2017 NFL Preview: Will the Jaguars' anticipated breakout ever come?

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Jacksonville Jaguars were supposed to break out last season, or at least improve. In Week 1 they played the Green Bay Packers tough, and lost after a bad fourth-down play call in the final minute. They seemed to be on schedule.

“Jacksonville’s going to be a good football team this year. I really believe that,” Fox analyst John Lynch, now the San Francisco 49ers general manager, said as the broadcast ended.

The Jaguars weren’t a good football team last year. This isn’t picking on Lynch. Many believed the Jaguars were on the rise. Instead, they went 3-13.

It’s tough to believe the Jaguars haven’t gotten any better. They keep drafting high. To owner Shahid Khan’s credit, he keeps spending in free agency. And over the last five seasons the Jaguars have won two, four, three, five and three games. Last season was troubling. The Jaguars were supposed to improve. Instead, they were awful.

Typically, if you have a good coach-quarterback combination, you’re in good shape (which makes the New Orleans Saints’ inability to make the playoffs recently tough to figure out, but we’ll talk about them later in this series). The Jaguars can tell you, if you have a bad coach and bad quarterback it doesn’t matter how many other pieces are in place. It’s a death sentence in the NFL.

Gus Bradley wasn’t a good coach. Bradley’s .226 winning percentage is the second-worst in NFL history among coaches with 50 games, and it’s a long way to David Shula in third place, at .268. Bert Bell is the only coach who ranks below Bradley, and his last season as coach was 1941. Khan was patient, which is commendable. Bradley just wasn’t the right coach. He was fired, and Doug Marrone was hired off his staff to permanently replace him. It would have been nice to see Jacksonville get a little more creative with that hire, but we’ll see how it goes.

As for the quarterback, all the Jaguars can do is swallow hard and hope Blake Bortles gets better, or figure out a way to win despite him. Judging by the Jags’ offseason moves, they’re betting on the latter. The drafting of running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall indicates the Jaguars know they have to marginalize Bortles in the offense.

Bortles had a decent stat line in 2015, though it was almost entirely propped up by empty calories in garbage time. While anyone looking beyond the numbers understood Bortles wasn’t great in 2015, he wasn’t terrible either. He was terrible in 2016.

Everything fell apart. Bortles’ mechanics were awful. It was hard to watch him throw the ball. Bortles was winding up like a baseball pitcher most of the season. His production plummeted even though he had good receivers like Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee to throw to. Rock bottom came in Week 15. Bortles completed 12 of 28 passes for 92 yards and an interception against the Houston Texans. The Jaguars blew a late lead and lost 21-20. If Bortles resembled an NFL quarterback in that game, the Jaguars would have won. That was the story of their season.

The Jaguars, with former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin now in charge of football operations, will have a different look this season. Fournette will play the Ezekiel Elliott role, though the Jaguars’ line is far, far worse than the Dallas Cowboys’ line. The defense looks great on paper. Plenty of teams have won through defense and a strong run game. Maybe Jacksonville can too. And maybe taking pressure off Bortles and turning him into a secondary piece, with an occasional big play to Robinson or Hurns, will turn around his career.

When you look at the Jaguars’ roster, there’s no reason they should be this bad, especially in the mediocre AFC South.

“Guys are sick and tired of being below average and not being successful when we feel as though we have the ability to be a good team,” Bortles said, according to Jacksonville.com. “We haven’t been [successful]. It’s time to make a change. It’s not going to happen overnight. You have to do something about it.”

Bortles being a serviceable quarterback is the biggest piece to the Jaguars becoming something more than a double-digit loss team. Time is running out for Bortles to do that.

