In the midst of a hold out that began during voluntary offseason activities and will now extend into training camp time, Maurice Jones-Drew is certainly making himself the focus of the media and fans as training camp for the Jacksonville Jaguars opens. A focus that is misguided considering he will not be the most important cog for the team in the month prior to the regular season.
That designation undoubtedly belongs to quarterback Blaine Gabbert who will draw all eyes now that the three-time All-Pro running back wont be standing behind him at camp, at least not immediately. The offseason development of Gabbert, the first round selection of the Jaguars in the 2011 NFL Draft, is absolutely the most important story line to the Jaguars and will heavily influence the team's immediate and distant future.
Regardless of Jones-Drew's impact with the Jaguars, it has been made apparent that even if he leads the NFL in rushing, the team can still be very bad. An extremely poor passing game will always outrank a strong rushing game and create a poor offense. Whereas a strong passing game can absolutely mask a deficient run game, just ask the Green Bay Packers.
Change is abound in Jacksonville
The 2012 NFL season will mark one that will go down in the franchise record books as a turning point of sorts. Even if the Jaguars finish the year 5-11, the exact same mark that they accomplished during the 2011 NFL season, it will still be the first season that the team did so with owner Shahid Khan and head coach Mike Mularkey.
It could be considered the second, third or even, the fourth, era of the franchise, but regardless how one decides to break apart the times of the team, there's little doubt that the 2012 season marks the first year of a new time for the Jaguars.
But as the record books mark the new era, the most tangible change that Khan and Mularkey will bring is a new offensive system that promises to kill the old Jaguars mantra of a ball control, running attack. After serving as the offensive coordinator for a Atlanta Falcons offense that showed immediate returns from Matt Ryan, Mularkey will try to relay that success with a new young quarterback in Jacksonville.
The thing with the Jaguars "quarterback battle" is that there is no battle
With Jones-Drew holding out, those that do attend training camp will be there to see the media-induced "quarterback battle" in camp, where Gabbert will hands down win. In fact, the only way Chad Henne, the new Jaguars backup, wins the job is if Gabbert is somehow extremely terrible and Henne is a world ahead of him.
That is something that wasn't true during the earlier offseason activities and is unlikely to be true during training camp and the regular season. However, if Gabbert is unable to improve at all for the 2012 season it's possible that Henne could take the helm. If he does, though, it is likely at a point in the season at which the team is so buried in the standings that the season no longer carries much merit.
If Gabbert does not improve for the Jaguars and lead the team throughout the year, then the team's 2012 season will be bad. There's little words to be minced on the subject and Henne's impact as the backup will be entirely negligible and insignificant.
Wide receiving corps that can actually play wide receiver
Perhaps the easiest excuse to make for Gabbert's atrocious rookie season were the receiving corps he was given to work with. A group that featured Jason Hill and Mike Thomas as starters never got open for the young quarterback and presented him with no target similar to those that rookies Cam Newton and Andy Dalton received with Steve Smith and A.J. Green, respectively.
Now Gabbert will enter the 2012 NFL season with a re-tooled receiving corps that will feature free agent signing Laurent Robinson and 5th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft Justin Blackmon. While Blackmon is unlikely to reach an agreement on a rookie contract before the team reports to training camp, the development of chemistry between the young receiver and his equally young quarterback will be one of the most important parts of training camp and will be crucial for the team's future.
At the bottom of the depth chart is another intriguing battle, though. With plenty of eye-opening undrafted free agent talent at the position, specifically from Florida A&M's Kevin Elliott and Liberty's Mike Brown, there is certainly a chance that Blackmon won't be the only rookie receiver on the roster.
To make the team, though, Elliott or Brown will have to beat out, or at the very least play equal to, a cast of veterans that includes Mike Thomas, the Jaguars' under-achieving receiver in 2012, and now added Lee Evans, the 30-year old wide out that dropped a game-winning touchdown pass from Joe Flacco in the playoffs for the Baltimore Ravens.
