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Sep 11, 2011; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Rashean Mathis (27) reacts during player introductions before a game between the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE

2012 NFL Preview: Jacksonville Jaguars

With 2 divisions down, we’re officially 25% of the way through our NFL Preview. We move back to the AFC how and take on the AFC South, starting with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags are one of the few truly rebuilding teams, so it’s really tough to know what to expect from this team.

Helping me out this time is Luke Sims from Black and Teal.

Biggest Team Need Heading Into Offseason: Wide Receiver/Defensive End hold equal need.  Will they be considered filled just through the draft?  I won’t believe it until I see it.

Key Free Agents Retained: DE Jeremy Mincey, Safety Dwight Lowery, CB Rashean Mathis

Key Player Additions: WR Laurent Robinson (Dallas), WR Lee Evans (Baltimore), CB Aaron Ross (Giants)

Key Players Leaving: DE Matt Roth, WR Kassim Osgood,

Quick Thoughts on Draft: The Jags came away with the best receiver in the draft with Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon.  He should look to start immediately and help Blaine Gabbert fulfill his potential at quarterback.  Second round pick Andre Branch should start as well, or at least be a major contributor.  It’s appearing more and more as though the Jaguars coveted Branch and were more than happy to snatch him up in the second round.  Even with picking punter Bryan Anger in the third round, I think the Jags managed to have a very solid draft with three immediate contributors in Anger, Branch, and Blackmon.

Quick Thoughts on 2012 schedule:  Facing the NFC North will be difficult.  There are really three playoff caliber teams in the division – The Packers, Bears, and Lions.  The Vikings could provide some early confidence for the Jags if they win, though I think the game will be a bit more difficult with Christian Ponder having a full offseason, Adrian Peterson coming back, and Jared Allen ready to punish Blaine Gabbert for lining up behind center.  Of the four NFC North games, I think the Jags walk away with only one win (against the Vikings).  They’ll really have to bring it against the AFC South opponents in order to remain competitive in the league.  Fortunately, the Texans’ roster is rehabbing after being picked apart in free agency, the Colts are still in rebuilding mode, and the Titans are coming on hot but haven’t been very good at sweeping the Jaguars in a season unless the Jags quarterback is playing terribly – Blaine Gabbert better getter better quickly.

Most Interesting Roster Battle: CB Aaron Ross vs Rashean Mathis.  Mathis has held down the outside for years.  He is a wily veteran, still knows how to make big plays, and can direct the secondary better than most safeties.  He’s also been injured.  The Jags signed him to a one year contract laden with incentives and brought in Ross to compete for the starting role.  If Mathis loses the starting spot, I expect him to be gone before or during the season.  But if he wins the starting spot, then Ross provides some excellent depth at a position that had none last year.  Either way, the outside spot will get an upgrade or the entire secondary will.

Biggest Strength Heading Into 2012: The linebacking corps.  The running game did very well against 8 and 9 men in the box all 2011, but it’s really the linebacking corps that kept the team competitive.  They provided fumbles, put on a tackling clinic each game, led the defense on the field and in the locker room, and have managed to be consistent even with major changes last season.  The group was a liability at the end of the 2010 season but has become the core of the defense in one season.

Biggest Weakness Heading Into 2012: The wide receivers.  Maybe they aren’t still a weakness, maybe they are.  They’re certainly the biggest question mark.  The wide receivers were so poor in 2011, the team may as well have played three tight ends that could block and not even filled the position.  Until they prove they know how to use the hands at the ends of their arms and the fingers at the ends of their hands, they will be the weakest unit on the team and maybe the weakest unit in the league.

Biggest Question Still To Be Answered:  Will Blaine Gabbert rebound from a terrible rookie campaign?  It’s almost impossible to predict.  He did much better in the second half of the season last year.  He’s still young, looks young, and acts young.  He was never supposed to start last year and would have benefited greatly from a real offseason.  But how much improvement will translate onto the field?  Will he be able to hit receivers more?  How will his recognition of defensive sets work?  Will he stand strong in the pocket more?  It really all comes back to Blaine Gabbert in 2012, and we won’t really know an answer until the season starts.

2012 Prediction: 8-8 with some much needed development from Blaine Gabbert.

The Jaguars need to figure out if Blaine Gabbert is going to be an NFL QB, but in the mean time this team isn’t completely without talent. Jones-Drew is an under appreciated RB, and the defense has a number quality players including DB Rashean Mathis and almost the entire linerbacking corps. If Gabbert shows some improvement, this team will surprise teams.

At the same time, the Offensive line is porous, the Defensive line has holes and their wide receiving talent is among the worst in the league. So while they might surprise a few teams, they aren’t all that close to competing for the playoff spot.

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Tags: Blaine Gabbert Jacksonville Jaguars Jaguars Rashean Mathis

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