There is no way to sugarcoat it -- the NFL offseason is an eternity.
As we are current entrenched in this bone-dry, Sahara-like period of football deficiency, it feels as if the calendar is punishing those of us who dared to lament the lethargic lull between free agency and the draft.
Fans who thought they were merely thirsty for football are now parched -- the only temporary respite being a spattering of small events like next week's mandatory three-day mini-camp and the lone remaining OTA offering accessibility to the media. But these pad-less, contact-free affairs serve only as mirages in the barren desert that is the NFL offseason.
With Patriots training camp dates still unannounced, the only “oasis” officially on the schedule lies more than nine weeks away. The Jacksonville Jaguars travel to Foxborough for joint practices with the Patriots on August 7th and 8th in preparation for their preseason opener on Thursday August 10th.
In an attempt to quench the collective thirsts of two fan bases, bigcatcountry.com’s Zach Goodall (@Zach_Goodall) jumps on board to preview the upcoming joint practices and to provide some perspective from the other sideline.
Surely some of you are thinking that it’s too early for such a preview. You aren’t wrong. But our response to those foes of foreshadowing is a simple one:
Lay off — we need this.
Which positional battle should fans be keeping the closest eye on once camp begins?
I actually highlighted some position battles back before the Jaguars began their organized team activities last week, and realized as I wrote that there aren't many exciting position battles in the Jaguars camp this year. Free agent signings AJ Bouye, Barry Church, and Calais Campbell, as well as first round draft pick Leonard Fournette are the clear cut starters going forward.
However, newly-traded-for offensive tackle Branden Albert has been holding out of practices and hasn't been in much contact with the team since he arrived in Jacksonville. He likely is looking for guarantees to be included in his contract, as he currently has none, and the Jaguars aren't budging. They went on to draft Cam Robinson as the "franchise left tackle", and stated that Albert will not receive any new deal.
TL;DR: Branden Albert wants guaranteed money. The Jaguars don't want to guarantee him money. Someone's going to lose out, and as of right now it looks like Albert is going to lose with Cam Robinson in his way. However, if Albert returns to the team soon, the left tackle competition should be fun.
The Patriots are obviously fortunate to be rolling into camp not only on the heels of a dramatic Super Bowl victory, but also following an offseason that saw the team improve its roster tremendously in the eyes of many of around New England. When scanning over the roster, admittedly it is tough to find the weak spots, but I feel that the most intriguing battle for reps will be alongside Dont’a Hightower in the team’s base defense and in non-”big nickel” sub-packages.
Incumbents Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts will look to hold off Jonathan Freeny, who needs to earn his spot back after landing on IR in 2016, second year man Trevor Bates, and UDFAs Harvey Langi, and Brooks Ellis. As I wrote on Wednesday, my guy feeling is that the winner of this camp battle might not yet be on the roster.
Give us one “headline” and one “under the radar” match up you’re looking forward to when the two teams take reps against each other.
Whoof. I mean, the Patriots are superior to the Jaguars across the board, but it will be fun to watch the Jaguars secondary go against the Patriots top tier passing game.
The Jaguars added cornerback AJ Bouye and strong safety Barry Church to a secondary that already hosts cornerback Jalen Ramsey and free safety Tashaun Gipson this offseason. Former Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor already considers the Jaguars starting cornerback tandem as the best in the NFL.
Super Bowl MVP and the best quarterback in NFL History (in my (correct) opinion) Tom Brady leads a Patriots offense that, after this past offseason, now hosts Brandin Cooks and Dwayne Allen on top of returning Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan, and several other receivers that I need not name: The Patriots offense is going to be elite, again, in 2017.
Under the radar:
Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson vs. new Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore. They had beef two years back in the Jaguars vs. Bills game in London. Gilmore said that "If you watch the film it will you tell you that... He's OK. He's an NFL receiver. Average."
Robinson caught six passes on nine targets for 98 yards and a touchdown in the Jaguars 34-31 win over the Bills, and went on to catch 80 passes for 1400 yards and 14 touchdowns that year, but (insert sarcasm font) sure, he was only average. It will be fun to watch these two go head to head again.
