The Jacksonville Jaguars haven't broken up with Blake Bortles, but they sure seem to be on the way to splitsville. Coach Doug Marrone opened up the team's quarterback competition after a disastrous summer for Bortles, who struggled mightily in practice and looked out of sorts during Jacksonville's first two preseason contests. On Wednesday night, Marrone named longtime backup Chad Henne the starter for the third preseason game, which traditionally sets the starting lineup for the regular season.
At the very least, the Bortles Era in Jacksonville is on life support, just one year after many folks expected Bortles to take a leap toward stardom, with most NFL executives moving Bortles toward the second tier of Mike Sando's QB rankings last year. Now, it looks like Bortles will be riding the pine for the foreseeable future.
What happened? Are the Jaguars right to bail on the Bortles plan? It doesn't make much of a difference for their case in 2017, as the Football Power Index projects them to drop from 6.8 wins with Bortles to 6.2 wins with Henne, but there's far more to this story than Jacksonville's 2017 season. Let's see where the Jaguars went wrong.
The mistake on Blake
While it might seem like Bortles was a promising quarterback who regressed badly from 2016 onward, you don't need the benefit of hindsight to see that the hype surrounding Bortles consistently overshadowed his actual performance. Bortles rose during the pre-draft process thanks to his measurables and arm strength. He looked like the prototypical quarterback, which vaulted him past Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel and all the way to the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, where the Jags selected him after keeping silent about their intentions all offseason.
Bortles excited Jags fans during an impressive debut preseason, but despite the fact that preseason statistics bear little resemblance to regular-season success for highly-drafted quarterbacks, Jacksonville really couldn't wait to push him into the lineup. While the Jags suggested they would be patient with inserting Bortles into the lineup over the summer, it took just three games for Jacksonville to bench Henne and push Bortles into the lineup, where he has started each of the past 45 games for Jacksonville.
Since then, Bortles has been subpar by any measure. Twenty-five passers have thrown 1,000 passes or more over the last three years. Bortles is 24th in completion percentage, 23rd in interception rate, 24th in yards per attempt, and 25th in passer rating, adjusted net yards per attempt and Total QBR. Bortles' mark in the latter -- 46.4 -- is the lowest among those 25 passers by more than four full points.
His peak was unsurprisingly in 2015, when he posted a 55.8 QBR, but even that 2015 season wasn't anywhere near as impressive as some have suggested. NFL players, for one, placed him 56th in their top 100 rankings before the 2016 season, while league MVP Matt Ryan went unranked. Last August, I took a closer look at Bortles' 2015 campaign and saw a quarterback who had been disproportionately effective in garbage time and against the weaker parts of his schedule. Bortles had often been bailed out by his star wideout, Allen Robinson, who regularly won 50-50 balls. Even during his "breakout" campaign, Bortles led the league in interceptions. He threw 35 touchdowns, which was more a product of the Jaguars being terrible running the ball in the red zone than anything else and a figure that was exceedingly likely to decline.
Bortles fell off from 2015 to 2016, but not by quite as much as some have suggested, with his QBR dropping from 55.8 to 49.2. More concerning was the visible mechanical decline. The Jags had originally planned on giving Bortles a redshirt year in 2014 to "fix" his mechanics, but things never got right. He worked with biomechanics guru Tom House during the 2015 offseason, but once the wheels come off in 2016, Bortles looked like no other quarterback in the league. His footwork went south, while his release and arm action turned into a Rube Goldbergian nightmare. The guy who looked like a dream NFL quarterback seemingly turned into Byung Hyun-Kim with the ball in his hands.
The case for Bortles turning things around in 2017 isn't especially strong. He looked better in two games under Marrone's time as interim coach, throwing for 300 yards without an interception against the Titans and Colts to finish out the 2016 season. Bortles went to rebuild his mechanics during the offseason. The Jags made another attempt to upgrade his offensive line by drafting Cam Robinson in the second round and trading for Branden Albert, who promptly tried to hold out and ended up leaving the team without playing a snap.
If you believed that Bortles was a stud prospect all along, perhaps you could squint and count on two games as proof he would turn into the star the Jags drafted in the first round. The majority of the evidence suggested Jacksonville was hoping against hope.
