We peg potential Cinderella candidates based off the progress they've made during the offseason, knowing that offseason champions rarely captivate us in January and February. But some teams are being built the right way, which is why we'll break down the five trendiest Cinderella candidates for the 2016 season and determine if they're worth looking out for.
2015 record: 5-11
2016 projected record: 9-7
Why we believe
Jacksonville made the leap on offense last year. Blake Bortles finished seventh in passing yards, second in passing touchdowns and completed nearly 60 percent of his attempts. The team has two legitimate emerging stars at wide receiver (Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson) and will continue to work tight end Julius Thomas into the fold. The plan this offseason was to reinforce the defense, which has finished inside the bottom six in scoring defense each season under coach Gus Bradley. By all accounts, general manager Dave Caldwell has made big strides in improving the league's 24th-ranked defense. By spending at the absolute top tier of the defensive free agency class, Caldwell locked down a piece in Malik Jackson who can play several positions and fit wherever Bradley needs him. It also allows Bradley flexibility with 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler. Without counting on production from their top 2016 picks like Jalen Ramsey, who is dealing with a small meniscus tear in his right knee, and Myles Jack (or Fowler for that matter) the Jaguars also plugged holes by spending wisely on the market's back end. Prince Amukamara was a steal at $3 million guaranteed, assuming he stays healthy. Safety Tashaun Gipson was in line for a massive payday before a 2015 season in which a confused Browns defense took a step back and unfairly tainted his value. At 25, he can be a potential cornerstone player.
This is the closest Bradley has gotten to a top-tier defense, which means the Jaguars should be in line for a marked improvement. Last year, Jacksonville lost six of its 10 games by a touchdown or less. Assuming that number can be cut down by a stronger defense, are nine wins as crazy as it sounds?
Why we still have questions
Bortles threw 18 interceptions last year, which is a lot. However, many games were placed squarely on his shoulders and something should be said about his willingness to take chances in the fourth quarter (the same thing many people have said about Eli Manning throughout his career). Twenty-six of his 35 interceptions occurred with the Jaguars trailing by eight points or more, and 26 came in either the second or fourth quarters -- so going for it won't be a problem moving forward. This season should definitively tell us which type of trajectory Bortles is on. We're sure the Jaguars would take a Manning-type ascension, which would mean cutting that interception number in half and increasing his completion percentage by a few points over the next two seasons.
On film and in person, there were plays Bortles made last year that defied his age. This helps us put some of his interceptions in context. Flashes during his rookie campaign were a major reason why he was a Making The Leap candidate before last season.
What we need to know
- Will the offensive line take a step forward? The team is taking the pragmatic route with former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel, and likely will begin the season with Kelvin Beachum as their starting left tackle and Jermey Parnell on the right. The emergence of players like A.J. Cann and the movement of Brandon Linder to center should add an interesting blend of veteran experience to the fold and allow the Jaguars to move forward with a group they're more confident in.
- Where does Myles Jack fit? He is projected as a WILL linebacker at the NFL level, though our own NFL Media scouting report listed him as an adept pass rusher in sub packages, too (with the speed to remain on field during nickel situations). The team certainly hopes he'll never have to come off the field, but if he does, who's the odd man out? The team has Paul Posluszny in the middle, bracketed by Telvin Smith and Dan Skuta. Like many rookies, Jack might be eased into action, but if he proves worthy of more playing time it will come at the expense of a good player in Jacksonville's base defense.
- What can we reasonably expect from Fowler? Some analysts (including myself) have thought about projecting him as a double-digit sack player in 2016, but without knowing how the defense will look, we might be getting ahead of ourselves. Scaling back our expectations is important, but Fowler does have the benefit of a pass rush that is much better on paper.