The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Jeff Darlington visits the Jacksonville Jaguars.
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Baking under the Jacksonville sun, the Jaguars continued to grind into the doldrums of training camp, motivated by the strides that several young players made in 2014. No, the 3-13 record didn't show it. Neither did the numbers. But a lot of the team's youngsters, most notably Blake Bortles, look so much more comfortable this year, which should translate into more wins.
1) It isn't often when a player's offseason progress is so clearly evident in early-August practice, but Blake Bortles, undoubtedly, looks like a better passer entering Year 2. After the Jaguars hired Greg Olson this offseason, the offensive coordinator hooked up Bortles with Tom House, a quarterback guru who has also helped Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Bortles came back to camp with a shorter release, which should help his arm and shoulder better survive the rigors of a full season. In the process, Bortles gained better accuracy, which couldn't have been more apparent at Saturday's scrimmage. Bortles threw two perfectly placed touchdown passes to Allen Robinson and Julius Thomas -- two plays that put Bortles' offseason improvements on display.
2) Last season, the Jaguarsranked sixth in the NFL in sacks, proof that this defense has no issues applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks. But that pressure is supposed to also help yield something else: more interceptions. That wasn't the case in 2014, when the group finished tied for last with only six picks all season. This year, Jaguars coach Gus Bradley is trying to put a priority on making sure his players create more turnovers. The team's first preseason game against the Steelers on Friday will be a nice measuring stick. In the meantime, the Jaguars can at least appreciate this: Cornerback Aaron Colvin, a fourth-round pick from last year's draft, has stacked together a few really solid practices. He looked especially good in Monday's session. Watch out for him to have a breakout year.
3) Olson's offense is getting some great reviews early in training camp. One thing that really stands out: Olson's ability to make the most out of Thomas, Jacksonville's big-ticket free agency addition. For example, by running two-tight end sets with Thomas and Marcedes Lewis, Olson's system is likely to tease defensive coordinators into coming out in base defense. But Olson's scheme allows the offense to exploit that decision by still extending the field vertically, even with two TEs on the field. It's a versatile system that should help Bortles in his second year while also creating problems for the opponent.
Julius Thomas, TE: The Jaguars clearly believe Thomas will help cure some of their offensive woes in 2015, given that they signed him to a five-year, $46 million contract this offseason. And this past weekend's scrimmage provided a perfect example of why. When Jacksonville's defense tried to line up a linebacker on Thomas in coverage, Bortles recognized the obvious mismatch and hit his new tight end for a 14-yard touchdown. After a year when the Jaguars struggled badly in the red zone, Thomas' presence couldn't be more crucial.
T.J. Yeldon, RB: Aside from the question of how much progress Bortles will make in his second year, perhaps the biggest curiosity about this Jaguars group is how the running game will function. More specifically, how will Yeldon fare as a rookie? With Denard Robinson serving as the shifty back capable of making an impact in the passing game, Yeldon is more of an every-down threat that could pay off huge for Jacksonville -- if the rookie can improve in pass protection. Yeldon, a second-round pick, is likely to get extensive playing time this preseason, although a sprained finger could limit his carries in the team's preseason opener.
"We had a real young group last year, so being able to build off that -- that's the biggest thing."
» Man, it is such a bummer that Dante Fowler Jr. tore his ACL right out of the gate. It's feeling more and more like Fowler would have been absolutely huge for this team in 2015 at the all-important Leo position, especially given some of the skepticism surrounding Chris Clemons after the veteran missed the first week of training camp for personal reasons.
» It seemed pretty fantastic when Jacksonville was able to land Marqise Lee with the 39th overall pick last year, but that optimism about Lee from a year ago doesn't seem as palpable right now. Maybe that's because Lee is currently sidelined by a hamstring injury, but it's going to be important for him to hit the ground running as soon as he's back on the field.