NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):
-- A bold move by the Chiefs.
-- One college coaching staff drawing a ton of NFL interest.
-- An annual powerhouse that could slide in 2014.
-- And much more, beginning with the potential rise of a long-downtrodden franchise ...
It was then that Gus Bradley started to see that what he and general manager David Caldwell had set out to accomplish some 10 months earlier was starting to take root. Jacksonville was coming off a 42-10 drubbing at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in London, and hitting the midway point of the season at 0-8.
"It'd be easy to come back and say, 'OK, you guys get three days off, then we're going back to work at the end of the week,' " Bradley said, prior to a walkthrough this past Wednesday. "But I really sensed the team was getting better. We were improving each week. So we gave them the week off. And you'd have to ask them, but I think they looked at that and said, 'We're 0-8, but we can see that we're getting better.' That validated everything."
The validation that would come next was modest (a 4-4 finish to the 2013 season) but striking (when compared with the team's winless start).
That's why, when you count teams that are on the rise heading into the 2014 campaign, it's impossible to exclude this resurgent group. Last year, Caldwell and Bradley tore the whole thing down, churning the roster in the way the Seattle Seahawks did when GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll arrived in 2010 -- something Bradley witnessed firsthand as the team's defensive coordinator. The hope is that this Jaguars season will reflect how the club is building itself up.
Few teams -- not just contemporarily speaking, but in recent memory -- have undergone the radical change that the Jags have over the last year and a half. Just seven draft picks remain from previous regimes, and 39 of the 53 players now on the active roster were acquired by the (still) new guys. Only five projected starters (receiver Cecil Shorts III, right tackle Cameron Bradfield, tight end Marcedes Lewis, quarterback Chad Henne and linebacker Paul Posluszny) predate Caldwell and Bradley.
And maybe that's why, in the section of the game notes where most teams have a chart titled "How (Team X) Was Built," Jacksonville has a table that says "How the Jaguars Are Being Built." This is, admittedly, still a work in progress. The difference in 2014? Bradley doesn't need to sell the program anymore. The players have already bought in.
"One common theme, every team has in camp is to just get better every day," Bradley said. "It's almost a cliché. And that's how we talk, but we try to take it to another level. I was in college football for 20 years. And at that level, you have developmental coaches, because it's, This is who we have, and we have to make them better. In the NFL, you can fall into the trap where it's, If we don't like who have, we'll get someone better.
"So we were trying to have that developmental mindset in the NFL: This is who we have -- let's get better."
And that's by design, but the way Bradley sees it, it also puts pressure on the coaches to accelerate the development of the team's youth -- something he saw in Seattle.
"When you look at the really good teams, they're experienced and fast," he explained. "Some teams are experienced and slow, and that's not ideal, or inexperienced and fast. We're still pretty inexperienced, but from last year to this year, we've gotten more speed. We're getting fast. So overall, you look at our team, we have inexperience, but we're faster. For us, the challenge is we're in this race to maturity, to become an experienced, fast team as quickly as possible."
Part of the plan to do that, eventually, will mean getting first-round pick Blake Bortles on the field.
That just isn't happening now, not even after the rookie quarterback aced the statistical (32-of-51 passing for 521 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions -- a 110.0 QB rating) and eye tests during the preseason. On one hand, Bradley says, "It's hard to learn to swim reading a book." On the other, while acknowledging that Bortles is a Henne injury away, Bradley is stressing development with his young signal-caller.
"With Chad, we're looking at it and (saying), Here's a guy that has experience and, with another year in the system, is playing faster," Bradley said. "We've got a guy that's experienced and playing fast, and that's what we want. Blake's got inexperience, but he's really progressing fast, and there are so many learning opportunities for him playing behind Chad."
The plan going forward is to feed Bortles a limited number of first-team reps in practice -- in addition to his scout team work -- to keep pushing his development. Meanwhile, he'll continue the individual work with offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch in trying to become more of a passer where he's been a thrower, and more of a quarterback where he's been a football player.
