Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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BLAKE BORTLES: What's wrong with the Jaguars' franchise quarterback?
That question has come up quite a bit this season around the NFL Media office, with the Jacksonville Jaguars stumbling out of the gate to a 2-5 record after being widely hailed as a breakout team heading into the season. Although the preseason optimism was tempered by the questions surrounding a young defense breaking in a number of rookies and second-year players, the Jaguars' high-powered offense was expected to fuel a potential playoff run behind solid play from a talented quarterback with the tools to perform at an elite level.
Not that I regarded Bortles as a "truck" in the quarterback landscape (a QB capable of carrying a team to the winner's circle with limited assistance), but I believed the Jaguars surrounded him with enough talent to allow him to play a highly functional role in the offense. If the third-year pro could manage the game, avoid big mistakes and lean on the team's explosive playmakers on the perimeter, I thought the Jaguars could hit the 10-win mark on the strength of their offense alone.
Remember, this is a unit that features a pair of 1,000-yard receivers from last season (Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns) and an athletic tight end with a knack for putting the ball in the paint (Julius Thomas, who has 32 career touchdowns in just 54 games). Not to mention, he has a pair of rugged runners (Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon) in the backfield with the capacity to churn out hard yards between the tackles.
Thus, Bortles entered the season without an excuse for taking his game up a notch in Year 3. But guess what? Even the best-laid plans can go astray. And the Jaguars' offensive struggles are largely due to the quarterback's spotty performance.
Bortles, who possesses uninspiring marks in completion percentage (60.0), yards per attempt (6.6) and TD-to-INT ratio (12:9), has yet to finish a game this season with a passer rating above 100.0 -- after recording five such games in 2015. On the year, his QB rating sits at a lowly 80.3. He has consistently been inefficient and ineffective as a playmaker, but I'm most concerned about his slow starts. In a league where most play callers script the first 15 plays to help the quarterback get into a groove, Bortles has struggled with his first-quarter production. Since entering the league in 2014, he has thrown just four first-quarter touchdowns in 37 career games. This lack of early scoring routinely puts the Jaguars behind the eight-ball and they are forced to chase points for the rest of the game. Although Bortles rings up nice numbers when operating in catch-up mode -- particularly late in games, having tossed 26 of his 58 career touchdown passes in the fourth quarter -- he is essentially a fantasy football "garbage man" compiling meaningless numbers against prevent defenses.
With that in mind, Gus Bradley elected to part ways with his former offensive coordinator Greg Olson (more on that below) to see if he could spark struggling offense with better play from his young QB1. Nathaniel Hackett will now carry the call sheet after serving as the team's quarterback coach since the beginning of the 2015 season. He certainly will lean on his prior experience as a play caller (Buffalo Bills, 2013-14; Syracuse 2011-12) to bring some fresh ideas to an offense that too often appears stagnant at the beginning of games. Considering his success at Syracuse running a no-huddle spread offense, I would expect to see the Jaguars play with more tempo under Hackett. In addition, I believe the Jaguars could simplify their passing concepts to feature more quicks, screens and isolation routes that allow Bortles to simply "catch, rock and fire" from the pocket.
Remember, Bortles directed a fast-paced spread offense at Central Florida and he has shown promise when playing in the no-huddle with Jacksonville. Bortles has posted impressive numbers when operating at a breakneck pace at the end of halves/games this season: He has a 70 percent completion rate, 4:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 104.4 passer rating in the last two minutes of a half in 2016. Thus, it would be a sensible choice to put him in a no-huddle offense that simplifies his reads and forces the defense into vanilla looks. (Defensive coordinators scale back blitzes and pre-snap disguise against no-huddle teams due to communication concerns.)
Despite the Jaguars' potential tactical changes, the pressure is on Bortles to fix his game and play like a franchise quarterback down the stretch. As the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, he is expected to be a difference maker and must fulfill that promise for the Jaguars to have any chance of turning around their season. Bortles needs to reduce his turnovers (52 career giveaways) and become a more accurate intermediate passer. He misses too many "gimme" throws and those incompletions disrupt the rhythm of the offense.
"Too many inconsistencies to his game," an AFC scout told me. "From his footwork issues to his lack of poise and pocket awareness, he has a lot to fix. ... I don't like his delivery -- he's too quick to scramble and he struggles with his accuracy. Plus, he forces throws into traffic."
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film from Bortles' most recent performances, it's hard to disagree with those critiques. He is not playing well from the pocket and his shoddy footwork/fundamentals have been an issue since he stepped into the league. In fact, I thought he would need some time to grow into a role as a franchise quarterback when I studied him prior to the draft.
While Bortles has grown in certain areas and flashed enough raw potential to still induce optimism about his long-term chances of success, the Jaguars need to see him show progress. And Bortles must deliver some wins soon, or Bradley will see someone else mentor the team's franchise quarterback in 2017.