Jaguars camp: Three key goals and top battle

Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last season.Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

By Jeff Elliott, The Sports Xchange
Looking at the Jaguars' priorities

Three goals:

  • Find the right combination of linebackers. Most won't dispute that Telvin Smith, Myles Jack and Blair Brown are the Jaguars three best linebackers. But can they play their position? Smith is the leader of the group, firmly established as the weak-side 'backer and a contender for Pro Bowl honors. The Jaguars tried to make Jack the middle linebacker during training camp last year but after three preseason games, he was moved back to the outside and Paul Posluszny reinserted in the middle. The latter has since retired, meaning Jack has to make it work in the middle this year. There's no one else on the roster that can play there without a significant drop-off in talent. Brown started two games a year ago when Smith was out with a concussion but only recorded four solo tackles and three assists in the two games combined. He will need to produce bigger numbers if he wants to retain a starting spot.

  • Determine who the top two receivers are. Three years ago, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns combined for 144 receptions, good for 2,431 yards. In 2016 those combined numbers fell off to 108 and 1,360. Last season they plummeted to 40 and 501 after Robinson missed all but the first series of the first game and Hurns was out six games with an injury. As a result, the Jaguars elected to move on without either receiver, both of whom signed elsewhere (Robinson with Chicago, Hurns with Dallas). That leaves a lot of uncertainty at the receiver spots. The Jaguars addressed that by signing veteran Dante Moncrief in free agency and drafting DJ Chark in the second round (61st overall pick). But it's last year's two leading receivers who must step up again this year. Marqise Lee (56 catches, 702 yds, three touchdowns) and Keelan Cole (42-748-3) could emerge from training camp as the top two receivers. Speedster Dede Westbrook could also be a factor, giving the Jaguars five players to battle for the three starting spots.

  • Solidify the running game. Wait a minute. How can this be a goal for a team that led the NFL in rushing last year? The answer is that the Jaguars were not a good running team the last half of the season. They had big numbers on the ground in the first 10 games and produced a 160.6-yard average the first 10 weeks of the season. The last six weeks? It dropped to 109.3 per game and that's not anywhere near what the coaching staff is looking for. They want the average to hover at 150 yards a game or higher. It's one of the reasons the team jumped at the opportunity to bring Andrew Norwell on board during free agency last March. The All-Pro guard is expected to shore up the weakness that existed at the left guard spot a year ago. With Cam Robinson emerging as a solid fit at left tackle in his rookie season and the dependable Brandon Linder anchoring the line at the center spot, this should give Leonard Fournette ample running room on the left side of the line. But there remain concerns on the right side with guard A.J. Cann and tackle Jermey Parnell, both of whom are likely in their final year as Jaguars starters.

Top battle:

--Slot cornerback. It's not even a full-time starting position but because the Jaguars employ a nickel package so often (five defensive backs), it's like this is the 11th starter on defense. The past couple of seasons Aaron Colvin has handled the position and has excelled. But the Jaguars weren't ready to commit big dollars to the free agent and he thus took his talents to Houston. As a replacement, Jacksonville signed DJ Hayden who has 26 career starts in five seasons, but only three starts total in the last two years. He'll be pushed by Tyler Patmon. Patmon has only two starts in his five seasons with five different teams and has mostly been used on special teams. But he looked good during OTAs and could be ready to make a run as the nickel back. The Jaguars are looking for one of these two players to be impressive and win the job handily as it's an important part of the team's pass defense.