-ins. As a runner, Blackmon shows extraordinary strength and explosiveness with the ball in his hands. He blows through arm tackles and has a knack for turning short passes into big gains in the open field.
In looking at weaknesses in Blackmon's game, I would point to his lack of elite speed. He is not a world-class sprinter on the perimeter, so he will need to incorporate some deception (double moves and/or play-action fakes) to run past elite corners in the NFL on vertical routes. However, this is only a problem if the Jaguars miscast him as the designated deep threat in the passing game.
If Blackmon is placed in his customary role where he is able to run an assortment of short and intermediate routes over the middle of the field, there is no reason why he can't deliver the kind of performance in Jacksonville to remind those fans of the great Jimmy Smith in his heyday.
2) Blackmon has a superb teacher in Jerry Sullivan.
For all of the talent that Blackmon brings to the field, it will be his mentality that determines how quickly he becomes a dominant player in the NFL. Fortunately for him, he will learn the nuances of the game from one of the finest position coaches in the league.
Sullivan, a 19-year NFL coaching veteran, has a distinguished track record for developing young receivers. He has mentored the likes of Anthony Miller, Tony Martin, Herman Moore, Germane Crowell, David Boston and Anquan Boldin, while earning the reputation as one of the game's finest teachers.
In watching Sullivan tutor receivers on the practice field in the past, it has been his attention to detail that stands out in my mind. From emphasizing the importance of running out of the break on comebacks to "stacking" defenders following an effective bump-and-run release, Sullivan points out the subtleties that allow receivers to consistently work open against tight coverage. In addition, he conveys the importance of depth and spacing against zone coverage.
Sullivan's presence will certainly accelerate Blackmon's development and help him thrive as the Jaguars' No. 1 receiver from Day 1. Blackmon wasn't the best route runner at Oklahoma State, but rather an explosive athlete with a keen understanding of how to use his physical tools to get open. Although those tactics were overwhelmingly successful against collegians, Blackmon will need more tools in his tool box to defeat the elite cornerbacks in the NFL. Sullivan will help him develop those skills, which could lead to big numbers from Blackmon in Year 1.
Sullivan's experience as an offensive coordinator will also help Blackmon make a significant impact on the Jaguars' offense. As the Arizona Cardinals' play caller in 2003, Sullivan directed an offense that featured Boldin prominently in the game plan, helping him finish third in the NFL in receptions (101) and receiving yards (1,377) on the way to being named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. While he won't play a major role in calling plays for the Jags on game day, his ability to suggest proper utilization of the Jaguars' new No. 1 wideout will prove invaluable.
3) The wide receivers are the primary playmakers in Mike Mularkey's system.
For all of the talk about Mularkey being a proponent of run-first football, his history as an offensive coordinator suggests that he loves to put the ball in the hands of his playmakers on the perimeter.
Mularkey once directed a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that featured a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward in consecutive seasons with Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox at quarterback. He most recently worked his magic in Atlanta by orchestrating a Falcons offense that featured a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three pass catchers with 50-plus receptions.
Roddy White, the Falcons' No. 1 receiver, tallied 100-plus catches for the second straight season and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth consecutive year. Most impressively, rookie Julio Jones led all rookies in touchdown receptions (8), while ranking second and third in receptions (54) and receiving yards (959), respectively, in only 13 starts.
Mularkey will exploit Blackmon's strengths as a playmaker by routinely aligning him in spots where he can take advantage of his size and power against defenders on the perimeter. Mularkey will also feature short and deep crossing routes to get the ball to Blackmon on the move and capitalize on his explosive running skills. He utilized similar tactics in Atlanta to get White and Jones untracked in Atlanta.
Given Mularkey's track record for getting excellent production from his pass catchers, I believe Blackmon is primed for an outstanding rookie season in Jacksonville.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks