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Blake Bortles, Jaguars look ready to make offensive strides

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Though they'd added a handful of young playmakers over the past two drafts, Gus Bradley's Jacksonville Jaguars were not viewed by many as a team poised for an offensive breakout. But while the team hasn't quite put it all together on the field, the offense has shown signs of taking off in recent weeks.

Given some time to break down the Jaguars' offensive weapons using All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with three reasons to think things are looking up in Jacksonville heading into the matchup with the Tennessee Titans on "Thursday Night Football" this week on NFL Network:

1) Blake Bortles is showing potential as a franchise quarterback.

CHARGERS AT RAIDERS

When the Jaguars selected Bortles with the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, I thought they'd reached for someone who wasn't quite ready to step in as a franchise quarterback. Although he certainly possessed all of the core traits (size, arm talent, athleticism, football IQ and leadership skills) to grow into the role, I thought it would take him a few years to become a blue-chip player, based on his unrefined game and inexperience.

At Central Florida, Bortles developed into an electric playmaker as the director of a wide-open offense that allowed him to put pressure on the defense with his athleticism and arm talent. He finished his three-year collegiate career with a 65.7 percent completion mark and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 56:19. Most impressively, he led the Knights to a 22-5 record as a starter over his final two seasons, including a signature win over Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.

Despite his success at that level, I had reservations about Bortles' potential to make an immediate impact as a pro, based on his shoddy footwork and questionable judgment under duress. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder frequently fell off his throws in the pocket, leading to errant tosses and poor ball placement. In addition, Bortles repeatedly forced balls into traffic instead of finding a checkdown receiver when his primary downfield targets were covered.

As an NFL rookie, Bortles' shaky footwork and suspect judgment led to 18 turnovers (17 interceptions and 1 fumble lost) and streaky play from the pocket. Though he flashed immense talent and potential, the turnovers and poor decisions compromised Jacksonville's ability to win tight games.

The All-22 Coaches Film of Bortles from this season shows he's made tremendous growth in several key areas. He is not only playing with more confidence after logging significant snaps as a rookie, but he is far more decisive as a playmaker from the pocket. As a result, the ball is coming out quicker and he is avoiding some of the silly mistakes that plagued his first pro season. In addition, Bortles has been more consistent with his footwork and fundamentals from the pocket, exhibiting a better "base" (keeping his feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart) when delivering throws to all ranges. When Bortles plays with disciplined footwork and mechanics, he can make any throw in the book with zip, velocity and pinpoint placement.

In the video clip to the right, of Bortles' 20-yard touchdown to Bryan Walters from a Week 9 loss to the Jets, the second-year pro shows outstanding footwork and poise delivering a strike down the seam. Bortles throws from a perfectly balanced platform, allowing him to generate significant RPMs on a seam pass down the hash. These are the kinds of throws elite passers routinely make throughout a game. Bortles needs to be more consistent with his mechanics to become a polished pocket passer.

Bortles also continues to show promise as a thrower on the move. His unique combination of athleticism and arm talent allows him to make pinpoint passes rolling to his right or left. This has enabled the Jaguars to incorporate more bootlegs and sprint-outs. Given the shaky pass protection Bortles is afforded, working the edges and diversifying the passing game is key to helping the quarterback remain upright.

In the play below, from Jacksonville's Week 10 win over the Ravens, the Jaguars put Bortles on the move to take advantage of his athleticism and movement passing skills. They motion into an Ace Wing slot formation, with receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee stacked to the right. The duo is instructed to run a smash concept, with Robinson running a post-corner and Lee executing a quick out. Bortles simply makes a high-low read on the outside defender and throws the ball to the open receiver. When the corner pauses to jump the quick out, Bortles delivers a perfect pass to Robinson for a 15-yard score:

If I had to cite flaws in Bortles' game, I would continue to point out his questionable judgment under duress. He repeatedly makes critical errors when pressured in the pocket, leading to interceptions on hurried passes; he's prone to making fadeaway throws with rushers in close proximity. It's no surprise he's already tallied 11 interceptions in nine games, nearly adding more turnovers to the mix with his poor decisions under pressure. For the Jaguars to take the next step in their development, Bortles must do a better job of taking care of the ball when pressured. Turnovers are the biggest deciding factor in games, and he can't contribute to the giveaway total with interceptions and fumbles.

Overall, Bortles has shown tremendous progress in Year 2. He's playing with better confidence and poise as a pocket passer, resulting in an improved touchdown-to-interception ratio, passer rating and yards-per-attempt mark. If Bortles continues to rein in his gunslinger mentality and display footwork discipline, he could grow into the franchise player the Jaguars were expecting him to become.

2) The WR corps is loaded with playmakers.

TNF Challenge

Credit Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell for surrounding their franchise quarterback with a young, athletic cast of pass catchers with a diverse set of skills, mirroring an NBA basketball team. On the latest "Move the Sticks" podcast, Brian Billick, Daniel Jeremiah and I discussed the importance of building a receiver corps featuring playmakers with complementary skills. With multiple guys playing assigned roles, an offensive coordinator can test opposing defenses in a variety of ways, giving the quarterback a wealth of options to target based on situation and circumstance.