Blake Bortles slumped in 2016 and the Jaguars went with him. (AP)

Two non-quarterbacks got at least $13.5 million per year in free agency this offseason: Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, both signed by the Jaguars. Last season, only one player got a deal worth more than $85 million total. It was Malik Jackson, signed by the Jaguars. You can’t say Jacksonville isn’t trying. The Jaguars also signed safety Barry Church, traded for left tackle Branden Albert and drafted Leonard Fournette, offensive tackle Cam Robinson and receiver Dede Westbrook, who has a bad off-field history the Jaguars were willing to ignore. Some talent departed this offseason, too. The Jaguars didn’t pick up the option on left tackle Kelvin Beachum, and moved on from cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Davon House, safety Johnathan Cyprien, tackle Luke Joeckel and tight end Julius Thomas. A lot of those players were disappointing, so maybe the Jaguars didn’t lose too much. And if you’re the Jaguars, you have to believe Bouye, Campbell and Fournette – and perhaps a few others – are immediate impact players. Grade: B-plus

The Jaguars keep adding pieces to the defense. Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson are dominant defensive linemen. Telvin Smith, Myles Jack and Paul Posluszny are a potentially fantastic trio of linebackers, especially if the talented Jack breaks out as Jacksonville’s full-time middle linebacker while Posluszny’s role is reduced. Second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey is a future star, and Bouye’s $67.5 million deal was the largest given to an unrestricted free agent switching teams this offseason. Barry Church is a very good in-the-box safety and free safety Tashaun Gipson has the capability of being much better in his second Jaguars season. Pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue had a strong rookie season and maybe there’s still better days ahead for Dante Fowler, the third overall pick in 2015. The defense was solid last season (13th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric), and when you look at the starting lineup it’s easy to envision the Jaguars making the jump to become a top-five defense.

Is Doug Marrone the right man for the job? He was 15-17 in two seasons leading the Buffalo Bills, and it’s hard to get over how he left the Bills hanging when he had a chance to exercise an out clause after the 2014 season. How can the Jaguars trust he’ll be loyal to them? As far as offensive X’s and O’s go, Marrone’s two Bills teams finished 19th and 26th in total offense and 22nd and 18th in points. Maybe this go-around will be different. It’s a small and perhaps meaningless sample but when Marrone was Jacksonville’s interim head coach the final two games, Bortles had two 300-yard games. One of those games was a 38-17 win over the Titans, by far the Jaguars’ best offensive game of the season. Still, it’s not the type of hire that should excite anyone. The Jaguars should be happy if Marrone doesn’t leave them in the middle of the night, like he did to the Bills.

Blake Bortles had his fifth-year option for 2018 picked up, but that isn’t a vote of confidence. That salary is only guaranteed for injury, so the team can move on after this season. Bortles has one more chance to establish himself. Teams repeatedly make their worst mistakes due to desperation at quarterback. Coaches and general managers know that when they start over at quarterback, there’s a good chance they aren’t going to be around much longer. The Jaguars will give Bortles every benefit of the doubt, hoping he takes a significant turn so they have their quarterback going forward. Perhaps the work on Bortles’ mechanics this offseason sticks. But if Bortles plays like he did last season, the Jaguars probably have no choice but to start over. That’s a rough spot for everyone involved to be in.

Leonard Fournette could change the entire outlook of the franchise. It’s an old-school approach to build around a running back. It’s risky to put so much on a rookie’s shoulders. But it might work. Reshaping the offense around the run game was clearly the offseason plan. Fournette was the fourth pick, a huge investment. He’s a physical marvel and a potential superstar. The second-round pick was 322-pound tackle Cam Robinson, who should be a punisher in the run game. The Jaguars didn’t carry a fullback the last two seasons, but signed fullback Tommy Bohanon and drafted fullback Marquez Williams out of Miami (Fla.) in the seventh round. Branden Albert has dealt with injuries, but the former Miami Dolphins left tackle should upgrade the line assuming he’s in the right mindset. Albert has skipped voluntary activities due to displeasure over his contract (and he could easily be the Jaguars’ most important player after Bortles). The Jaguars want to play complementary football, with a strong defense and a physical run game. It will be successful only if Fournette is an instant star.

