NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Bucky Brooks details his visit with the Jacksonville Jaguars. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
The Jaguars are hosting training camp at the Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields, adjacent to EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. The skies were overcast, but it was ridiculously hot and humid.
1. The Jaguars' offense is lost without Maurice Jones-Drew. The offense -- not surprisingly -- struggled in drills against the first-team defense without MJD in the lineup. The NFL's reigning rushing king -- currently absent while attempting to negotiate a richer contract -- is unquestionably the Jaguars' most explosive offensive weapon, and he sets the table for the unit's complementary players. While he certainly is not the home-run hitter he used to be, Jones-Drew still attracts eight-man boxes, creating one-on-one matchups on the perimeter in the passing game. Without Jones-Drew churning out yardage on the ground or creating favorable matchups through the air, the Jaguars' offense struggled to find a rhythm for most of the day. If this is any indication of how the offense would fare in his absence, the Jaguars would seriously struggle to put points on the board.
2. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert is showing more confidence and swagger in the pocket. After enduring an offseason full of criticism regarding his performance as a rookie starter, Gabbert showed tremendous improvement as a passer in team drills. He looked more comfortable and confident in the pocket, and made better decisions while under duress. Several times while I was there, Gabbert scrambled up the gut or took sacks rather than throwing the ball up for grabs when the pocket collapsed. Such negative plays would hurt the offense in the short term, but Gabbert frequently turned the ball over last season while attempting desperation throws against pressure. Coach Mike Mularkey has harped on the quarterbacks to avoid making big mistakes in the pocket; his young pupil has certainly heeded the message. If Gabbert can continue to improve on his accuracy -- particularly when going to his left -- his second season in the league will be leaps and bounds better than his first.
3. Justin Blackmon needs to get to camp. The Jaguars' prized rookie receiver has been sitting out while squabbling over the final details of his contract, but the lost practice time could significantly diminish his chances of making an immediate impact. Rookie receivers typically struggle with the speed and tempo of the pro game, and those usual struggles will be amplified if Blackmon is uncertain of his assignments. While I certainly understand the importance of fighting for every penny in negotiations, the lingering holdout will hamper not just the start of Blackmon's career but the rhythm and chemistry of the Jaguars' passing game, as well.
4. Don't be surprised if Jacksonville finishes this season with the NFL's top-rated defense. Few recognized the dramatic improvement of the Jaguars' defense a season ago (they finished sixth in total defense after ranking 28th in 2010). Soon, however, the rest of the NFL will learn how tough it is to move the ball against one of the league's stingiest units. Pass-heavy offenses will struggle with the Jaguars' overall physicality, while power running outfits will be overwhelmed by Jacksonville's collective speed and quickness. I was impressed with the front seven. The defensive line, in particular, routinely played on the other side of the line of scrimmage, allowing linebackers Paul Posluszny and Daryl Smith to flow aggressively to the ball. I was also impressed with the physicality and toughness of the Jaguars' secondary, which blanketed receivers in press coverage. Playing bump-and-run should give an improved pass rush more time to harass the quarterback, leading to more turnovers.
5. Mel Tucker will be a head coach within a year. Teams seeking a new head coach after the 2012 season should give Tucker a good look. League circles are buzzing about the work the coordinator has done with the Jaguars' defense since taking over in 2009, and he's impressed outsiders with his attitude, adaptability and attention to detail. Those traits stood out to me over the two practice sessions I watched. Tucker repeatedly and relentlessly emphasized fundamentals, regardless of a player's experience, status or position. He also showed the organizational skills and leadership traits a head coach needs to succeed. Since his arrival in 2009, Tucker has showed off his technical expertise by transforming a downtrodden unit into one of the NFL's elite defenses. It's only a matter of time before he gets a shot to direct a team.
THE NEW GUYS
Laurent Robinson: The Jaguars' marquee free-agent acquisition has gotten off to a slow start in camp. He has not developed chemistry with Gabbert and has struggled to come down with the big catch. Is he ready to be the No. 1 receiver after shining as a complementary player in Dallas? To his credit, Robinson appeared unfazed by the pressure of making that jump. He told me in the locker room that he has not changed his preparation and that he'll work hard to develop a better rapport with Gabbert. For the Jaguars' sake, he needs to become a dynamic weapon on the perimeter, or else the offense will remain a pedestrian unit unable to attack vulnerable areas of passing defenses.
Bryan Anger: Some snickered when Jacksonville expended a third-round pick on a punter, but it seems like it was well worth the investment, based on his performance in practice. Anger repeatedly launched high-arcing bombs with hang times of 4.5 seconds or longer, the kinds of kicks that will lead to numerous fair catches. He also displayed outstanding accuracy and placement on pooch punts, which are designed to pin opponents inside the 10-yard line. The Jaguars are going to rely heavily on defense and special teams to win; Anger will be a valuable weapon in the field-position battle.
Aaron Ross: The Jaguars' secondary needed an infusion of talent and playmaking ability at the cornerback position, and Ross could be the answer. He has extensive experience as a starter over five seasons with the New York Giants, but also spent time playing in the slot as a nickel corner. He is currently battling Rashean Mathis for the starting position at left corner; the loser will get nickel duties. NFL defenses spend 70 percent of the game in sub packages; with Ross, the Jaguars have three starting-caliber corners with the size and versatility to handle the bigger receivers currently dominating the league.
Andre Branch: The rookie pass rusher isn't guaranteed a starting spot at defensive end, but he has certainly impressed thus far. Jaguars coaches lauded Branch's professionalism, physicality and athleticism, and believe he has made major strides since joining the team. Branch has great first-step quickness and movement skills. A non-stop motor will allow him to collect sacks based on extra effort. Branch could provide the Jags with the spark they need along the defensive line.
- As a former member of the Jaguars, I must tip my cap to the ownership group for completely renovating the players' locker room. The Jaguars' new digs are among the best in the league; the décor and lighting are reminiscent of a nightclub scene. Lured by abundant hot tubs and a posh player's lounge, the Jaguars will certainly hang around the facility longer, which bodes well for Mularkey's plan to get them to put in more preparational work.
Darlington: Going for the gold
- Ross will depart training camp for a few days to watch his wife, Sanya Richards-Ross, compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Richards-Ross, who will compete in the 200- and 400-meter sprints, is viewed as a favorite to win a gold medal in the 400. Ross will catch her running in the semifinal and final races of the 400 before returning to Jacksonville for the Jaguars' preseason opener.
The Jaguars will be more competitive than most expect, based on the potential dominance of their defense, which is capable of single-handedly carrying the team to six or seven wins. The offense, however, will need to become more dynamic -- and rely less on Jones-Drew -- if the Jaguars want to surpass the .500 mark.