Going into what is already shaping up to be a different, leaner 2014 Arena Football League season, the Jacksonville Sharks have started to make some offseason moves to strengthen their roster. They, along with some key re-signings, should help Jacksonville reach the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
On offense, it starts at quarterback. Bernard Morris, who stayed healthy through most of the season and had an incredible performance against Philadelphia in the American Conference championship game. When he’s on his game, he’s on fire. He finished the 2013 season with a 110.9 passer rating, which was good for 7th in the league. He also showed capability with his legs, gaining 306 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. However, there are two major issues with Morris: consistency and health.
There was a stretch from Weeks 7 through 9 where the Sharks went through three straight losses. In Week 8 against San Antonio, Morris threw one lone touchdown pass against two interceptions, and was benched for the following week’s game. Combined with his sub-par performance against Arizona in Week 7, the game was a catalyst for a quarterback shuffle that affected Jacksonville for the rest of the season.
Less than a month later, in Week 12, Morris was injured against the Spokane Shock, the third season in a row that he’s gone down. He missed the next four games, in which the team went 2-2. In essence, ever since he became the full-time starter in 2012, Morris has been the man to right the Jacksonville ship. With R.J. Archer coming off of a season-ending leg injury, the Sharks have their main one-two tandem back and intact. With the resigning of Kyle Rowley, all three signal callers who saw time last season have returned to the team, providing a huge boost in leadership and a relief in consistency under center.
Jacksonville also had a wealth of talent at receiver, with Jeron Harvey leading the team in catches (146) and yards (1,593). However, the primary absence will be with the departure of Jeff Hughley, who was traded to the Philadelphia Soul back on September 6. Hughley added the dimension of speed to complement both Harvey’s and Markee White’s size. This speed helped him be an asset in special teams as well as being an efficient slot receiver who could elude defenders, as evident to more than 2,000 total yards on the season. To fill that role, Jacksonville elected to go with more size and physicality by re-signing Shamar Graves. Graves, who saw action towards the end of last season and in the playoffs, has already effectively filled in for London Crawford, who missed the end of last season due to injury.
With the average size of the Sharks’ top four receivers being 6’4½” and 217 pounds, Bernard Morris will have some big targets to throw to, but the lack of speed will dramatically alter the offensive style. While Jeron Harvey and Markee White will still be deep threats, you can expect a lot of shorter passes and using the width of the field much more often in 2014.
To go along with that change, the Sharks also opted to re-sign R.J. Bibbs in lieu of Rendrick Taylor. Bibbs didn’t see too much action at fullback, instead he was called into service as at center. While he also has a size advantage and can get some tough yards, it will be tough to see if he can bowl over defenders and create long runs to help balance the passing game. If he becomes more of a blocking fullback, then it’s all up to Morris to spark the running game, which means he’ll need to play a full 18-game season, something he hasn’t done in his Jacksonville career.
The primary focus of Jacksonville’s offseason acquisitions has been defense. While the core of the core of the unit remains in place, the Sharks made moves to shore up the secondary. As part of the trade that sent Jeff Hughley back to Philadelphia, Jacksonville got DB Kent Richardson for the soul. This adds the 2012 Defensive Back of the Year, who brings 14 interceptions and 15 pass breakups along with four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and 80.5 total tackles. This will add help on the other side of Terrance Smith, who picked off 12 passes of his own.
In the second of three All-Arena players added to the team, DL Caesar Rayford comes to the team from the Utah Blaze, who will not return to the Arena Football League for the 2014 season. As if getting a league-record 45 sacks wasn’t enough, Rayford notched 10 of his own to add to three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and seven pass breakups to add to what was a very stout front three that loved getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While he’s currently on the roster of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, he’ll be a key asset when February rolls around.
Finally, the Sharks added Jack linebacker Kelvin Morris through the dispersal of the defunct Chicago Rush. After returning a league record four interceptions for touchdowns in 2012, he had nine picks last season to add to 64 tackles and seven pass breakups. He’ll be playing alongside Aaron Robbins (nine sacks, three pass breakups, 28 tackles), creating a LB tandem that can both help the defensive line pressure the quarterback and help the secondary against receivers.
Finally, in a little bit of a surprise, the Sharks opted not to re-sign Marco Capozzoli and instead signed Fabrizio Scaccia, who spent last season with the Iowa Barnstormers. Capozzoli, who made six of his 12 field goal attempts, converted 109 of his 128 extra points last season, a success rate of 85.1%. While he was automatic early in the season, he had some key misses down the stretch that had an impact on games, despite making three of four field goals over the last five games.
While Scaccia has only converted four of 18 career field goal attempts, he has made 91.2% of his extra points, good enough to earn second-team All-Arena honors in 2011. While this means that extra points will be even more automatic, there could be an issue if Jacksonville is forced into a field goal situation. Capozzoli could make key kicks to win games (especially his 51-yarder to win the conference semifinal vs. Georgia in 2012), so Scaccia needs to improve his percentage if he wants to keep his job.
So there are a few changes to keep an eye out for this season. But the big question remains, will Jacksonville win their fifth straight division title? That’s actually a tricky question given league developments during the offseason. But I’ll have to save that for next time.