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Postcard from Jacksonville

Postcard from training camp... Day two - Jacksonville Jaguars

The second leg of my training camp tour was spent with a Jacksonville Jaguars team that saw their season crumble to dust in 2018 - just one year after being a play or two away from reaching the Super Bowl.

The Jaguars came roaring out of the gates with back to back wins over the New York Giants and New England, with the latter being called a 'changing of the guard' game in the AFC. But as injuries and losses piled up, locker room discord took hold and the result was a massively disappointing 5-11 campaign as the adversity proved too great to overcome.

Superstar cornerback Jalen Ramsey admitted to me after a storm-shortened practice on Saturday morning: "We fell apart. It was just a very tough road for us last year - the journey got really tough and we weren't able to combat it."

The Jags may not have been able to halt their slide in 2018, which Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell likened to "falling into quicksand" but they insist they have learned from it and will be fueled by it in 2019.

This time last year, the Jaguars were being hailed as genuine Super Bowl contenders in the AFC. This summer, they are held up as an example of how things cannot just be spoken into existence in the NFL. Simply saying you are a great team does not make you one.

The 2019 Jaguars are no longer in the Super Bowl conversation and Campbell told me that he and his teammates can use that as motivation. These Jaguars may have been humbled slightly by their 2018 crash back to earth, but they still believe in the talent on their roster and now have an opportunity prove their doubters wrong.

The one big difference on this team has been the change at quarterback and the belief in Jacksonville is that the newly-signed Nick Foles will be such an upgrade at the game's most vital position that the Jaguars can make a quick return to the playoffs and to national relevance.

There is plenty of talent on this team. But the Jaguars now need to show they can ride the emotional roller coaster of an NFL season and emerge as battle-hardened contenders. Only time will tell if this sometimes-volatile team can get the job done.

That said, some in their locker room are already convinced a bounce-back will happen. The ever-confident Ramsey stressed: "We're all going to come together and build something super special."

Camp Thoughts

There can be no ignoring the fact that the Jaguars have suffered through some poor play at the quarterback position in recent years. But the answer could have arrived in the form of Foles, who has proven himself to be a playoff demon with the Philadelphia Eagles over the past two seasons. Foles is turning heads early in training camp with his accurate throws, leadership skills and complete command of the offense. Ramsey told me: "He's the best leader we have on this team and he's the best quarterback this city has ever seen." High praise indeed for a man who is only months into his new job. Foles delivered some really nice throws to the likes of Dede Westbrook, James O'Shaughnessy and C.J. Board on Saturday morning and continued his penchant for putting the ball up high for his receivers to go and get it. It's early days, but Foles should be a clear upgrade on the departed Blake Bortles.

Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone is wonderfully old school and there have been times on previous visits to Jacksonville where I have witnessed players running gassers up and down the field as early as mini-camp. But Marrone told me on Saturday that his medical team has studied data and Jaguars players were picking up too many soft-tissue injuries early in previous camps. So Marrone plans to ease his players into the preseason, picking up the pace and intensity over the course of the first 10 practices of the summer. That said, the Jags have physicality in their DNA. The pads were on and when linebacker Myles Jack got underneath Keelan Cole and sent him flying backwards to the ground, things began to take on a familiar Jacksonville feel. Marrone will manage the health of his players through training camp, but they're also not about to start playing pat-a-cake.

The rich got richer in the spring when the Jaguars selected Kentucky pass rusher Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick. There was not a glaring need for another quarterback-hunter in Jacksonville but Allen's pedigree and promise was too great to ignore. Some of Allen's mouth-watering skills were on display on Saturday as the offensive and defensive linemen got into 'the pit' for some one on one battles. Five-year veteran tackle Cedric Ogbuehi simply couldn't cope with the rookie's athleticism and bend around the corner. Ogbuehi false-started a handful of times as he attempted to get a good jump on Allen. And when the pair did go head to head, Allen raced around his veteran counterpart like he was barely there. If Allen can learn at the feet of the great Calais Campbell, he should be an impact player in Florida this season.

One to Watch

Dede Westbrook - Wide Receiver

The widely held NFL opinion is that the Jaguars don't have the receiving weapons around Foles to be truly scary. The belief inside the building is that the receiving corps is going to be just fine. Better than fine, in fact. And one man expected to have a big campaign after a strong offseason is Dede Westbrook, who posted career numbers in his second season with 66 grabs for 717 yards and five touchdowns in 2018. Westbrook turned heads on Saturday with several big grabs, including one leaping effort on a 20-yard in route from Foles that drew some gasps. With Foles at the helm, Westbrook could post his first 1,000-yard season this term.

Quote of the Day

"There is not a comparison, in my eyes. There is nobody who can do what I do for this team. There is nobody who can do what I can do against top receivers in the NFL. There are other good guys out there and I mean no disrespect to them. That's just me having supreme confidence in myself. I'm really that guy - I'm him." - Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey proclaiming himself the best cornerback in the NFL today.

Inside the Game

Doug Marrone went deep into the X's and O's weeds on Saturday as we discussed Nick Foles coming on board as quarterback and John DeFelippo as offensive coordinator. Foles and DeFelippo worked together in Philadelphia during the Eagles' Super Bowl season. It was a fascinating conversation that highlighted one thing quite emphatically - Foles has the firmest of grasps on the offense and such a situation can often result in good things for a team. Marrone told me: "When everyone is trying to catch up to the quarterback you have a chance to be good. But when you're waiting for the quarterback to catch up to everyone else, it's tough."

The Last Word

After a very productive and fascinating day in Jacksonville where I interviewed Marrone, Foles, Leonard Fournette, Campbell and Ramsey, it was off to Houston. And I got a small win by cajoling my way onto a flight that left Jacksonville three hours and 15 minutes than my original departure was scheduled to leave Florida. Those small wins are huge when you're on the road and still on English time. Next up is the Houston Texans and an opportunity to gauge a playoff team from a year ago that definitely feels good about making a serious run in 2019.

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