The 2014 NFL rookie class featured 14 quarterbacks drafted, including five in the first two rounds. A few of those quarterbacks have already tasted some success in the NFL, as Teddy Bridgewater led the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC North title and AJ McCarron having stepped in for an injured Andy Dalton and leading the Cincinnati Bengals to an AFC North title. Conversely, there have also been few which have begun to fizzle out, namely, Zach Mettenberger who was immediately upgraded upon with the selection of Marcus Mariota in 2015 and of course there’s everyone’s all-American, Johnny Manziel being, well, Johnny Manziel. However, two names have stepped up and directly onto our fantasy radar, with up and coming franchises, whose teams are loaded with skill position players. One is Derek Carr, and the other is Blake Bortles. While my colleague, Michael Goins, has already discussed the long term dynasty value of the Raiders’ franchise quarterback, this article will dive into the warm waters of Jacksonville and canvass 2014 third overall pick and second year breakout player, Blake Bortles.
Jacksonville has not accomplished a winning since 2007 and have drafted three different quarterbacks early in the first round since 2003. Although, being a poor team has allowed them to load up on early round picks, even if it has not translated into more winning seasons. Unfortunately for the Jags, they had the distinct misfortune of playing in the same division as Peyton Manning during his prime and now against the ultra-talented Andrew Luck. Over their past four seasons, three of which have been under current head coach Gus Bradley, the Jaguars have netted a 14-50 record. Since 2010, their first round pick has been no worse than 10th overall. Ultimately, for whatever reason, top pick after top pick isn’t equating to winning seasons in Jacksonville. In fact, the fantasy sadist in all of us probably likes it that way. Although Jacksonville won’t likely be winning a division title anytime soon, they have done a great job of surrounding Bortles with a bevy of talented skill position players. However, before we dig into what the future may hold, for our friendly neighborhood Jaguars and their fearless leader, let’s take a trip back and review Mr. Bortles journey to Jacksonville.
The Bort Report
At six-foot-five, 232 pounds, Mike Mayock said that Bortles, coming out of UCF, reminded him of a young Ben Roethlisberger. After redshirting in 2010, he played in 10 games in 2011, completing 68.2% of his passes for 958 yards and six touchdowns. Finally named the starter in 2012, Bortles played in 14 games and threw for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns, against only seven interceptions. His 2013 season earned him AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors, as he threw for 3,581 yards, 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
His final collegiate record spanning 27 starts was 22-5 with two bowl game appearances, both of which culminated in MVP honors. Not to undervalue his running ability, he also rushed for 561 yards and 15 touchdowns during his college career. His NFL.com draft profile stated that he “possesses prototype size and outstanding stature in the pocket to brush off the rush and keep plays alive. Stands tall and delivers the ball in the face of heavy pressure. Keeps his eyes downfield while climbing the pocket,” Sounds very Big Ben-like.
A(Bort)? Retry, Fail.
Being a great college quarterback does not mean much without the right pieces around you in the NFL. Most of the time, a franchise quarterback will be drafted onto a team that lacks weapons at the skill positions, setting up a young signal caller to fail in year one. However, Jacksonville did their best to build a better team around Bortles than their last first round selection, Blaine Gabbert. At running back, Maurice Jones-Drew was old and out of gas and Toby Gerhart never turned into anything special, after he was picked up in free agency. Additionally, tight end, Mercedes Lewis was never consistent enough to be a multi-purposed player at the position. At receiver, with Justin Blackmon’s legal troubles keeping him out of the NFL and Cecil Shorts’ pending free agency, the Jaguars brought in reinforcements which could take Jacksonville to the next level. Or at least bring them into fantasy relevance.
Between the 2013 and 2015 drafts and free agency, the skill position rebuild was on. Along with Bortles, Jacksonville brought in an entire new receiving corps, namely, Marquise Lee and the Allen twins, Hurns and Robinson. They took an offensive tackle with second pick in 2013 in Luke Joeckel, along with a college quarterback turned running back in Denard Robinson. In the 2015 draft, they selected a workhorse running back in TJ Yeldon, out of Alabama and brought in highly coveted free agent tight end Julius Thomas from Denver. The wheels were in motion and the Jaguars were not going to let lack of weaponry be their downfall.
Ultimately, when looking back, the results were not all there in 2014 as Bortles started 14 games in route to a 3-13 season, 3-10 with him at the helm. Injuries, inconsistency, and the lack of experience hit the Jaguars like a ton of bricks, as Bortles was only able to throw for 2,908 yards with 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. The team, as a whole, averaged only 15.6 points per game, last in the NFL. No one expected Jacksonville to be good, but the production at the quarterback position left a lot to be desired for a pick taken that high.
Uncork the Bortle…it’s Bort-y time!
A silver lining was being built as 2015 was a different story for Jacksonville. No, no, they were still bad, finishing 5-11, but they did it with flair! The Jaguars ascended to 14th in scoring and 18th in total yards, unfortunately, their defense worsened, as they allowed the second most points per game in the NFL. While the team did not improve, their fantasy outlook certainly did. Nevertheless, let’s be honest, no one outside of Jacksonville cares about the Jaguars’ record…hell, no one in Jacksonville probably cares either. No, what everyone cares about is competitive, high scoring shootouts that will benefit your fantasy team.
Bortling up the Numbers
Bortles (ADP of QB25), Robinson (ADP of WR30), and Hurns (WR75) were not on many radars before the season started and if you were lucky enough to have one of them you were in good shape, early and often. Even Julius Thomas was not getting the respect he was going to end up commanding, missing the first four games of the season and considered an afterthought, after being viewed as chasing the paycheck out of a receiver heavy wasteland in Denver led by future Hall-of-Famer, Peyton Manning, for the first part of his career. But I digress, Thomas was able to chip in with 46 catches and five touchdowns in his 12 games, finishing as TE19.