Interestingly enough, Zach’s “under the radar” match up is my “headliner” for the Patriots. His beef with Gilmore aside, the former Penn State standout has amassed 22 touchdowns and over 2,800 yards in his 42 games as a professional, and at 6’ 3’’ 218 lbs, he is the kind of physical specimen that Gilmore was brought on board to handle. The Patriots’ schedule boasts a large slate of big-bodied pass-catchers. To name a few: Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Julio Jones, Keenan Allen, Demaryius Thomas, Amari Cooper, and Michael Crabtree. With a list like that, Patriots fans will love the opportunity to get a look at their new lock down corner.
Under the radar:
The one “under the radar” match up to monitor, and arguably the most important from the Patriots perspective, is how the interior offensive line performs against the the Jaguars’ collection of disruptive interior defenders. Second-year left guard Joe Thuney, right guard Shaq Mason, and center David Andrews, the recent recipient of an extension, struggled at times in 2016 with power and quickness on the interior (see: Whitney Mercilus in the divisional round, Grady Jarrett in SB51).
For guys like Thuney and Andrews heading into the offseason, adding strength was a priority. With Jacksonville’s addition of Calais Campbell to the already productive duo of Malik Jackson and Abry Jones, the Patriots will get the opportunity to identify just how much of a leap the core of their offensive lineman has made.
The player most likely to be on the other team’s roster in 2018?
I'll literally take anyone.
But in all honesty, give me Cameron Fleming. The Jaguars' biggest issue minus the quarterback position (which I have no interest in talking about: Prove me wrong, Blake Bortles) is their offensive line. They have no long term solution at left guard and will enter the 2018 offseason likely in need of a new right tackle, as the inconsistent Jermey Parnell will be turning 32 before the 2018 season.
Fleming has flashed during his time in New England, and is a young (24 as I write this), yet somewhat experienced (35 games/14 starts as I write this) swing tackle who could work his way into a starting right tackle job or competition in Jacksonville in 2018. Gimme ALL the offensive lineman, please.
A proven method of finding potential future Patriots hidden on other rosters is to identify any names who have performed well against New England in the past. One name sticks out right away when skimming over the Jaguars roster. Chris Ivory. One year after signing a free agent contract with $10 million guaranteed, Jacksonville drafted Leonard Fournette, showing just how fast life can come at you in the NFL.
In 6 career games against the Patriots, all while with the Jets from 2013-2015, Ivory totaled 106 carries for 395 yards and a touchdown. It will cost $3.25 million in total dead money over the 2017 and 2018 seasons for the cap space-rich Jaguars to cut bait with the veteran running back.
Cross examination: The biggest evolution you expect to see from the other team in 2017?
Keep tabs on who is sleeping on Derek Rivers now so I can call them out later.
The Patriots got perhaps the steal of the 2017 NFL Draft (LOL of course) in selecting Rivers with the 83rd pick in the draft. The 6-4, 248 lb EDGE is already one of the more explosive EDGE rushers in the NFL, ranking in the 90th percentile with his 6.94 second 3 cone drill, the 88th percentile with his 123 inch broad jump, and in the 74th percentile with his 35 inch vertical jump.
Yes, his college -- Youngstown State -- and size as an EDGE rusher will scare people away (248 lbs, 32 3/4 inch arms, 9 3/8 inch hands), but the athleticism and production (41 sacks) he displayed in college scream potential. I would have drafted Rivers in the first round.
For comparisons sake, remember who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last year? He stood at 6-3, 246 lbs with 32 1/2 inch arms and 9 3/8 inch hands, as well as ran a 6.91 second 3 cone drill, recorded a 130 inch broad jump and a 41 inch vertical at the NFL Combine in 2015. He finished his college career with 30 sacks.
Patriots fans, I think you guys just landed a poor-mans Vic Beasley.
With the addition of Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson, many are looking to Blake Bortles to take the next step forward. But regardless of what happens on offense, the keep to the Jaguars future success will come from their assembly of a potentially special defense — a defense that, from a personnel-fit perspective, could start looking familiar to Patriots fans.
Large, run-stuffing interior lineman? Check. At least one play making linebacker whose speed allows him to make plays others can’t (Telvin Smith is the Jamie Collins of the Jags defense)? Check. Considerable resources invested in a secondary that boasts arguably the best cornerback duo in football? Check.
Something to keep an eye on...
...nine weeks from now.