Receiver Justin Blackmon's four-game suspension for substance abuse makes the Jacksonville Jaguars' already-ugly quarterback situation even more muddled.
The Jaguars made clear with their draft selections this year they're investing in shifting their offensive identity to that of a pass-first unit. Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, taken with the second overall pick, is an athletic prospect with phenomenal pass-blocking technique, but completely lacks the size and strength to be an asset when run-blocking.
In the later rounds, Jacksonville drafted South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders and Michigan utility player Denard Robinson. Both can be explosive playmakers in the slot at best, and Robinson may be able to contribute in the slot and coming out of the backfield, but the Jaguars' offense will need to lean heavily on Blackmon's role in the offense, a role defined largely by the strength to beat press coverage and make plays from the outside of the field after the catch.
Blackmon doesn't have burner-type speed to beat receivers deep downfield on a consistent basis, and isn't a crisp route-runner. He frequently rounds off his cuts, which gives defensive backs time to catch back up to him. What makes Blackmon a great playmaker for the Jaguars is his great sense of vision for the right angle to take when running after the catch so that defenders have a harder time catching up to him.
Because he can't consistently beat defenses over the top and his route-running won't get him open enough to get the ball in space, Blackmon can only thrive with a quarterback who can hit him in stride to pick up yards after the catch. Contractually, now is the year the Jaguars absolutely must find out if Blaine Gabbert can be that quarterback.
The Jaguars' deal with Gabbert is fully guaranteed through the end of the 2014 season, but the team has until May 3, 2014 to decide whether to pick up the deal's fifth-year option or to let it expire at the end of 2014. Immediately at the start of the 2014 free agency period, the Jaguars must decide how much money they're willing to spend to retain quarterback Chad Henne. Both decisions are inextricably linked.
The Jaguars need to know if they have to re-sign Henne to be the veteran starter while a new rookie quarterback learns from the bench next year, or whether Gabbert's their starter for the future. Henne's too expensive to keep as a long-term backup and could easily leave to compete for a starting job elsewhere if the Jaguars commit to Gbbert, making it all the more important for the Jaguars to know which of their current two quarterbacks to keep in the future.
The timing of both contractual decisions leaves the Jaguars with only a season longer to assess whether their third-year quarterback can start for another ten years. The Jaguars have been a train wreck since drafting Gabbert, confounding the ability to evaluate Gabbert's performance separately from that of the rest of the team.
Blackmon was the Jaguars' only real offensive weapon at any point during that timeframe, and he didn't bloom until the second half of last season, when Gabbert was injured and out for the season. In the final eight games of the season, Blackmon's average yards per reception jumped by 5.82 yards.
As of now, it's hard to tell if Blackmon's jump in production was a function of quarterback play or just the rookie receiver's acclimation to the NFL. With Blackmon set to miss a quarter of the season, that question will be harder to answer, and the Jaguars' sample size for evaluating their quarterbacks before such a pivotal offseason will be sharply reduced.