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Jaguars appear to have set strong foundation
The Jacksonville Jaguars are back. The days of double-digit losses (six consecutive years) appear to be over for the foreseeable future. The jokes are gone, the losing streaks are gone. With an improvement of seven games from last year's 3-13 club, the Jaguars' 10-6 mark in the regular season was good enough to win the AFC South. Now the challenge is to repeat. It won't be easy with a first-place schedule ahead of them in 2018. But the foundation for years of success has been laid with a youthful defense (only one starter over 29) and an offense that led the NFL in rushing that featured a rookie running back.
There are plenty of positives to build on among both offensive and defensive starters. Quarterback Blake Bortles had his best overall season in four years and could be ready to join the top throwers in the league. He will have the team's best receiver back for 2018 after Allen Robinson missed the whole year with a torn ACL. There is still work that needs to be done on the offensive line and that will be addressed in free agency and the draft.
Ten starters appear set to return on a defensive front that was ranked among the league's best in a number of statistical categories. The Jaguars' run to the AFC Championship Game made this one of the most successful seasons in franchise history. It reunited the team with the community with both sides now looking for, and expecting, a repeat performance in 2018.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Jaguars stayed healthy for the most part. Losing elite receiver Allen Robinson on the third play of the first game for the rest of the season was a crushing blow, but it gave young receivers like Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and Jaydon Mickens a chance to gain valuable playing experience. The defense was remarkably healthy all season, with two starters missing a combined total of just three games. Running back Leonard Fournette was drafted No. 4 overall to bolster the running game and he did just that with a 1,040-yard season to go with nine touchdowns. Blake Bortles finished with his highest completion percentage and had his fewest interceptions in his four years with the franchise. Kicker Josh Lambo was an excellent mid-season pickup and finished the season with only one miss in 20 field-goal attempts.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The Jaguars got off to a slow start and finished with a two-game skid in the regular season. They alternated wins and losses the first six weeks of the season before winning seven of the next eight games to assure themselves a playoff berth. The running game was the league's best, but only because it built such a wide lead in the first eight weeks. The second half of the season, it was pedestrian at best. Fournette's totals dropped due in part to the inconsistent play of the offensive line. The defensive unit was more consistent with fairly solid efforts throughout most of the season, but also faltered down the stretch. A secondary that allowed the fewest passing yards per game (169.9) surrendered 752 yards in the air in the team's last two playoff games.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Wide receiver Marqise Lee. When Allen Robinson went down with a torn ACL in the team's first series of the season opener, it gave Lee a chance to show that he could be a team's No. 1 receiver. Playing in his contract year, Lee failed to show he's worthy of a big extension. He missed two games due to injuries and had five other games in which he caught two or fewer passes. He never had a 100-yard game, topping out at 86 yards. He started out as the team's top punt returner, but lost that job when he had five returns for 13 yards in the team's first four games. A mediocre season will very likely send Lee looking for a new team in 2018.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Blake Bortles. The fourth-year quarterback went from a five-interception performance in one training camp practice and having to win back an open competition for the starting job, to finishing with his most efficient season. In Bortles' first five games, he had just two outings where he passed for more than 140 yards and had three games with a passer rating of less than 65. But he was a different player for most of the next 11 regular-season games and the three playoff games. He passed for more than 240 yards in 10 of the 14 games and finished with over a 60 percent completion mark for the first time. He had 11 games where he did not throw an interception and the Jaguars won 10 with the one loss in the AFC Championship Game. His leadership and command of the offense was better than any of the previous three seasons.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Defensive coordinator Todd Wash. In his second season as head of the defense, Wash gained recognition as one of the top defensive minds in the league, helping the Jaguars finish second in total yards allowed, interceptions, sacks and takeaways. Wash directed a defense that would rarely blitz, instead relying on the solid push of a four-man defensive line that helped register 55 sacks, one behind league-leader Pittsburgh. It was a fairly young group that he guided with six of the starters 26 or younger. The total team package became evident at season's end when four starters on the defense were named to the Pro Bowl team. Another repeat season by the defense and the 49-year-old Wash will be in demand for a head coaching spot.