Why bench Bortles now?
Now, half of a bad training camp and two ugly preseason starts later, Jacksonville has changed its mind. The biggest reason is financial. The Jaguars made a partial commitment to Bortles during the offseason by picking up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal, which locks up Bortles under team control for 2018 at a cost of $19.1 million. That $19.1 million offer is guaranteed for injury, meaning that the Jaguars are only really on the hook for that $19.1 million if Bortles gets injured and can't pass a physical next season.
Concerns about the Jaguars being on the hook for that $19.1 million are perhaps a little overstated. Bortles has no track record of serious injury, and while the history of the fifth-year option only runs through the players drafted since the 2011 CBA, no team has yet been stuck with a player in the fifth year of his deal thanks to injury. The Vikings may experience that with Sharrif Floyd this season, while Washington avoided such a problem by sitting Robert Griffin III for the entirety of the 2015 season in advance of his fifth-year option.
It appears the Jaguars might want to do the same thing with Bortles to avoid any shot at paying him out $19.1 million in 2018. If they thought there was any realistic possibility that benching Bortles might happen, there's not a strong case for picking up that fifth-year option, in part because there wasn't much to gain. If Bortles played well, the Jags would have been able to franchise him while paying somewhere in the range of $23 million.
They saved about $4 million next year by assuming both the risk of an injury this season and the inflexibility which might come with a disappointing start to the campaign. While Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell suggested that the Jags were getting a discount by locking up Bortles for two years and $23 million, he was applying multiple logical fallacies and underestimating the likelihood that Bortles' 2018 value would be nil as early as August.
The tunnel vision surrounding young Jaguars had previously been a problem under Caldwell's administration. Last year, the Jaguars created a problem where there wasn't one by locking up wideout Allen Hurns, one of the organization's young building blocks, who emerged as a starter after signing as an undrafted free agent. As a UFA, Hurns still had one year left to go on his rookie deal at $600,000 and could have been tendered as a restricted free agent this year with a first-round grade for $3.9 million. If necessary, the Jags could have then franchised Hurns in 2018 for something like $17 million, meaning that they could have paid Hurns $21.5 million over three years without having to make any guarantees.
Instead, Caldwell handed Hurns a four-year, $40.7-million deal with $16 million guaranteed at signing and $22.9 million due over the first three seasons. With incredible negotiating leverage, the Jags paid Hurns a premium to sign an extension and to get a shot at paying him $17.7 million over the final two years of his contract when Hurns was likely to either play well enough to justify a new deal or poorly enough to earn his release. The logic of rewarding a young player made sense, but the economics didn't fit. Now, a year later, Hurns appears to have lost his job to Marqise Lee and might be on the trading block. The five-year, $51-million deal Brandon Linder got one year away from the center's free agency isn't much more appealing at first glance.
Sunk cost and sinking
While the Jaguars didn't have to decide on Bortles' option until May, it's reasonable to suspect that Caldwell and new executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin knew they would pick up the option in February, before they made their offseason moves. If there was any chance the Jaguars were going to give up on Bortles this quickly -- and clearly, there should have been some chance -- they should have been more aggressive about upgrading behind Bortles at quarterback.
Instead, the Jaguars went back to the well to re-sign Henne, the same quarterback who hadn't been able to keep Jacksonville on the Bortles redshirt plan for more than three weeks in 2014. Henne made a total of $12.5 million to sit on the bench for the vast majority of 2014-'16 and stuck around for 2017 at a cost of $3.3 million. With more than $40 million in cap space even after signing A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell, the Jags didn't make a meaningful run at any other veteran quarterback.
The pickings weren't exactly deep, but Jacksonville didn't look at Brian Hoyer or Ryan Fitzpatrick, each of whom had been more productive for stretches of time in recent years than Henne. Even Josh McCown has looked better. They didn't make a run at a higher-profile option like Tony Romo or Jay Cutler, nor did they go after Chase Daniel when the well-regarded but inexperienced Eagles cut hit free agency. Those guys might not have been any better, but were none of them worth a shot? The Jags stuck with Henne for reasons which seem inscrutable beyond familiarity.
