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Player Spotlight: Blake Bortles

A detailed examination of Blake Bortles' fantasy prospects for 2016.

Regression, Thy Name is Bortles

There are a lot of fantasy football players who abide by the "Late Round QB" mantra. That's a strategy that argues for waiting on your fantasy quarterbacks until the latter part of the draft, with the idea that you can grab one or two quarterbacks who will perform as Top 10 options long after your league mates took their quarterbacks. While this strategy can certainly work, it's become a ridiculously oversimplified strategy that really doesn't represent a competitive edge anymore. The key to winning a fantasy championship is amassing the most total points for the lowest possible cost. In essence, if you draft a quarterback early and they are elite, you're fine. The problem comes from drafting a quarterback early, only to see them fail to deliver elite numbers. Andrew Luck would be last year's poster boy. The antithesis of Luck last season was clearly Blake Bortles.

  • Bortles was the 26th quarterback drafted, on average
  • Bortles finished as the 4th ranked fantasy quarterback

2015 Stats

 
  • 355 completions
  • 606 attempts
  • 58.6% completion rate
  • 4,428 yards
  • 35 touchdowns
  • 18 interceptions
  • 310 rushing yards
  • 2 rushing touchdowns
  • QB4

Impressive Breakout Season? Yes. A New Baseline? No

Bortles' headline numbers were obviously impressive, but the underlying metrics -- which are more predictive -- fell well short of sustaining QB-starter value:
 
  • 31st in completion rate -- Bortles' 58.6% completion rate was near the bottom of the league's qualified starters -- and in-line with his 2014 completion rate. One would've expected a more substantive improvement in accuracy in Year Two as a starter.
  • 4th worst interception rate -- Bortles threw a league-worst 18 interceptions, and was intercepted on 3% of his attempts. The film shows that in spite of the 18 picks, he was actually lucky and could have been intercepted a handful of other times.
  • 7th worst QBR -- Bortles QBR was a paltry 46.4. Two of the quarterbacks who ranked worse (Peyton Manning and Nick Foles) are out of jobs, while it's only a matter of time before another (Sam Bradford) loses his starting role.
  • 9th worst sack rate -- Bortles was sacked a league-worst 51 times on 7.8% of his dropbacks.

There are also statistical outliers in the play-calling that historically argue for regression:

  • 2nd most pass-happy team in the league (68% of plays) -- The Jaguars were uber pass happy not by design, but because the team was always playing from behind. Even a moderate improvement in the ground game and/or defense will normalize Bortles' attempts
  • 3rd highest rate of passing TDs -- 88% of the Jaguars touchdowns came via the pass, which was 3rd most in the league and a rate that few teams can sustain

Will the Running Game Be Improved, Though?

The Jaguars ranked 30th in rushing attempts (354), 27th in rushing yards (1,473) and 29th in touchdowns (5) last season. The team  understands it must have more balance offensively to become a winning team which is why they signed Chris Ivory in free agency. The combination of Ivory and T.J. Yeldon should assuredly be an improvement over last year's injury-riddled Yeldon combined with Denard "I'm neither a quarterback nor a running back" Robinson.
 

What About the Defense?

Let's be frank, if the Jaguars don't improve defensively, Head Coach Gus Bradley will be looking for a new job in 2017. Bradley came over from Seattle as a defensive "guru" yet the team has floundered under his watch.
 
  • 2013 -- 28th in points allowed, 27th in yards allowed
  • 2014 -- 26th in points allowed, 26th in yards allowed
  • 2015 -- 31st in points allowed, 24th in yards allowed
Bradley is counting on a new defensive coordinator -- Todd Wash -- to help turn around the unit. I detailed my thoughts on Wash's hiriing in our look at the Jaguars Coaching Carousel. Even if Wash isn't much of an improvement as a defensive game-planner, the Jaguars personnel is MUCH improved.
 
  • DE Malik Jackson signed to a 6-year, $90 million contract ($42 million guaranteed)-- Jackson was considered the prize of the free agent class on the defensive line and the Jaguars moved aggressively to add him at the start of free agency. Jackson thrived in a 3-4 system in Denver but should transition well to a 4-3 front given his particular skill set
  • DE Dante Fowler is healthy after his lost rookie season -- Fowler was selected 3rd overall in 2015 and was supposed to be the Jaguars' long-sought "Leo" -- the key player in a Bradley/Carroll defense. Fowler never played a regular season down after tearing his ACL in rookie camp a season ago. As a full participant in OTAs, Fowler looks ready to make an impact after a red shirt season
  • S Tashaun Gipson signed to a 5-year, $35.5 million contract ($12 million guaranteed) -- Gipson was a ball hawk for the Browns and should be an immediate upgrade at safety for the Jaguars
  • CB Jalen Ramsey drafted in the 1st round -- Ramsey was considered a Top 3 pick by many, and the Jaguars added him early in the first round to solidify a porous secondary. Ramsey suffered a slight tear in his meniscus in rookie camp, but is expected back in time for the start of training camp
  • LB Myles Jack "stolen" in the 2nd round -- The film points to Jack being a potential once-in-a-generation talent. Concerns about a degenerative knee injury dropped him out of the 1st round, but the Jaguars rolled the dice on the former UCLA Bruin. Jack may be risky as a 5+ year starter, but there's no reason to think he can't be an instant impact defender until (if) his knee problems resurface

Adding five impact starters, all at the start of their careers or in their primes, can go a long way to fixing mediocre coaching.

