JACKSONVILLE — Orlando took notice when the Jaguars selected UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, an Oviedo native, with the No. 3 overall pick in May's NFL Draft, but Bortles' selection was merely the next step in a rebuilding process that is entering Year Two under coach Gus Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell.
Jacksonville opened the season 0-8 in 2013, and it was no certainty that Bradley's vision would begin to take hold on the First Coast. But the Jaguars managed four wins in the last eight games of the season, and the franchise has continued to build patiently.
The Jaguars looked to identify some key pieces in free agency. They added Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood to bolster the defensive line, for example, but there has also been a focus on finding a young core through the draft. Over the last two years, draft picks like tackle Luke Joeckel, safety Johnathan Cyprien, Bortles, wide receiver Marqise Lee, wide receiver Allen Robinson, linebacker Telvin Smith, guard Brandon Linder and running back Storm Johnson have generated plenty of excitement around the franchise.
The expectations are tempered in Jacksonville. This is not a franchise that was in position for a quick-fix. That much was clear when the franchise leaders said they intend to bring Bortles along slowly and start Chad Henne this season. But playing in a weak division and with plenty of promising players, there is positive momentum around the Jaguars.
Five players to watch
• Blake Bortles, quarterback: The former UCF passer is now the future of the Jags' franchise, and though they vow to bring him along slowly, the Oviedo native is expected to use his big arm and playmaking ability to pull Jacksonville out of the doldrums of the NFL. Bortles will sit behind Chad Henne to start the season, but the fans are already clamoring for the No. 3 overall pick to take the reins of the offense.
• Allen Robinson, wide receiver: The Jags lack a playmaker on the outside to be a consistent target for Henne or Bortles, and this second-round pick out of Penn State may become the go-to option.
• Luke Joeckel, left tackle: The 2013 first- round pick had his rookie season cut short by injury but will be counted on to shore up the offensive line for the forseeable future.
• Paul Posluszny, linebacker: The middle linebacker had a career-high 162 tackles last season and is the heart of a defense that will be key to any turnaround this year.
• Chris Clemons, defensive end: The Jaguars were one of the worst in the NFL at getting to the quarterback, and the former Seahawks end has 38 sacks in the past four seasons.
Keys to the season
• Much-improved defense: Key additions DE Chris Clemons, DE Red Bryant, DT Ziggy Hood and LB Telvin Smith could spark a big jump from last year's four-win campaign.
• Find a playmaker: With Blake Bortles waiting in the wings, the Jaguars must find a consistent No. 1 receiver.
• Establish the run: The Jaguars must be much better up front in the run game. A healthy Luke Joeckel must be better, and Zane Beadles and Brandon Linder need to play well inside. Toby Gerhart must replace the production of Maurice Jones-Drew.
Three crucial games
• Colts at Jaguars, Sept. 21: After two straight games on the road the Jaguars might be in dire need of a win.
• Jaguars at Titans, Oct. 12: The Jaguars could use a big road divisional win against a rebuilding Titans team.
• Jaguars at Colts, Nov. 23: Many are pinning this as a possible debut for rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.
Three important facts
• Playoffs? The Jaguars made it to the AFC Championship Game in just their second season, but they almost didn't make the playoffs. The Jags won a tiebreaker over the Colts to get into the playoffs.
• Oh, 2007: After making the playoffs in four of the first five season, the Jaguars have been back to the postseason just twice in the last 14 seasons. Jacksonville's last playoff appearance was in 2007.
• Big is better: The Jaguars recently spent $63 million on two giant HD video boards that measure 60-feet high by 362-feet long – the largest in the world. Each board has more than 21,700 square feet of digital canvas.
Some Jaguars to follow on social media:
Twitter: @BBortles5; Instagram @bbortles5 (Blake Bortles)
Twitter: @chrisclemons91 (Chris Clemons)
Twitter: @CecilShortsIII (Cecil Shorts III)
Twitter: @willblackmon (Will Blackmon)
Twitter: @JoshScobee10 (Josh Scobee)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun