Much of the buzz about this year’s NFL draft was around which quarterback would go first in the draft, with familiar names such as Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater in the running up until the tense minutes preceding the Jacksonville Jaguars’ selection.
They went with Blake Bortles of University of Central Florida at the No. 3 pick overall, making him the first quarterback selected in this year’s draft.
The decision saw Johnny Manziel go to Cleveland with the No. 22 pick overall, Teddy Bridgewater to Minnesota with the No. 32 pick overall (last of the first round), and left Jaguars fans with the hope that Bortles would become their long-awaited franchise quarterback.
Given the success several other teams have had in recent history, drafting franchise quarterbacks that have made an immediate difference – Andrew Luck and the Colts, Cam Newton and the Panthers, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, just to name a few – the Jaguars seeming inability to select the ‘right’ player for the position has created a glaring hole in the team’s offense.
The Jaguars’ troubles at the quarterback position have been evident for a while. They are just the second team in NFL history to take two quarterbacks in the top-10 within a four-year span, and their recent history is plagued with failures at the position – Bryon Leftwich, David Garrad and Blaine Gabbert (most recently in 2012). In his rookie season, Gabbert had a 65.4 passer rating, 12-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 40 sacks for a league-leading loss of 293 yards.
But no one really expects Bortles to be NFL-ready just yet.
Decision-making, mechanics and ball control are some aspects of his game that he will need to work on before Bortles’ at the level fans and coaches expect him to be at.
His decision-making issues stem from an overestimation of his own arm strength. While Bortle arguably possesses commendable arm strength, he has shown to encroach upon a gunslinger-style approach while attempting to thread the needle.
Bortles also shows some issues with his footwork – often finding himself throwing off his back foot, a move that greatly affects his throwing accuracy (although 16 interceptions in two years doesn’t seem like a particularly high number).
With nine fumbles during his 2013 season, Bortles also needs to cement his ball control skills. A look at game film found him the ball on the ground more often than not whenever Bortles scrambled behind the line of scrimmage.
With the long way Bortles has before he’s NFL-ready, it’s understandable that critics view the Jaguars’ decision as a risky one.
“Bortles is just gifted enough to be a success story but just flawed enough to become more kindling in some franchise’s bonfire of disappointment,” Mike Manier of Sports on Earth said.
Will Bortles be yet another setback in the team’s search for their franchise quarterback? Or will he be the answer Jaguar fans have been looking for?
A look at the other members of Bortles draft class tells a different story.
General Manager Dave Caldwell has a vision, a vision that might take a while to materialize.
The Jaguars had three picks in the first two rounds, all of which were used to draft players for their offense. Besides Bortles, the team drafted two wide receivers in the second round – University of Southern California’s Marqise Lee at No. 39 overall and Penn State’s Allen Robinson at No. 61 overall.
And with star wide receiver Justin Blackmon’s likely absence this season, it’s clear that the team needs to add some strong offensive arsenal. Fast.
“Keep in mind, Justin Blackmon is indefinitely suspended. The Jaguars aren’t expecting anything out of him,” Mike Mayock. “The Jaguars needed a wide receiver and for Lee to be available at pick No. 39 is a bonanza for this franchise.”
Lee, who recorded 191 receptions for 2,864 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first two years at USC, is largely considered with one of the more NFL-ready receivers in this draft class and could very likely have an immediate impact on the Jacksonville passing game. He was named Pac-12′s Freshman Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 with Oregon’s DeAnthony Thomas and earned the nation’s top honor among receivers with an eye-popping 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns in his sophomore year, while doubling as the Trojans’ starting kickoff returner (28.5-yard average). All this en route to winning the Biletnikof Award, Paul Warfield Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2012.
Lee’s atheism, ability to avoid and navigate around defenders, field vision (his outstanding ability to track the deep ball well) were evidenced in his first two seasons at USC and will likely translate onto the field at Jacksonville.
But 2013 (his final year as a collegiate athlete) saw a massive drop in Lee’s production statistics, and with him still rehabilitating a knee injury the former USC team captain dropped from an easy first-round draft pick to the second-round. Lee’s injury caused him to miss three games, catching a career-low 57 passes for 791 yards and four touchdowns.
