USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Lorenzo Reyes looks at the five players who need to take their games to another level if their teams are going to have a shot at making the playoffs this season.
USA TODAY Sports
JACKSONVILLE – How rough has the landscape become for Blake Bortles with the Jacksonville Jaguars?
As players walked off the field after Monday’s midday practice, two fans stood outside of a wrought iron gate holding handwritten cardboard signs.
“Sign Kaep,” read one, a reference to unemployed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“Sign Cutler. Or me,” read another, naming the former Chicago Bears quarterback-turned-broadcaster Jay Cutler.
The duo retreated into the parking lot as soon as head coach Doug Marrone stepped through the double doors that lead into the bowels of EverBank Field, neither immediately getting their wish for a replacement for Bortles, the former first-round pick who finds his career at a crossroads heading into the 2017 season.
Bortles remains entrenched as the Jaguars’ starter, but his future with the franchise that drafted him at No. 3 overall in 2014 could hinge on how he plays this season. The Jaguars picked up Bortles’ option for 2018, but his salary that year is only guaranteed for injury.
With all of the investments the team has made around him, both with two years’ worth of high-impact free agent and draft additions on defense and with pieces like rookie running back Leonard Fournette on offense, Bortles will no doubt be blamed if the Jaguars don’t show significant improvement.
“Either you do it or you don’t,” defensive tackle Malik Jackson told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. “I think he knows that and he understands what he has on the table if he goes out here and has a great year. If you consume yourself with that situation, I know how I was going into free agency, I was like, ‘Oh, I have to do this and this and this.’ Only his mistakes get a little more heightened than mine.”
This training camp has already been a perfect example of that sort of microscope.
Bortles threw five interceptions in the Jaguars’ first padded practice Saturday evening. That heightened concerns that, despite another offseason spent working with a quarterbacks coach to work on his technique, he hasn’t solved his turnover problems. Bortles was tied for fourth in the NFL with 16 interceptions last year and has 51 career picks in three seasons.
Marrone called the turnovers Saturday concerning. As details of Bortles’ very bad night spread on Sunday, so did jokes about déjà vu for the embattled fourth-year quarterback.
Yet teammates were determined to make sure one bad practice wouldn’t derail what they believed had been an otherwise positive start to the preseason. Veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis said he looked Bortles in the eye before the duo left the field and reinforced his confidence in his quarterback.
“I told him, ‘Yo, you’re going to have your best year,’ ” Lewis said Monday. “He’s like, “I know, ‘Cedes. I know. I’m not even going to worry about it.’ That was it. We didn’t talk about the picks. We didn’t talk about (anything). It happened. You can’t take it back.”
That framework made what happened on Monday all the more significant to Lewis and Marrone.
Bortles was nearly perfect in team drills and did not throw an interception in 11-on-11 or seven-on-seven work in a practice that lasted more than two and a half hours. Marrone described it as a “bounce back” type of performance for Bortles, who was not available for interviews following Monday’s practice.
“You see progression in the spring, and a lot of people talk about that, and that’s fine, but then all of a sudden you’re taking a step back. I think with any player, whether it’s the quarterback or anybody else, you become concerned and make sure you evaluate exactly what the issues were, why did they happen and are they correctable?” Marrone told USA TODAY Sports. “If they’re not correctable then you’ve got to make decisions to keep trying to do that, or get that thing out of the system playbook-wise.”
In a best-case scenario for the Jaguars, Bortles wouldn’t be the focal point of the offense. The ideal centerpiece might be Fournette, who will operate behind a rebuilt offensive line that on Monday saw the retirement of veteran left tackle Branden Albert.
“When you’re doing that, you’re controlling a game,” Marrone said of alleviating the pressure on Bortles with a formidable rushing attack. “We want to be balanced.”
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.
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