by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Hold on for a moment, Jacksonville fans, it’s a little too soon to be getting so giddy after a couple of preseason wins.

Admittedly, the 2012 campaign has started in an encouraging manner for the Jaguars, who have won their first two exhibition games over top-shelf Giants and Saints teams, both in exciting fashion, for new HC Mike Mularkey. The bigger news from Jacksonville’s camp remains the holdout of RB Maurice Jones-Drew, although some Jags fans are regarding the early success as an indicator that the team can survive okay without Jones-Drew in the fall.

Moreover, word is that the team believes its negotiating position with Jones-Drew has been strengthened by the preseason performances, which have included encouraging performances by RBs Rashad Jennings and Keith Toston in Jones-Drew’s place.

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Our warning to Jacksonville fans, and new owner Shad Khan: play this game of contract chicken for as long as you’d like with Jones-Drew, but don’t dare think your team will be as strong without him in the fall. Khan, in particular, has drawn a very definitive line in the sand with Jones-Drew, refusing to negotiate on a new contract.

The battle lines for a protracted holdout have been set for a while, but the Jags are kidding themselves if they believe they can succeed without Jones-Drew this fall because of a couple of preseason wins.

On the plus side, those early efforts vs. the Giants and Saints have been encouraging, and the lanes figure to be more clear in the new order of the AFC South, where Peyton Manning no longer roams for the Indianapolis Colts, and the Houston Texans enter 2012 as the defending division champs after reaching the playoffs for the first time in their history a year ago.

Thus, the division seems ripe for another team to make a breakthrough. Yet, early preseason success or not, we’re hardly convinced the Jags are ready to make that sort of leap into contender status.

Las Vegas oddsmakers are hardly convinced, either. Despite the early preseason success, Jacksonville is still rated as one of the longest shots on the NFL board. Odds to win the AFC South remain a hefty 22/1, and the prices really go off the charts regarding the AFC title (100/1) and Super Bowl (200/1). Which, in truth, not even the most-fanatical Jags fans are considering as a possibility for their team this fall.

Most Nevada wagering outlets also have the Jags’ season-win total at a very modest five.

Jacksonville certainly tried to change its recipe in the offseason after last year's dismal 5-11 mark that finally cost HC Jack Del Rio, after 8 ½ seasons in charge, his job late in the campaign. That downturn had prompted the sale of the team by original owner Wayne Weaver to the aforementioned Kahn, a colorful, mustachioed character who has become the new “face” of the franchise (much to the delight of TV cameras, getting a kick out of all of the mustache disguised on fans at EverBank Field, the old Gator Bowl).

Kahn is well aware that the Jag popularity has dipped in recent years, forcing a tarpaulin to cover many seats at EverBank and reduce the capacity for TV sellout purposes. Kahn would of course rather open up all of the seats and get true sellouts at home, which in recent years have been limited to special games and Monday nighters which often (but no more) featured the Peyton Manning-led Colts.

Kahn’s first order of business was finding a new coach after d.c. Mel Tucker (who has been retained by the new regime) kept the Jaguars together down the stretch in 2011 following Del Rio’s ouster. Kahn, however, seemed to have made an uninspired choice in longtime NFL offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (left), a respected assistant and most recently the Falcons’ o.c. but a failure in his previous head coaching stab a few years ago with the Bills.

Those early preseason successes, however, have at least provided an encouraging start to the Mularkey regime.

And in truth, the Jags were looking for a coach with offensive credentials to revitalize a moribund strike force that finished last in NFL passing (2179 yards) and total offense (259.3 yards pg) a year ago. Mularkey at least has those sorts of chops, and has enlisted respected offensive assistants Bob Bratkowski (the new o.c) and Greg Olson (the new QB coach) to aid the renaissance.

That reboot, however, must start at the QB position, which has proven a problem area in recent years.

Second-year ex-Missouri Tiger Blaine Gabbert (right) showed hints of progress as a rookie QB, but the jury remains out on Gabbert as a bone fide NFL leader, and Mularkey toyed with the idea of going in a different direction in the offseason. Bringing Tim Tebow back to Florida was a popular topic of discussion. Instead, ex-Dolphin Chad Henne was added as veteran cover should Gabbert regress in his sophomore season.