What's worrisome about Henne is that he might not be very different from Bortles. If the Jaguars want a quarterback who will protect the football, Henne hasn't been much better over his career. Bortles has thrown interceptions on 3.0 percent of his passes, but Henne actually tops him with an interception rate of 3.2 percent. Bortles has fumbled more frequently, but Henne hardly has been the sort of game manager the Jags might want to play as a counter to Bortles.
To be fair, neither are most of those would-be veteran replacements. One player who has mostly avoided turnovers over the course of his career, notably, is Colin Kaepernick. The former 49ers starter has thrown interceptions on 1.8 percent of his passes as a pro, including a 1.2 percent rate last season. It's close to the season, and Kaepernick doesn't know Marrone's offensive scheme, but remember that Sam Bradford managed to learn Minnesota's scheme and beat the Packers over the course of 15 days in 2016. There are reasons to be skeptical of Kaepernick's fit in Jacksonville, and I don't think it's likely he'll end up on the Jaguars, but he'd be an upgrade on Henne.
The other alternatives would involve taking on someone else's unwanted passer, and most teams don't really want to trade good quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo's not coming free. The Bills probably can't afford to trade Tyrod Taylor for cap reasons. Kansas City isn't trading Alex Smith before 2018 unless a team makes a ridiculous offer. Even if they were on the market, the Jags probably aren't close enough to contention to pay a price similar to what the Vikings paid for Bradford last year.
The viable options are probably upgrades on Henne, but they're not sure things. It's possible that the Broncos are ready to give up on Paxton Lynch. The Jags could try and make an offer for Mike Glennon given how Mitchell Trubisky (who reminds me of rookie-year Bortles in many ways) has performed during the preseason, and there could be a fit if the Bears are willing to eat some money. Brock Osweiler should be released soon, and the Jags would probably be smart to at least take a flier on his post-Browns career.
The only other backup on the Jacksonville roster is 2016 sixth-round pick Brandon Allen, who failed to complete even 58 percent of his passes at Arkansas. Allen has looked effective during the 2017 preseason against backups, posting a 132.6 passer rating on 22 attempts. He's a developmental prospect, and while Dak Prescott's success last season reminds us that useful quarterbacks can show up late in drafts, the overwhelming evidence suggests he's nothing more than a desperate throw of the dice.
It's fine to have a prospect like Allen as your developmental third quarterback, but he may be one Henne injury away from taking serious reps. If the Jags are really concerned about Bortles' fifth-year option triggering with an injury, the logical move is to keep him on ice and off the field altogether. The fifth-year option also leaves Bortles with no trade value despite the fact that there will surely be another organization interested in taking a shot at rebuilding a former top 5 pick, so the most logical move would be for the Jaguars to cut Bortles in lieu of tying up a roster spot on a player they don't intend to use. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Jacksonville do just that during the cut to 53, signing a player like Osweiler in the process.
The fundamental flaw with Bortles and the Jaguars has not been his mechanics or the struggles of the offensive line or the fifth-year option. It's been the organization's blind spot for him, the thought process from the spring of 2014 that assumed despite any and all evidence to the contrary that he was a franchise quarterback. The Jags turned down two first-round picks from the Bills, who were trading up to grab Sammy Watkins, because they were sure they had found their quarterback of the future. A team with needs up and down the roster passed up a first-round pick that would still have left them in line to grab Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham Jr., or Aaron Donald and the 19th pick in the subsequent draft.
Yet, maybe it's not fair to be harsh on the Jaguars for falling in love with Bortles. They were hardly the only team that felt that way. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, for example, suggested his team compared Bortles to Ben Roethlisberger. It's also true that organizations really don't know as much about finding quarterbacks as we might think; remember that the Cowboys only grabbed Prescott after they failed to trade up for Lynch and had the Raiders beat them to the punch for Connor Cook.
Once an organization picks a guy to be its quarterback, it doesn't have much of a choice beyond hoping that that passer works out. The Jaguars chose Bortles. It took until this week for them to admit that they chose incorrectly.