Therein, Bortles will deliver what Bradley wants from all of his players: to have them constantly compete. To that end, the coach has pointed out to the team what that word -- compete -- meant 200 years ago. It wasn't to fight against another competitor. It was simply about someone striving to be his best.
Billick: Round 1 QBs must be ready
Brian Billick says first-round QBs -- like Blake
Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater -- should start from Day 1. **READ**
And when he looks back to 0-8 now, that foundation being laid is what he remembers and is one reason why he feels so good about what's ahead -- starting with Sunday's road game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"It was a great learning experience for me," Bradley said. "It challenges your conviction, it challenges your ability to be consistent and make sure you're the same guy. The challenge is not to get out of whack -- where this week, you're doing this, and next week, you're doing that. It's important to have conviction."
It's clear the Jags do.
Chiefs betting heavily on Alex Smith
A big question going into this past offseason was how contract-year quarterbacks Alex Smith, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick would be handled, with no existing template for a B-level contract at the position.
Dalton and Kaepernick seemed to give us an answer with new contracts that limited their respective teams' risks (by including low guarantees and built-in escape hatches) and provided upside for the players (through incentives based on team success). And then, last week, Smith blew up that model. If he's on the roster next March -- a near certainty -- then he'll receive at least $45.2 million of the $75.5 million he signed for (59.9 percent).
"You don't make a commitment like we did without doing homework," Dorsey said from his office on Wednesday. "He is everything our research showed. When you're around him on a day-in, day-out basis, you see what he does, not just on the field, but in the locker room. Guys galvanized around him. You could see it and you thought, This is the guy. This is the guy to take the guys forward."
Here's a snapshot of Smith's deal:
2014: $18 million signing bonus; $1 million base.
2015: $11.9 million base (guaranteed), $100,000 workout bonus.
2016: $14.1 million base (guaranteed next March), $100,000 workout bonus.
2017: $10.8 million base, $2 million reporting bonus, $500,000 workout bonus.
2018: $14.5 million base, $2 million reporting bonus, $500,000 workout bonus.
Cap numbers: $4.6 million (2014), $15.6 million (2015), $17.8 million (2016), $16.9 million (2017), $20.6 million (2018).
The rough translation: You can essentially lock in Smith as the Chiefs quarterback for the next three years. After that, they can move on. The reporting bonuses create decision points for the club. If they cut him in early 2017, when he'll be 33 years old, the Chiefs will carry $7.2 million in dead money. If they cut him in early 2018, that figure drops to $3.6 million. Those numbers are manageable and afford the team control to make a call at either point.
Remember, too, that Dorsey comes from the Ron Wolf school of developing quarterbacks, as does coach Andy Reid. So it makes sense that they'd continue to draft quarterbacks, as they did in May with fifth-round pick Aaron Murray. Best-case scenario is Smith wins and wins big, and the club develops valuable commodities behind him (like what the Packers did with Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell and Aaron Brooks and Reid's Eagles did with A.J. Feeley and Kevin Kolb). Or the team could find Smith's eventual heir.
"That's an important position, you can't have enough good, young players there," Dorsey said. "Now, I do have principles on it, and I was taught by Ron, so it happens to be that one of those is on multiple-quarterback development."
For now, though, the Chiefs are excited to have Smith locked up. The way Kansas City sees it, even at 30, there's still an upside for the former No. 1 overall pick, since Smith's career was so sideways for so long (eight offensive coordinators in nine years). And Dorsey says that by the end of last year, he could see growth in the quarterback's willingness to be more aggressive, a sign Smith was reaching another level of comfort.
"He's more willing to push it down the field, and the accuracy is starting to show," Dorsey said. "That shot down the pipe in the playoffs to Donnie Avery was a great example. He's always been able to read coverages, make proper decisions, and I think he's starting to show a little more."
Jay Gruden still settling into new role in D.C.
Seven new head coaches will make their debut on Sunday, with four of them leading an NFL team for the first time. And while it's still football, and it's still coaching, the head job isn't nearly the same as the gigs that came before.
Jay Gruden actually does have head coaching experience to draw upon, having led the Arena League's Orlando Predators for nine years and the UFL's Florida Tuskers in 2010. But even that, along with three seasons as Marvin Lewis' offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, isn't enough to completely calm his nerves going into Sunday's road opener vs. the Houston Texans.