Turning rushers into sackers on the defensive line
The experiment that was Aaron Kampman came to a close during the 2012 offseason, but with 2nd round pick Andre Branch joining the team there is some young talent at the defensive end position that defensive line coach Joe Cullen can work with. Branch and third year DE Austen Lane will be vying to earn the starting position opposite Jeremy Mincey in perhaps the most important of the training camp starting battles.
If any player is primed for a breakout season that would catch the world by surprise, it's definitely Lane. The third year player has done absolutely nothing for the Jaguars as a pass rusher, but making the transition from FCS school, Murray State, can take longer than most and that process was slowed by a torn labrum in 2011.
If he can finally turn the corner in 2012 and become the pass rusher that Gene Smith envisioned when he drafted Lane in 2010 then Branch will be a rotational player without a starting role, the ideal scenario for the Jaguars.
The running back position without the featured running back
Without Jones-Drew taking the top spot on the depth chart at the opening of training camp, that slot will now belong to Rashad Jennings, despite Jennings not taking a single snap during the 2011 season. Jennings, a 7th round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, grew into a strong backup role before an injury derailed that process in 2011.
But entering the final year of his rookie contract, the performance of Jennings in the 2012 season will throw an interesting wrench into the Jaguars negotiations with their disgruntled Pro Bowler, Jones-Drew. If Jennings performs well enough that the team chooses to lock him up long-term, then the likelihood that Jones-Drew stays is likely diminished.
However, if the team allows Jennings to walk in free agency during the 2013 year, then the necessity to keep Jones-Drew in Jacksonville increases ten-fold.
Only complicating things further is the fact that Jones-Drew and Jennings share the same agent, Adisa Bakari. Also represented by Bakari is Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, who's long dispute with the Bears over a new contract finally came to an end in 2012 with a long-term contract for Forte.
Punters are people too...I guess
When the Jaguars selected Bryan Anger with their third round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, it came with plenty of outrage from Jaguars fans. And justifiably so. Making him one of the earliest punter selections in well over a decade seemed like an unnecessary move for the team, or any NFL team for that matter.
But with Josh Scobee locked up for the long-term and Anger now on roster, whether the fans like it or not, the Jaguars have a specialist combination that "should" be one of the league's best.
Training camp will be most fans first opportunity to see the young punter in action. Regardless of his performance, though, he will, without a doubt, be the starting punter for the Jaguars in 2012 and Scobee has a similar lack of competition for the starting kicker spot.
The unaddressed right tackle position
One of the biggest struggles for the Jaguars in the 2011 season was the ability to protect Blaine Gabbert from the right tackle spot. With Guy Whimper consistently struggling through much of the year, it seemed to be a position that would likely be a priority for the Jaguars in the 2012 offseason, but it clearly wasn't a top one.
After addressing the wide receiver, defensive end and even the punter position, Whimper is again the most likely starter for the Jaguars on the right side, barring improvement from a young player like Cameron Bradfield. If Bradfield can improve from his already impressive rookie season in 2011, he may have an opportunity to beat Whimper in camp for a starting role at tackle.
Where the Jaguars also hope to improve along the offensive line is at the guard position where Will Rackley struggled during his rookie 2011 campaign. The talented, versatile athlete from Lehigh just didn't look strong enough to handle NFL defensive tackles at the left guard spot after being selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
After improving in the latter half of the 2011 season and enjoying a full offseason training slate, including OTA's for the first time in his career, Rackley will look to make for a strong nucleus on the offensive line.
The 2012 season is entirely predicated on the ability of Gabbert to grow as a player within the Jaguars offensive system. If he does, and becomes the quarterback that the Jaguars believe he can be, the team is absolutely in good shape and a playoffs contender. If he doesn't the Jaguars will again be in the AFC South cellar.
8-8, 2nd in the AFC South