This is supposed to be Jacksonville's season to move up the standings. That move got a lot more challenging on Friday.
No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler's torn ACL is heartbreaking because it came on the rookie's first day of practice as a pro. The season-ending injury also comes as an ominous start to a crucial year for coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell.
This is the duo's third season together, and the Jaguars' roster has finally been remade in their image. After just seven wins in the last two years combined, it was time for the new Jaguars to show they have made progress since the team's darkest days under Jack Del Rio, Mike Mularkey and former general manager Gene Smith.
Fowler's injury will take some air out of the team's offseason optimism. But the organization doesn't want to hear about any curses or their run of bad luck and bad picks at the top of the draft. The team knows that no one will feel sorry for them in November, and that they'll have to find ways to escape the top of the draft again in 2016.
Find a consistent pass rusher: Fowler's injury hurts so much in large part because the dynamic pass rusher and dynamic personality filled the team's biggest need. The Jaguars have the makings of a strong defensive line, especially with Sen'Derrick Marks and free-agent pickup Jared Odrick playing on the inside. Bradley has been able to scheme up a pass rush without a consistent player on the outside who can win one-on-one matchups.
The Jaguars finished sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks, yet what player scares opposing offenses on the outside? Veteran Chris Clemons is likely to step back into the starting lineup now at the team's "Leo" spot, with Andre Branch also in the mix. Free-agent pickup Dan Skuta, who will be on the outside at linebacker, could be asked to blitz more often. Little known defensive end Ryan Davis, who played well in a limited role last year, could wind up having a big role.
Improve the rest of the defense: Jacksonville's secondary has been a problem for a long time. Bradley and Caldwell were dealt a bad hand with Fowler, but it doesn't mean the rest of the defense has to fall apart. This is a group that flies around the field. They should know Bradley's system well by now. In the ultimate team sport, they can make up for the loss of Fowler.
Keep the defense off the field: The team put too much on Blake Bortles last season. He showed a lot of promise despite some ugly stats, but the team drafted T.J. Yeldon in the second round to take pressure off Bortles and the defense. The best way to minimize a diminished pass rush would be to score some points.
Injury will be no excuse: Every team has to deal with devastating injuries, and this one feels more depressing than most. But the Jaguars had a good draft overall, spent a lot of money in free agency, and have had three seasons to implement the vision of Caldwell and Bradley. Both men can't catch a break, and they know they have to prove the team is on the right track this year so they are around to see Dante Fowler's second season.