When I look at the Jaguars' young pass-catching corps, I see a talented group of playmakers with the collective ability to create chaos for defensive coordinators around the NFL. From the alpha dog (Robinson) to the possession receiver (Allen Hurns), slot machine (Walters), red-zone weapon (Julius Thomas) and big-play specialist (Lee), the Jaguars have all of the necessary components to field a dynamic aerial attack that probes defenses at every level. These athletic players can also alleviate the pressure on a young passer by expanding the strike zone and delivering big plays on an assortment of "catch-and-run" concepts.

I came away from the All-22 Coaches Film of the Jaguars' perimeter playmakers particularly impressed with the performances of Robinson and Hurns this season. Each player has built upon their solid rookie campaigns and grown into a dependable weapon on the outside. Robinson, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound pass catcher with 4.6 speed and exceptional ball skills, has flourished as the Jaguars' WR1. He excels at winning 50-50 balls along the boundary, yet also exhibits the poise, polish and savvy to defeat defenders with crisp routes. Most importantly, Robinson is a dependable pass catcher adept at moving the chains despite double coverage on key downs.

In the video clip to the right, Robinson's ability to climb the ladder is what stands out to me. He understands how to use his superior size and length to wrestle the ball away from smallish defenders. Given Bortles' accuracy concerns, the presence of a big-bodied playmaker on the outside is a boon.

In the play below, from the Jags' Week 7 win over the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville takes advantage of Robinson's size by featuring him on the back side of a trips formation. The second-year pro will run a quick slant against man coverage to give Bortles an outlet against blitz pressure. When the Bills bring the heat, Bortles quickly targets Robinson on the slant against Stephon Gilmore. Robinson is too big and physical for Gilmore; he boxes him out on the throw and fights his way to the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown:

Hurns, a 6-3, 205-pound playmaker, has developed into a quality WR2 after entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent. The second-year pro is a crafty route runner with sneaky start-stop quickness and burst. He excels at running double moves and redirection routes, leaving defenders in the dust with his pitter-pat and acceleration. Although Hurns is a bit of a "body catcher" (that is, he prefers to cradle balls against his body instead of plucking them out of the air with his hands), he is a reliable playmaker.

In the play below, from the Week 9 matchup with the Jets, the Jaguars maximize Hurns' route-running skills by featuring him on a "sluggo" route (slant-and-go) against Antonio Cromartie. Hurns runs a hard three-step slant, then peeks inside to sell the move before exploding down the boundary on the go. Cromartie bites hard, allowing Hurns to slip past him for a 30-yard touchdown:

Hurns consistently wins on double moves on the perimeter. The second-year pro has scored a touchdown in seven straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Considering the key contributions Walters, Lee and Thomas are poised to make as complementary playmakers, the Jaguars have the potential to stress opponents from every angle. With a gunslinger in place at quarterback, Jacksonville can light up the scoreboard with this dynamic aerial attack.

3) T.J. Yeldon might be the NFL's next great running back.

As crazy as it might seem to tout a rookie with two career 100-yard rushing games as one of the next great runners, I'm convinced Yeldon has all of the tools to be a Le'Veon Bell-like playmaker. I know that's lofty praise, considering Bell's exploits as one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL, but Yeldon's skills as an electric runner-receiver out of the backfield stand out on tape.

Yeldon ranks second in rushing yards among NFL rookies, with 531, behind only Todd Gurley's 709, having exhibited a slippery running style that reminds me of Bell. He displays excellent balance, body control and agility with the ball in the hole. He not only flashes a dynamic jump cut, but also shows the ability to get "skinny" in the hole, to avoid taking solid shots from defenders. Furthermore, Yeldon has the speed and quickness to turn the corner, meaning the Jaguars can run inside or outside on an assortment of zone and power plays.

In the video clip to the right, of Yeldon's 28-yard touchdown run against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7, Yeldon exhibits all of the qualities coaches covet in young runners. He displays the patience and vision to spot the hole on the back side while also showing exceptional balance and body control finding the crease. Considering the way Yeldon runs through a few arm tackles before hitting pay dirt, it's clear the Jaguars have a dependable workhorse to rely on in key situations.

As a receiver, Yeldon is a patient route runner with strong hands and solid ball skills. He excels in the screen game, but also shows precise route-running skills while running various routes out of the backfield. The Jaguars take advantage of his skills on the perimeter by routinely getting him the ball on screens and swings on the outside. With his stop-start quickness and agility posing problems in space, the clever utilization of Yeldon on these quick-rhythm plays provides the Jaguars with a few layups to help their young quarterback getting into a groove.

Though working with a leaky offensive line and young quarterback has prevented Yeldon from fully displaying his talents as an all-purpose back, astute observers should pay close attention to the budding superstar doing work in Duval County.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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