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Leonard Fournette, the highly touted rookie from LSU is a football Frankenstein of sorts. Pre-Draft, many scouts compared him to generational talents like Bo Jackson and Adrian Peterson. Though he battled through injury last season, his 2015 tape is evidence the hype is real. That year, he led all NCAA backs in yards after contact and forced a missed tackle on 28.3 percent of his attempts.

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“Jacksonville, according to most, is a running back wasteland. Bortles’ persistent wobbly passes and a below average offensive line explain the distrust. However, without much competition for touches and given the Jags’ stout on-paper defense, Fournette is a near lock for 300-plus grips. Suit up 16 games and he finishes with 1,300-1,400 combined yards and 7-9 TDs. He may not be Zeke the Sequel, but he’s worth every penny in Round 2 of 12-team drafts (23.1 ADP, RB11). Don’t fear the unknown, gamer. Follow the volume.”

Four defenses allowed 5 yards per play or better last season: Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks. You might not have put the Jaguars in the same category as those brand-name defenses, but there is some real talent on that side of the ball. And they added Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, who got the two of the three largest contracts of the offseason along with Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon. The Jaguars’ defense suffered from an incapable offense that couldn’t win field position or sustain drives. As a result, the Jaguars were 25th in scoring defense and nobody took note of how good the defense was beneath the surface. But the defense is good, and might get even better if a run-based offense helps out.

CAN ALLEN ROBINSON REBOUND?

Allen Robinson was one of the NFL’s stars in 2015. He had 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. He did all of that at 22 years old. There was nothing fluky about his breakout season.

In 2016, he fell off the map. He had 883 yards and six touchdowns. His yards per catch dropped from 17.5 to 12.1.

“The most frustrating part of [last] year was that I was an improved player coming in,” Robinson said, according to Jacksonville.com. “I was a better route runner, I thought I was creating more separation. Even though the outcome wasn’t there, I knew that.”

Robinson can’t come out and say what happened, which is that Bortles was suddenly incapable of getting him the ball. Bortles is still the quarterback, so what becomes of Robinson? He is a fantastic size-speed receiver and there aren’t many people alive who have posted 1,400-14 in an NFL season. The Jaguars’ new offense isn’t conducive to Robinson putting up big numbers, but volume isn’t what matters most. Robinson’s value will come from his big plays, especially in the red zone. That’s all dependent on Bortles returning to at least his 2015 form. Stay tuned.

The Jaguars have a long way to go. It’s hard to go from 3-13 to playoff contender. However, you can talk yourself into a dramatic turnaround. The defense is really talented. The offense could benefit from Leonard Fournette, and not Blake Bortles, being the focal point. And even though it was in garbage time, Bortles showed two years ago that he can make some things happen. It isn’t a very 2017 way of doing things, but perhaps running more and passing less is the key. And it’s not like the Jaguars play in a tough division. One good reason to believe Jacksonville improves significantly this season: According to Warren Sharp’s strength of schedule metric, which uses Las Vegas’ over/under win projections, the Jaguars have the easiest schedule in the NFL this season.

The defense should be fine, though perhaps a big breakthrough won’t happen. Then there are a lot of potential issues on offense. Leonard Fournette is still a rookie. The line has been a mess, and it might be in real trouble if Branden Albert isn’t happy (or healthy). And we’ve all seen the floor for Blake Bortles. The Jaguars have won 17 games in five years. Everyone knows the downside.

The Jaguars had to be ranked this low. Again: 17 wins in five seasons. And 22 wins in six seasons. But maybe this is finally the year all those additions pay off. It’s incredibly rare to see a three-win team with this many blue-chip players. I’m not sold on Doug Marrone, but he has to be an upgrade over Gus Bradley. If Blake Bortles can just be decent – and that’s a big if right now – this could be the NFL’s most improved team this season. Maybe by the time they play the Baltimore Ravens in London on Sept. 24, which will be streamed on Verizon, we’ll already see the seeds of that long-awaited breakout.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!