The Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status.
The pre-tape perception
In speaking with a few assistant offensive coaches at this year's scouting combine, the opinion on Blake Bortles was divided into two camps. The first said he is nothing more than Zach Mettenberger with wheels, meaning that his cannon arm gets more attention than it deserves seeing as it's less practical in game situations. The other camp was simply busy hoping that the Jaguars won't put the time and resources into developing him properly because if they did ... watch out.
Of course, I had my doubts. After watching most of Bortles' snaps this year, I came away with a much bigger appreciation for Denard Robinson than I had in the past. His ability to gain yards with that haphazard offensive line was impressive. In the same vein, I worry that Bortles will use his mobility as a crutch and never truly develop the natural talent he has as a dropback passer (I also worry that he won't shake the occasional pass that looks wobbly enough to have been shot out of a homemade potato cannon). It's hard to be graceful amid a field of land mines. Part of me wishes he was drafted by the Texans.
That being said, he is a prime candidate for Making the Leap because Jacksonville seems intent on giving him more time. They've bulked up the backfield to add more of a functional power element and, despite my initial reservations, have made a wise decision at tight end to bring in a fiery Julius Thomas.
Assuming the Luke Joeckel-is-coming narrative picks up some steam during training camp, we might have a rising star on our hands, or at least a good quarterback that will more consistently look like a good quarterback in 2015.
What we like
Talk to people close to Bortles and they'll note a demeanor largely unaffected by his meteoric rise in college. He's laid back and he plays that way, too.
During his first official NFL snaps in the second half vs. the Colts, Jacksonville called a bootleg pass that ended up causing Bortles to roll into two blitzing defenders who read the play pre-snap. Bortles, though, was athletic enough to reverse field and find his fullback with a beautiful touch pass, turning a potential disaster into a 20-plus yard gain.
We need to be careful for lauding plays like this. I watched Jake Locker do almost the exact same thing against the Steelers last year and in general, it doesn't quite jibe with one of the chief concerns surrounding Bortles during his rookie year: handling pressure.
So why do we bring this up? I think Bortles has the mental capacity to put his rookie season behind him. I think he now has one of the three best offensive line coaches in football, which will certainly help, and I think he'll have a better running game to work with. All of these dominoes falling properly can set us up for our next point ...
The Ben Roethlisberger effect
Mark Whipple, Roethlisberger's rookie year quarterbacks coach, always said that the Steelers star's demeanor was what led him to believe he would be a great quarterback. He was relaxed before games. He was relaxed in the huddle. Whipple also helped design game plans around the rookie.
Bortles has the demeanor, but did not have the luxury of a lightened burden on his shoulders -- and he needed one.
It's a crude comparison to say both have an identical skill set, but let's humor ourselves for a moment. Then, let's look at Bortles' and Roethlisberger's attempts per game during their rookie season.
The fewest amount of balls Bortles threw in a game last season -- 24 against the Colts in a game he did not start -- was just four fewer than the most Roethlisberger threw during his rookie year.
As bad as Bortles was during some games, he was also a sitting duck in obvious passing situations playing on a team that couldn't make very many plays around him.
When he had some time, though, and the game plan was a bit more balanced, he could make plays like this:
Hope for the future
I watched Bortles' opening drive against the Ravens expecting disaster. Instead, I saw a four-yard gain by Toby Gerhart and then a nine-yard gain by Gerhart. Then I saw a nine-yard completion to Cecil Shorts followed by another four-yard gain by Gerhart. After a two-yard run by Storm Johnson, Jacksonville was almost at midfield and had enough success in the run game to earn Bortles some time with a play-action fake on second-and-8.
Bortles rolled out and fired a pass right on the numbers to Marcedes Lewis (the route probably calls for him to be led, but it was still a perfectly-catchable pass). He drops it. The next play, an obvious passing down, brings pressure and a tipped fastball over the middle to Shorts.
This is how so many of his early-game drives went. Gerhart fumbled on the second play of Bortles' first drive as a full-time starter, serving as another example of the uphill climb he faced each week.
In short, he will make the leap once Jacksonville decides to give him a little shove.
The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses Russell Wilson's contract, and the guys list their Comeback Player of the Year candidates. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.