4. Closer and closer.
We’ll spend this week’s Fabulous Four with an eye on next week’s start of the Jaguars’ 2012 organized team activities – as good a time as any for a roster assessment. With all of the draft and much of free agency behind us, the roster is basically set – and if there was any doubt the Jaguars like where they are, it ended precisely two weeks ago. That was the day the Jaguars selected punter Bryan Anger in the third round, a move later criticized by many. Analyze the selection however you want, and while Anger looked very much worth the selection in mini-camp last week, only performance over time will prove or disprove the selection’s wisdom. But to me, the reasoning behind the selection was perhaps as significant as the selection itself. When on the clock in Round 3, the Jaguars were looking at offensive and defensive linemen with the belief that whoever they took would probably be a backup next season. That’s a benchmark moment for a team that began rebuilding in 2009 and used the draft – at least through the first three rounds – for immediate starters from 2009-2011. Now, if you look around the roster, the starters are set and with few exceptions, they are players to feel good about. As Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith is quick to say, how well the roster has been built will be judged on victories and losses, but for the first time in his tenure, it’s correct to say there’s capable talent at each position – and even some depth, too. That’s a significant step and makes the ’12 season intriguing – and, obviously, critical.
3. The right attitude.
It goes without saying we’ve analyzed the Anger selection from about every angle. At some point soon, it will die down, because there is every indication he’s good enough to be very good very quickly. But I bring up Anger in this forum because one thing keeps coming back after seeing him punt and speaking with him at mini-camp last week – that if there is a guy who appears to be equipped to handle the scrutiny coming his way, he may be it. I spoke to Anger twice over the weekend in on-the-record settings, and by the end of the second conversation, he seemed comfortable with discussing the third-round punter angle. He wasn’t poking fun at the selection, because being a punter, he understands the value of field position. At the same time, he grasped that there were going to be those who made fun of it. He even said he found a satirical article about the selection in the Onion amusing. Overall, the impression you get from Anger is he’s a guy who has been exceptional at what he does for a long time, and takes what he does seriously. He’s not amazed that he’s in the NFL, or to have been drafted. That means he’s not overwhelmed. But neither is he cocky. Mostly, it seems he’s looking forward to being really good for a really long time and he seems willing to keep doing what it takes to do that. And, oh, he also routinely has punts with more than a 5.0-second hang time. In the punter community – and yes, there is a punter community – that’s gold standard stuff.
2. Shaping up.
The makeover continues – and nowhere on the roster has the makeover been more dramatic than receiver. Since the end of last season, the team has added Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans in free agency, Justin Blackmon in the draft and Jerry Sullivan at wide receivers coach. Jarett Dillard, who started at the end of last season, was released last week. Where does that leave the position entering OTAs? There’s a long way to go, and Sullivan is big on not judging before he sees what’s going on on the field, but right now the Jaguars appear to have a Top 5 of Robinson, Blackmon, Evans, Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts – not necessarily in that order, but probably pretty close. Shorts was disappointing last season, but Sullivan likes him a lot and said recently he has been very good and very receptive to coaching. Robinson and Blackmon figure to start, with Thomas right now likely to play the No. 3 receiver role. Evans didn’t look as fast in a recent mini-camp as he did with Buffalo in his prime, but he did look like he can give the Jaguars production at various points of the game. In the Jaguars’ offense next season, that figures to be critical. It’s an offense that from all accounts moves receivers around a lot and tries to create matchups, so who’s listed as the No. 1 or No. 3 receiver may not matter much come game day. Those five don’t necessarily make up the opening-day roster. The team likes Brian Robiskie, and Chastin West performed well at times last season. Sullivan, too, has made it clear that on-field performance is what matters, so there will be more shaking out. That obviously begins in a big way next week.
1. And finally, a word on the quarterback.
This final entry of this feature won’t stay all-Gabbert all-the-time forever, but as long as there’s something to say on this topic this is as good a place as any. There seems to be a misunderstanding these days about Gabbert that’s not his fault. With each addition of a receiver this off-season – first Robinson, then Evans and particularly Blackmon – it has been trendy to talk about Gabbert “being out of excuses.” Gabbert certainly has been criticized more than defended this off-season, but I don’t know that it’s fair to criticize him for making excuses – and in fact, any “excuses” made haven’t come from him. At 22, Gabbert is still very young and inexperienced. He learned a lot last season about quarterbacking and handling the media and probably about a lot of life, things that we’ll never know. At 22, he still has learning to do in those areas. But one thing that has been consistent in Gabbert is he knows there are ways a quarterback behaves. Part of that is being at the stadium on Tuesdays to prepare, which he was last season, and part is learning how to be a leader even when you’re younger than most of your teammates. Gabbert’s actions this off-season indicate he is assuming that role. But a crucial part, too, is knowing that at quarterback, there are no excuses – and if there are, they certainly aren’t voiced by the quarterback. On that front, Gabbert handled his first season and off-season well. As bad as things got for Gabbert as a rookie, he didn’t blame anyone else, and given the opportunity, he didn’t make excuses. Given the same opportunity this off-season, he still hasn’t done it. Criticize him for whatever you want on the field, but to say he has made excuses for what happened is ignoring reality.