Regression Risks Aside, the Jaguars Receiving Corps is Compelling

I'll admit that I have some reticence to completely dismissing Bortles this season given the depth of his receiving talent. Allen Robinson emerged as one of the league's top receivers last year. Allen Hurns delivered WR1 numbers in spite of being the number two (and the Jaguars rewarded him with a new contract extension this offseason). Tight end Julius Thomas was a touchdown machine after getting healthy in the second half. Those three are as potent a trio as you'll find in the AFC this year.

The Offensive Line Though...

Our own Matt Bitonti ranks the offensive line 27th entering training camp. This compares to a 13th place ranking last season -- in a year when Bortles was sacked 51 times. If the line is truly as bad at Bitonti projects, Bortles could be sacked more frequently than David Carr when he was with the Texans. If you think Bortles can sustain a Top 5 fantasy pace while getting pounded week after week, you're mistaken.

JACKSONVILLE

    • Preseason rank: 27th. Difference from the end of last season: -14.
    • Run Blocking: C. Pass Blocking: C. Total: C.
    • Projected Starters: LT Luke Joeckel, LG Mackenzie Bernadeau, C Brandon Linder, RG A.J. Cann, RT Jermey Parnell.
    • Key Backups: Kelvin Beachum, Jeff Linkenbach, Luke Bowanko.

For now, Luke Joeckel is the starting left tackle for the Jaguars. In the offseason, he was denied a fifth year option, which is often a sign that a player is on the trade block. The team signed Kelvin Beachum from Pittsburgh to start at left tackle, and Beachum’s contract is not commensurate for a backup player. Still, Beachum is recovering from a knee injury and can use the extra time to strengthen during rehab. Joeckel will be given the first half of season to either lock down the job or audition for the rest of the league. The team has moved Joeckel to left guard during organized team activities and could be planning on that lineup when Beachum returns to full health. Center Brandon Linder is considered a rising young player at the position. Right tackle Jermey Parnell was the line’s most consistent performer last season. But the guard positions are below average. The team signed unexciting journeyman Mackenzie Bernadeau to start at left guard, and hopefully, he will be pushed by Tyler Shatley. Right guard A.J. Cann can make plays in run blocking but is below average in pass protection. The team signed Jeff Linkenbach, who has been a useful utility veteran in his career. Overall it’s an interesting group but lacking any Pro Bowl or All-Pro type of performers. The best lineup probably has Beachum at left tackle and Joeckel at guard but that might be unsustainable in the long term.

Positives

  • Bortles has a dynamic trio of receivers in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and tight end Julius Thomas
  • He's coming off a Top 4 fantasy ranking, so he could regress and still be a fantasy QB1
  • Entering his third season, it's highly unlikely Bortles has peaked from an underlying skills set perspective

Negatives

  • Bortles was the classic beneficiary of garbage time, and the defense and ground game appear much improved
  • Bortles struggled with his accuracy last year in spite of the raw productivity (58% completion rate, 18 interceptions)
  • The offensive line -- which gave up 51 sacks last year -- appears even worse according to our own offensive line expert Matt Bitonti

Projections

YEAR GCMPATTYDTDINTRSHYDTDFumL
2014 JAX 14 280 475 2907 11 17 56 419 0 1
2015 JAX 16 355 606 4428 35 18 52 310 2 5
2016 PROJ-Dodds 16 311 540 3780 30 16 50 280 2 4
2016 PROJ-Henry 16 340 570 4200 31 15 50 310 2 4
2016 PROJ-Wood 16 330 565 3975 27 17 45 255 2 6
2016 PROJ-Tremblay 15 316 530 3822 27 16 54 297 1 1

Final Thoughts

Blake Bortles surprised many last season, and as the 26th quarterback drafted -- he likely helped a lot of teams win their leagues particularly if they got lured into the "Late Round QB" strategy hype. This year, Bortles is going to cost a high pick as a consensus Top 8 fantasy passer. That's far too rich for my blood -- and yours, as well -- because of the inordinately high regression risk. Bortles struggled with his accuracy last year and the film shows as much luck as skill. I'm not saying he's going to turn back into a pumpkin at midnight, but I am saying that he's far better served as a high end fantasy QB2 than someone your plan on starting each and every week.

Other Perspectives

Mike Clay of ESPN agrees with me that Bortles is more bust than boom:

Bortles finished his second professional season with the fourth-most fantasy points at the position. Unfortunately, that's about where this success story ends. Bortles tossed a league-high 18 interceptions and completed 58.6 percent of his passes (which was actually lower than his rookie-season mark). Bortles' success was more about volume and being in the right place at the right time, as the Jaguars called pass 68 percent of the time (second-highest) and scored 88 percent of their offensive touchdowns through the air (third-highest). Defensive improvements combined with the addition of Chris Ivory all but guarantee more reliance on the run in 2016. Bortles is an obvious regression candidate and best-viewed as a QB2.

CBS Sports Heath Cummings also thinks Bortles is a bust:

I wrote plenty about Bortles earlier this year and why he shouldn't be drafted as a starting quarterback. Well, apparently you guys aren't listening. I used a lot of statistical comparisons in that piece but the main point was that Bortles wasn't actually good in 2015 and his Fantasy performance was solely the result of an unsustainable touchdown rate.