His biggest fear: disorganization.
"You want your team to look and feel prepared going in," Gruden said during a recent day at Redskins Park. "There are so many things that can happen in football -- Oh god, what if this happens. I've had a tendency, sometimes, to worry about the worst-case scenario. What if this or that happens? So you try to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenarios. It should go pretty smoothly. We're prepared in all three phases, and the guys are ready to roll. But you just never know what the hell could happen."
One of Gruden's veterans, free safety Ryan Clark, told me Wednesday that the new coach's biggest strength is that he understands players -- maybe partly because Gruden was one, a quarterback who spent most of his time in the Arena Football League and World League -- and he's been able to build a trust where he allows players freedom in exchange for commitment.
That, of course, is a skill that can be built as a coordinator. So, too, is the ability to design an offense and call plays, something Gruden will continue to do as a head coach.
The challenge, Gruden thinks, will come with multitasking those areas of comfort with the new responsibility of managing 53 guys and a staff on game day. To prepare, he's put in some fail-safes. One is in his willingness to delegate responsibility -- if he's needed in areas outside the realm of the offense -- to coordinator Sean McVay.
"I just think it's the total attention to detail in all three phases," Gruden said. "When you're a coordinator? I don't watch the defense or the special teams -- I'm down there looking at the pictures and thinking about the next series coming up. As a head coach, you have to be into every situation in all three phases, and that sometimes can take away from your planning on offense going into the next drive, because you have to be honed in. That's why you have to rely more on the offensive coordinator."
Harrison: Power Rankings, Week 1
1) Houston Texans throwing darts. It's fair to compare what Houston is doing at QB to how Seattle approached the position for years. Carroll and Schneider cycled through a number of moderate-investment options (Matt Hasselbeck, Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst, Matt Flynn) before nailing it with a third-round pick in 2012 (Russell Wilson). Similarly, the Texans invested a little cash in Ryan Fitzpatrick, a fourth-round pick in rookie Tom Savage and a sixth- or seventh-round selection (depending on playing time) in Ryan Mallett, whom they recently acquired from the New England Patriots. This strategy allowed the Seahawks to build up the roster around the quarterback position. The Texans are trying to do the same thing. Now they just have to find the right guy. And while we're there, when I was working last month on my longform quarterback story ("Searching for the next great QB"), I asked O'Brien if there's an essential quality he needs in the position. Here's his answer: "Intelligence. And it takes a while (to know). It's not something that happens overnight. Is a guy coachable? Can you teach him a concept? And can he go out and apply it on the practice field, and then in games? Is he a leader? A guy that's hungry about leading the team and learning the offense and sitting in the front row and taking notes. A good communicator."
2) Kevin Sumlin's name isn't the only one rising in NFL evaluators' minds.Last week's flourish by the post-Manziel Texas A&M offense was enough to catch everyone's attention -- and remind folks that NFL opportunities have been and will continue to be out there (if the performance keeps coming) for Sumlin. And that's true even when considering the $5 million buyout any team would have to pay to get him out of his Aggie deal before the end of the 2016 season. But the show put on by Kenny Hill and Co. also drew attention to 29-year-old offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. I got two unsolicited texts from NFL scouts during the South Carolina game raving about the young play-caller, both because of his ability to run an offense and the swagger he brings to the sideline -- "He has it in spades," said one of the evaluators. So what does it mean? Well, it's similar to what you heard about Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn back when he was in the same position at Florida. Quinn landed back in Seattle last year and is likely to top some NFL search lists in the winter. It's not crazy to think Spavital could do the same at some point down the line, too.
3) Oakland Raiders QB decision months in the making. On the surface, it seems like Derek Carr's emergence in Oakland was sudden -- he finished the preseason with a bang, as Matt Schaub was nursing a sore elbow -- but the truth is that some in the organization saw this one coming from a mile away. Early on, Carr showed learning ability, natural intelligence and arm talent to the point where, by the end of May -- just weeks after he was drafted -- the Raiders thought: a) he would push Schaub, and b) he didn't need a redshirt year. And, of course, both came true. On the other hand, several evaluators pointed out to me that Schaub's arm strength seemed to decline last year; his mistakes appeared to be a result of not driving the ball to spots like he used to. The good news for the Raiders on the backup front comes in the presence of Matt McGloin, who showed well in the preseason and has won the confidence of the coaches.