However, the real fantasy boon came from Allen-town (Hurns and Robinson). Both receivers produced amazing second year numbers as a duo, combining for 144 catches, 2,431 yards and 24 touchdown catches, finishing as WR6 and WR18, only one of two pairs of teammates in the top 20 among receivers in 2015. As for Bortles, he was the surprise QB of the year, finishing as QB4, and QB2 during fantasy playoffs. He finished with 4,428 yards, 35 touchdown passes and two rushing scores. Not a bad story for someone who is a byproduct of the situation they’re in.
The question will be sustainability and the long term prospect of a quarterback in a pass-heavy system on a bad team needing to rack up possible inefficient stats, to keep their team in games or get them back into games. Although, we have seen it work for players like Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning, until they had defenses around them to make them more well-rounded teams. That may be a long way away, so in the meantime, let’s explore what makes Bortles (and the rest of the Jaguars’ offense) attractive dynasty prospects in the short term.
A Bad Defense = Good Fantasy Offense
Jacksonville lost 11 games and won four of their five by a total of 14 points. Like we mentioned earlier, they gave up the second most points per game and forced Bortles to throw early and often. In his career he has already attempted 1,081 passes, including 606 this season. In 15 of his 16 games, he threw at least 30 passes; four games between 40 and 49, and two games over 50. Again, not the best formula for a winning team, but a necessary evil in order to stay competitive. In 13 of his starts, including 10 of his losses, he threw for at least 200 yards, six of which went for 300 or more. In the long term, nothing good can come of this, as playing from behind makes a team one dimensional and predictable, which in this case, ultimately led to a league high 51 sacks and 23 turnovers (18 INT, five fumbles lost).
Running on Fumes?
A byproduct of playing from behind or forced to keep up in a track meet, is losing any semblance of a running game. Jacksonville totaled five rushing touchdowns, two of which came from Bortles himself. This glaring stat meant that 37 of their 40 offensive touchdowns, or 92.5%, were tied to Bortles. Four of their five rushing scores came from the one-yard line, two were Bortles sneaks. Out of the 31 red zone touchdowns Jacksonville had, 27 were passing touchdowns. From the 5-yard line in, 11 of their 15 touchdowns were through the air. From the 10-yard line in, 21 of them were from Bortles to a receiver. While Yeldon and Denard Robinson combined for 1,004 yards and three scores on the ground, the offensive play call of choice, when it came down to it, was trusting Bortles with the ball in his hands.
Another byproduct of being a bad team is playing a weaker schedule. Outside of divisional foes, teams will play one other division in their conference and one division out of their conference. This means there are two more games on their schedule which match them up with same-place finishers in the other two divisions in their conference. Jacksonville and the AFC South drew the AFC East and NFC South on their schedule in 2015, along with meetings with fellow 2014 third place finishers Baltimore and San Diego. They would also play against their own division six times, which meant games against poor defenses like Tennessee and Indianapolis twice, to go along with New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Miami and Buffalo. Playing weak defenses with a weak schedule is a recipe for inflated numbers, something the Jaguars took advantage of. Next season, finishing third again means games against Baltimore and Buffalo along with the NFC North, AFC West, along with their own division games.
So what does it all mean?
It would be hard to assume Jacksonville, as a whole, is on the up and up. If they were, all three of those factors would likely change and it would mean more games against division champions and wild card winners, a stronger running game and a sound defense, to keep games more efficiently managed. To stray away from Bortles, on the assumption that the franchise will get better and therefore his stock will go down sounds foolish, may make sense. The volume based system and environment they find themselves in may not last forever, but it isn’t going away anytime soon. No one is saying that a winning formula kills off fantasy value for a quarterback, seeing how three of the top five scorers at the position are in their conference title game. We know what we need Bortles to be a productive fantasy player on a bad team. We saw it this year and it was glorious. Time will tell if he will ever be on a good team, but if he is, we need to understand that some things will need to change for him to be productive and by extension, efficient.
1. He needs to learn how to protect the ball. He has had 35 interceptions and six lost fumbles in two seasons, an average of 20.5 turnovers per year. That is a recipe for disaster if volume were to significantly drop.
2. He needs a better offensive line or his health will become a factor. He has been sacked 106 times in two seasons, while leading the league both times.
3. Jacksonville needs to utilize the run more, which will open us the play-action, making the offense more well-rounded and not so predictable. His success on a good team will be tied to how much the run compliments the passing game, while not becoming situationally predictable.
4. Jacksonville will need to become a winner because of him, not despite him. His 8-22 record over his first two seasons makes you wonder if he is the long term solution at quarterback, or if they are in the situation they are in because of his poor play, and not the other way around. Look no further than their last first round choice at quarterback, Blaine Gabbert. Another negative outcome may be reeling him in and turning him into more of a manager. This would take away the big play opportunity, to keep the games close and dampen his fantasy production potential. For those owners looking to acquire or draft Bortles now, after this seasons production, could find that he is the next Alex Smith, which would be a nightmare and not to mention, horrible investment.
Sorry to cut this BORT (terrible pun, sorry)
In redraft formats, Bortles is a surefire top-12 option at the position, given the short term outlook, the skill players around him, and their upcoming schedule. While, in dynasty leagues, his value is as high as it could be and represents an excellent sell situation, for someone reeling at the position. In the same breath, if you own him, he’s also worth holding onto to see if he develops into a consistent producer. In the end, the jury is still out with only a 2-year sample size, but all arrows are pointing up, as long as, the Jaguars remain bottom dwellers. That just means fantasy gold for us fantasy fanatics.
Thanks for reading. You can find me on Twitter @MVtweetshere.