The passing game was a focus in the offseason, as Mularkey upgraded the receiving corps by adding two established NFL playmakers, Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans, along with Oklahoma State rookie Justin Blackmon, a high first-round draft choice (fifth) at Radio City Music Hall last April and considered the most-dangerous wideout in the rookie class. Evans, however, proved a disappointment in summer and was released.

Now, can Gabbert get Robinson, Blackmon, and other receiving targets the ball?

Early indicators are somewhat positive despite Gabbert ranking last among NFL starting QBs last year, completing just 50.8% of his passes. Gabbert struggled in almost every offensive aspect as a rookie, with his pocket presence (or lack thereof) an especially-troubling issue.

Mularkey spent much of the offseason tweaking Gabbert’s mechanics. And Gabbert (who is also shorn of the long blonde locks that were derided by some a year ago) has at least looked more confident in the pocket in the first two preseason games, leading a TD drive on the first possession of each contest, and ended up completing 13 of 16 passes vs. New Orleans.

Too early to get excited, perhaps, but at least it’s a nice start.

Meanwhile, rookie WR Blackmon, after a bumpy offseason in which a DUI charge hindered contract negotiations before signing on August 6, finally made an on-field appearance in the Saints game and hinted at bigger things to come when making four catches for 48 yards and a TD (shown at right August 17 at the Superdome) in his debut.

Still, it would be more comforting for Gabbert and the offense to know that the Jags can still feature multi-threat RB Jones-Drew, last year’s NFL rush leader with 1606 yards, which is why the holdout is so disconcerting. Rashad Jennings and Keith Toston (who tweaked a hamstring in the second preseason game at New Orleans), while serviceable, do not offer similar dimensions, so assuming the strike force won’t be hurt by Jones-Drew’s extended absence is pure folly.

Another important factor is the offensive line, which couldn’t stay healthy a year ago and has been banged up in the preseason. But if it can stay healthy, and Jones-Drew ends his holdout, and Gabbert’s encouraging early efforts signal an upgrade at QB, maybe Mularkey’s strike force can indeed show improvement.

There was nothing wrong with last year’s stop unit, which, as mentioned, retains d.c. Tucker. The Jags ranked sixth in NFL defense a year ago, and the platoon kept J’ville closer than it should have been on several occasions, including a near-upset at Pittsburgh, and contributed mightily to the best result of all last season in a 12-7 Monday night shocker over the Ravens.

Nonetheless, the Jags went for defense with four of their six draft picks and made upgrading the secondary a priority in free agency when adding ex-Giant CB Aaron Ross, who will compete with Rashean Mathis (right, vs. Carolina last September) for the first-string spot on the left corner.

The secondary appears to be one of the strong points of the stop unit, as is the LB corps, where all three starters (Daryl Smith, Paul Posluszny, and Clint Session) return.

If there are a few questions, they might be on the defensive front, where tackle Terance Knighton suffered a severe eye injury in an altercation at a nightclub (why do these guys keep on getting into this sort of off-the-field trouble?) and was sidelined for most of the offseason. After returning to active duty in summer, Knighton has found his starting role occupied instead in preseason by C.J. Mosley. Defensive end Tyson Alualu (left, causing a fumble vs. the Ravens last October). is also coming off knee surgery, and his progress must be monitored as he missed the early preseason games as a precautionary measure.

The Jags at least made sure to re-sign DE Jeremy Mincey, and it is safe to say that Jacksonville is probably not going to lose many games because of Tucker’s stop unit.

We’ll also be curious if any offensive upgrades alter the “totals” pattern of the Jags that was not surprisingly “under” (11-5) a year ago.

Summary...The AFC South looks more wide-open these days now that Peyton Manning has left Indy, and the opportunity is there for the Jags to take advantage. The defense was playoff-quality a year ago, and the offense, on paper, looks as if it should improve with new brain trust (including HC Mularkey) featuring so many respected attack-end tacticians and schemers. But there remains a question at QB, where evidence of improvement by 2nd-year Blaine Gabbert is still a bit sketchy, and then there’s the holdout of Maurice Jones-Drew, which is becoming a distraction and could have negative consequences if not resolved soon.

Moreover, the jury is also still out on Mularkey as a head coach after his failure in Buffalo. The Jags intrigue, but we’re not ready to consider them a playoff contender just yet until we see if QB Gabbert really is ready to take the next steps...and if Jones-Drew gets back in the fold.


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