4) Bad signs for EJ Manuel? The Bills' announcement of team captains this week revealed a fairly surprising omission: the starting quarterback. How rare is that? Last year, 26 of the league's 32 teams elected captains. Twenty of those 26 had quarterbacks among them. Of the six exceptions, five (Browns, Jaguars, Vikings, Raiders, Buccaneers) made big changes at the position this offseason, with four drafting a signal-caller within the first 40 picks, and the fifth (Tampa) signing a new starter. The Bills are the only team that stood pat. So it's worth noting, without question, that Manuel didn't win the players' vote. But when I asked a veteran offensive coordinator if he'd be worried if he was in Buffalo, he answered, "Not (if the quarterback) is a young one or an inexperienced one (like Manuel) or there was already an alpha dog on offense. ... I'd be worried about EJ, but not because he's not a captain." For the record, the Bills' offensive captains will be tailback Fred Jackson and center Eric Wood.
1) If you look closely, you'll see Michael Sam's indoctrination to the NFL has had its benefits -- despite the fact that he was released by the team that drafted him. Learn from Jeff Fisher, Gregg Williams, Mike Waufle, Chris Long and Robert Quinn in St. Louis. Then go to a place -- Dallas -- where playing time is available for anyone who can help a suspect defense.
2) Real football junkies will keep an eye on the trenches in the New England-Miami game. Both teams have questions to answer at the inside line positions on each side of the ball.
Two college players to watch Saturday
1) Oregon QB Marcus Mariota (vs. Michigan State, 6:30 p.m. ET, Fox): Mariota would've contended to be the top quarterback taken in the 2014 NFL Draft had he chosen to leave Oregon after last season, so he's at the top of a lot of lists going into the 2014 campaign and looking ahead to the 2015 draft. Still, coming from the Ducks' spread, he's a projection for most NFL offenses, and so the chance to see him against a defense like Mark Dantonio's smothering group will be worth the trip for scouts. One AFC college scouting director said he'll be watching how Mariota "handles their pressure. ... They have the ability to rush out of different looks -- four-man, five-man. ... I just want to see him throw (in those conditions) with accuracy into tight windows." This tape, no doubt, will be one of the first that NFL people pop in when they look to study the Oregon QB.
2) USC DE Leonard Williams (at Stanford, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder made a laundry list of All-America teams as a true sophomore in 2013 and comes back as one of the most feared defensive players in all of college football. In the second week of this season, he'll meet his match: 6-foot-7, 316-pound Andrus Peat, the next in an impressive recent line of dominant Stanford linemen. The left tackle is also a true junior. So this should be a great chance to see how Williams matches up against a tough, relentless offensive lineman. Another AFC college scouting director calls Williams "a Richard Seymour type -- big and athletic" and says he'll be looking for "consistent effort and pass rush" from the Trojan phenom.
That standard will be a little harder to maintain this fall.
Harrison: Week 1 predictions
With the 2014 season upon us, Elliot Harrison unveils an upset-rich slate of picks. Who will be shocked in Week 1? **READ**
The Niners made it through the Alex Boone holdout. But they'll be without Aldon Smith for nine games and NaVorro Bowman for at least six and have suffered significant attrition in the secondary over the last two years. What does all of this mean? There will be more pressure on recently rewarded quarterback Colin Kaepernick. And you better believe that, absent a contract extension, the Harbaugh rumor mill will fire up once high-profile college coaches start getting fired and will keep going until the NFL hiring cycle is spinning.
Asked if he thinks San Francisco could slide back this year, one rival NFC pro director answered, "I believe so, (because of) the noise, and the age of the roster."
But the volume of landmines in front of the 49ers feels more significant this time around. At the very least, it'll provide a stiff test for the sturdy foundation the team has built in Santa Clara.