2015 AFC preview: Jacksonville Jaguars
From now until the Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their storyline on offense, their storyline on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Jacksonville Jaguars.
THE BIG STORY
What's the next step for Bortles?
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles wasn't really able to be eased in to life as a pro. Thrust into the starting lineup in Week 4, he showed promise at times -- he threw two touchdowns and completed 67 percent of his pass attempts in a road loss to the Bengals -- but he failed to complete 60 percent of his throws in his last four games of the year,
and a 23-17 loss to the Texans in the season finale was arguably his worst game of the season.
The second-year player out of the University of Central Florida will benefit from the addition of free-agent tight end Julius Thomas and center Stefan Wisniewski, but his development will weigh heavy on the shoulders of new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who spent last year in Oakland and helped quarterback Derek Carr have a relatively productive rookie season.
OFFENSIVE STORYLINE TO WATCH
Any reason to doubt Thomas?
The Jaguars should have a more varied passing attack with Thomas in the fold, but there's some question as to whether or not the two-time Pro Bowler was simply a product of playing in an offense run by Peyton Manning.
At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Thomas is a matchup problem for opposing defenses regardless of the quarterback. His talent level is enough to attract plenty of attention in the secondary. The only question is
whether or not the Jags have enough options that defenses won't be able to focus on Thomas and take him out of games.
If Jacksonville's trio of second-year receivers -- Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee -- pan out, Thomas should have plenty of room to get open for Bortles.
DEFENSIVE STORYLINE TO WATCH
Can the Jaguars remain healthy enough to be competitive?
The Jaguars have some talent on the defensive side of the ball. Their problem is that a significant portion of that talent will begin the season in the trainer's room.
In the case of rookie No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, he'll be unavailable all year after tearing his ACL this spring during OTAs. Fowler isn't the team's only pass-rushing presence, but Sen'Derrick Marks (8.5 sacks in 2014) is also recovering from a torn ACL sustained last season. He's expected to return at some point, but it's unclear when he'll be healthy enough to get back on the field.
Linebacker Paul Posluszny should be healthy after tearing a pectoral muscle last season, and free-agent pickup Jared Odrick -- who put up good performances against the Patriots while with the Dolphins -- should fortify the Jaguars front seven, but an injury to either player may be more than this unit can withstand.
THREAT LEVEL: LOW
The Jaguars will visit the Patriots in Week 3, and they should be an improved team from the one that took the field last season given that their quarterback and top receivers are all going into their second seasons. But Jacksonville is a team that's lacking in the secondary and will struggle to match up with New England's weapons in the passing game. (Former Colts safety and Patriots special teamer Sergio Brown could be a starter for the Jags -- Patriots fans will remember him best for when Rob Gronkowski "threw him out of the club" in Indianapolis last season.)
The matchup between the Patriots and Jaguars could have a similar feel to last year's Week 3 contest in New England when an unheralded Raiders team -- led by a young quarterback and a handful of accomplished veterans on defense -- arrived at Gillette Stadium and gave the Patriots a scare.
If something similar occurs this year while the Patriots are working out some early-season kinks, it won't mean that the Jaguars are a real threat to challenge in the AFC. They look like a five or six-win team that will provide their fans some hope for the future but still finish near the bottom of their division and out of the playoff picture.