4) Comeback kid. We begin this season-opening Fabulous Four with what many once believed an unlikely Week 1 topic – the re-emergence of Mike Thomas as a major factor in the Jaguars’ offense. It’s no overstatement to say some who follow the team wondered if the fourth-year veteran wide receiver would be around this season, and certainly many wondered if he would play a critical role. Well, in Thomas’ case, the doubters were very wrong. Thomas, like several of the Jaguars’ receivers, struggled at times early in training camp as the team rapidly installed Mike Mularkey’s offense, but once preseason began, he steadily improved. His improvement was dramatic enough he not only solidified his spot as the No. 3 wide receiver, he also led the team in receiving and showed he will be a reliable option for quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Time and again in preseason, it was Thomas open on third downs and time and again, he turned short and intermediate routes into longer gains. “Obviously, you want to make those plays on first and second downs, and there will be games like that, where you’re out there and we’re in three-receivers sets,” Thomas said. “Being able to convert, and being able to do it on a consistent basis, that’s a good feeling. That doesn’t do anything but build confidence. That’s what we practice for, to build that consistency and keep moving forward.” An offense needs three and ideally four legitimate receiving options to be successful, and Thomas’ reemergence gives an offense that had few such options last year a chance to reach that number.
3) A different feel. We’re covering the ins and outs of the matchups and injury reports elsewhere on jaguars.com this week, and we will do so in Fabulous Four much of the year. But in Week 1, we’ll pause a minute to acknowledge a dramatic change that took place around EverBank Field this week. It’s the change from Training Camp/Preseason Mode to Regular Season Mode, and while players talk of the intangibles such as how the speed and intensity of the game increases (hint: it does again in the postseason) you can see the change very tangibly on the practice field. As of Monday, the roster is shorter and the position groups are smaller and suddenly everyone involved realizes that that The Time Is At Hand, at last. It gives the week a sense of urgency unlike anything you feel in the offseason. “You realize these are the guys we’re going to win with this year,” Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “These are the guys we’re going to play with. It’s a smaller group. It’s a more select group.” Posluszny said the change isn’t just in numbers; it’s in the approach of practice, too. “When we’re all on the practice field preparing for an opponent, every rep counts,” he said. “It’s not like training camp where you’re getting three groups of guys going – the ones, the twos and the threes, then you repeat. Now, every reps counts and time is at a premium. That realization comes into play once you get into the regular season.”
2) A defensive focus. If there is an area around the Jaguars that was perhaps overlooked in training camp, it was the defense. The unit ranked No. 6 in the NFL last season, and with focus understandably on a retooled/reconstructed Jaguars offense without its star running back, it was assumed the defense would be fine. The unit showed in the preseason it should be strong against the run. While teams had success there early in games at times, the defense typically got it figured out and controlled quickly. The bigger concern for many observers is the pass defense. Not only is the best corner, Derek Cox, unlikely to play Sunday, Rashean Mathis is returning from knee surgery, so Will Middleton and Aaron Ross are expected to start with Mathis at nickel. Still, key to remember about the pass defense is that in the preseason, the Jaguars played mostly base formations and seldom blitzed. The unit used preseason to figure what it did and didn’t do well, and didn’t show many wrinkles. Finding out what this defense is when it game-plans and fully prepares will be a key storyline early in the season.
1) And finally... a word on the quarterback. He has more help than last year with the addition of Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson. He also has Maurice Jones-Drew back. Finally, he has an offensive line that appeared to pass block better as the preseason continued. Now, Gabbert at last gets a chance to start answering questions for real. While we saw improvement in the preseason, Gabbert and everyone else around the Jaguars knows you don’t answer questions for real until the regular season. He is an offensive captain, and there’s little doubt his teammates – wide receivers included – believe in this guy far more than his critics, which seem to include most national media types. “Blaine has settled in,” Thomas said. “That’s the most important piece, that he’s settled down and taken control of the offense. It’s knowing where he can go and can’t go. He’s playing football. Last year, everything was thrown at him so quick that it was hard for him to adjust. Now, everything’s settled in and having a good time, talking a little noise and being himself. With that, and us having a full offseason, it’s starting to pay dividends.” Indeed it is. Gabbert showed poise in the pocket in preseason, and showed that the fundamental/footwork work he did in the offseason is benefitting him. Now, the games start to count, and fairly or unfairly, every pass and every drop will be instantly scrutinized. That’s the deal, and with that deal, comes pressure. How he handles it remains to be seen, and is critical to the future of the franchise, but here’s the fairest thing to say about Gabbert as he enters the season: Thus far in his Jaguars career, particularly this offseason, he has done everything possible – taken every step to improve, shown every sign of maturity, handled every criticism or moment of adversity – about as well as could be expected. He’s prepared. He’s capable. He has the belief of those around him. Those are all very, very good signs. Now, it’s time to go play.