JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - The Jacksonville Jaguars have a clear nucleus, at least on one side of the ball.
With quarterback Blake Bortles, running back T.J. Yeldon and receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, the Jaguars (2-5) have a young and talented offensive core that general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley believe will develop together and make the small-market franchise a legitimate threat in the AFC South for years.
The foursome has even drawn comparisons to Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, the playmakers who carried the Jaguars to the playoffs in four consecutive years in the late 1990s.
Bortles, Yeldon, Hurns and Robinson haven’t enjoyed anything close to that kind of success, but they’ve made Jacksonville more competitive and entertaining through the first half of the season.
“You’re seeing this rapid maturity take place,” Bradley said. “It’s never enough. I think they would say that, but pleased that they’re going in the right direction, that we’re seeing the arrow up is a good thing. Just keep applying pressure and keep improving.”
Jacksonville, which is on its bye week, overhauled the offense in the past three drafts. Of the team’s 10 picks in the first three rounds - spots Caldwell expects to get plug-and-play starters - seven of them were offensive players. And the results are starting to show.
The unit has made a modest jump this season, up to 24th in total offense after finishing 31st in 2014.
And Jacksonville expects that to improve as tight end Julius Thomas gets more acclimated after missing the first four games with a broken bone in his right hand. The team also hopes to get receivers Marqise Lee (hamstring) and Rashad Greene (thumb) back from injuries in November.
“You can see we’re going to be special,” Hurns said. “We’ve just got to continue to grow. You can already see the growth in all of us.”
Bortles is the key. The third overall draft pick in 2013, Bortles has completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,812 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
He has thrown eight interceptions and been sacked 19 times, but he continues to extend plays with his feet and improve his accuracy. Both of Jacksonville’s wins came because Bortles directed game-winning drives.
He also is one of just three NFL quarterbacks with at least 1,800 yards passing and 15 touchdowns. San Diego’s Philip Rivers and New England’s Tom Brady are the others.
Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only three quarterbacks age 23 or younger have reached those totals the first seven games of the season: Bortles, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford in 2011 and Miami’s Dan Marino in 1984.
“We really like the progress he’s making in all areas,” Bradley said. “I guess you put it all under the category of maturing. He’s really maturing rapidly in how he prepares, how he takes care of his body, his practice methods and how he attacks it.”
Yeldon, a second-round draft pick, leads all rookies in rushing attempts (101). He ranks second in rushing yards (406) and third in yards from scrimmage (488).
“I feel like each week we’re all getting better and better,” Yeldon said. “We just keep building off each other’s momentum, and we’re all coming together. I feel like it can only go up from here. We’re all going to be here for a while. We’re young and we’re only going to get better.”
Hurns and Robinson have combined for 11 touchdown receptions, the highest total by any NFL tandem this season. Among players with at least 30 catches, Robinson (17.2) and Hurns (16.5) rank first and second, respectively, in yards per reception.
Hurns, who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2014, has 31 catches for 513 yards and five touchdowns. Robinson, a second-round pick last year, has 34 receptions for 586 yards and six scores.
“As long as all of us are out there on the field and we continue to make plays, we’re going to be very special,” Hurns said.
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