While it’s important to note that Lee’s lack of production in his junior season can be largely attributed to poor quarterback play and instability at the coaching level (the team went through three head coaches in that season), his inability to break tackles, and the fact that he was slowed by nagging injuries could be an indication of a body that is not built to withstand a lot of punishment. While Lee’s long-term durability could be an issue, putting a dent in Bradley’s long-term goals, his instinct and football knowledge are irreplaceable, leaving the ultimate determining factor as his ability to stay healthy.
The same can be said about Allen Robinson, the third pick for the Jaguars and the second wide receiver drafted to the team. Talk about how Robinson meets their needs. Robinson’s ability not only to create separation between himself and defenders, and also shake off defenders to pick up yards post-contact, makes him a much-needed addition in Jacksonville.
Critics might argue that the fact that the Jaguars used both their second round picks on wide receivers speaks to Caldwell’s delay in addressing weaknesses in that position, weaknesses that saw Robinson go higher in the draft than would have otherwise warranted. The Jaguars could have used their high draft numbers on linemen such as Gabe Jackson, or centers Marcus Martin and Travis Swanson.
Yet Robinson’s college career speaks for itself. He thrived in the Bill O’Brien-led Nittany Lions offense, finishing with a conference-best 97 catches and 1,432 yards in 2013 while earning third-team All-American honors. In 2012, he set his school-record of 77 catches – passing the likes of former All-Americans O.J. McDuffie and Bobby Engram – making it to the final round of the Biletnikoff Award and was selected to the All-Big Ten first team.
One of Robinson’s best traits is his run-after-the-catch ability. He is very fluid moving with the ball in his hands and either making defenders miss or breaking through tackles. He has great field awareness and is a threat at any level of the field.
Besides being good in the screen game he is also excellent going deep down the field. He has a great ability to high-point the ball, allowing him to out-jump defenders to get to balls.
And the Jaguars should be credited with spotting this rare gem, despite an ‘average’ (slower-than-expected 4.60 second 40-yard dash) showing at the NFL Combine, where certain breakout performances (such as Cook’s) diverted the attention away from Robinson.
However, Robinson still needs time to fine tune his skills. He lacks elite top-end speed, needing double moves to separate vertically. Despite his vertical leaping ability, his timing and tracking are occasionally off – traits that will require more work but will likely improve with time. Robinson will also have to prove that he has the mindset and maturity required to play in the NFL; he was investigated after a first half suspension in the 2013 season opener for “disciplinary issues.”
Unlike Lee and Robinson, Bortles still faces strong competition for the starting job in Chad Hennes who started 13 games for Jacksonville last season, threw for 3,241 yards and 13 touchdowns but had 14 interceptions for the seventh-worst passer rating in the league.
This might be a blessing in disguise; even Bortles’ most arduous supporters agree that he needs time to develop, and is still a far cry from being franchise-quarterback ready.
With Bortles, the sky is the limit. Bortles takes full advantage of his 6-5, 232-pound build, keeping his eyes downfield and using a steady release to avoid having passes swatted. Bortles also moves better than one might expect, recording a 4.93 40-yard dash time. Most importantly for a franchise quarterback, Bortles works well under pressure, as evidenced by his performances at Ohio State and Baylor (BCS Bowl), both tough environments to play in.
But he needs time to grow, a characteristic that seems to mesh well with Jacksonville head coach Guy Bradley’s rebuilding approach.
“We do feel good about where Blake’s at, but we feel like this time that he has under Chad [Henne], a year to develop, will be really good for him in the end result,” Bradley said. “So our plan is to stay really strong with this.”
Some things can’t be taught. Intangibles – confidence, the image of the type of guy you’d trust with a franchise – are qualities that Bortles is easily blessed with.
Field vision and ball tracking are qualities Lee is blessed with. Tenacity and in-game awareness are qualities Robinson is blessed with.
And foresight, the foresight of Caldwell, could very well pay off for the team. In a few years Bortles-to-Lee or Bortles-to-Robinson could be words as commonplace as Brady-to-Moss was in (2007), or Manning-to-Welker was last season.
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