<
>

All eyes on Jaguars' revamped defense in training camp

play
Offensive line a concern for Jaguars (1:40)

ESPN Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco explains why the offensive line is an area of concern for Jacksonville heading into training camp. (1:40)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars open training camp on July 27 at the practice fields adjacent to EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida. Here’s a closer look at the Jaguars’ camp, which wraps up on Aug. 14.

Top storyline: General manager Dave Caldwell promised to make fixing the defense a priority in the offseason and he kept his word. He signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson and free safety Tashaun Gipson and then used six of the Jaguars’ seven draft picks on defensive players, including cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Add in the return of DE Dante Fowler Jr., last year's first-round pick who missed the entire season after an ACL tear, and the defense is younger and faster. It will take time for as many as eight new starters to fit together and for first-time defensive coordinator Todd Wash to grow into his role as well. The first few weeks of camp will set the tone.

If Blake Bortles doesn’t become a more accurate passer: It will show up pretty quickly in camp. The Jaguars intercepted 12 passes in OTAs. Gipson had one and nearly had two others, and he’s the most important addition the Jaguars made in the offseason. Bortles has completed only 58.7 percent of his passes in his first two seasons and he needs to be over 60. He was concentrating on being better in the short passing game, which will certainly help. If his completion percentage gets better, his interceptions will go down.

Player who will have fans buzzing: Everyone is eager to get a look at Ramsey, who missed all of OTAs and minicamp after undergoing surgery to repair a small tear in the meniscus in his right knee. He’s a big (6-foot-1, 209 pounds), physical kid who runs like a much smaller cornerback (4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine) and has potentially elite one-on-one cover skills. I’m anticipating some pretty intense battles with Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson, which should give us an idea pretty quickly about just how good the rookie can be in 2016.

Position battle worth watching: It’s easily at left tackle between incumbent Luke Joeckel and free-agent signee Kelvin Beachum. How soon that battle develops, however, is a little unclear. Beachum is coming off ACL surgery and may not be fully cleared by the start of camp. He is expected back in early August, though. Some inside the Jaguars’ facility view Beachum as a top-10 left tackle, so Joeckel is going to have to play his best football to hold onto his spot. If he doesn’t, he could be the Jaguars’ left guard -- or possibly even traded.

That rookie should start: Ramsey is the only rookie who should be in the starting lineup -- at least as training camp begins. It will be interesting to see what the Jaguars do with Jack. Right now he’s backing up Paul Posluszny at middle linebacker and will be on the field on third down, but can he overtake Telvin Smith at weakside linebacker? Caldwell said Jack also could play strongside linebacker (what the Jaguars call their otto) because of his coverage abilities. It’ll be interesting to watch how quickly Jack catches up after missing all of OTAs because of the NFL’s graduation rule. He looked lost at times during minicamp, which was expected.

Veteran whose job is in jeopardy: Joeckel is the only significant veteran who could be out of a job in 2016. He has been a starter since the day he was drafted second overall in 2013. However, he has struggled in pass protection, particularly against quicker rushers. Pro Football Focus tagged Joeckel with allowing eight sacks in 2014 but he did play better in 2015. The team says he allowed seven sacks but five came in the season finale against Houston.

Remember him? With all the attention and excitement surrounding the additions of Jackson, Gipson, Ramsey and Jack on defense, it’s easy to forget that the Jaguars are getting another significant piece back. Fowler was one of the most impressive players during OTAs and minicamp. Granted, it’s hard to get a full read on pass-rushers without full pads, but Fowler looked very quick and he was consistently in the backfield. He said he’s not even thinking about his knee and is wearing the brace only as a precaution.

Who’s No. 1? Caldwell said running backs Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon will split carries, but how they will be distributed is yet to be determined. Ivory is coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his career and he looked faster than anticipated during OTAs and minicamp. Yeldon ran for 740 yards as a rookie but was on the field way too much. His 592 offensive snaps were seventh most among running backs and more than Doug Martin (582 snaps), who was second in the NFL in rushing with 1,402 yards, and just 41 fewer than Adrian Peterson (633 snaps), who led the NFL in rushing with 1,485 yards. The early guess is that Ivory gets most of the work on first and second down and Yeldon is on the field for third downs and gets a drive or two each game as the primary back.

What fans will be saying after camp: The Jaguars are contenders in the AFC South -- and not just because the division is terrible. The defense looks significantly better on paper, and though it may take a while for that side of the ball to come together, the changes should result in a middle-of-the-pack unit. That may not sound impressive, but consider the Jaguars gave up a franchise-record 449 points in 2013 and the second-most points in franchise history (448) in 2015. They recorded the fewest interceptions in the NFL (26) and ranked 31st in scoring defense (27.3 points per game), 31st in third-down defense (43.8 percent) and 29th in total defense (375.0 yards per game) over the past three seasons.

For daily updates at camp, check out the Jacksonville Jaguars clubhouse page.