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Why Gabbert might be a fantasy steal

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Former Eagles quarterback and current ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski recently ranked Blaine Gabbert of the Jacksonville Jaguars as the 29th-best quarterback in the NFL.

Considering that there are 32 teams in the league and each team only has one starting quarterback, that's not exactly high praise (though Gabbert was ranked ahead of New York's Tim Tebow, if that's any consolation).

It's true, Gabbert didn't have a great rookie year. In fact, he kind of stunk.

Gabbert's 50.8 completion percentage in 2011 was second-worst among NFL starters and he finished dead last in the league in quarterback rating (65.4).

Gabbert certainly wasn't sharp last year, but it's easy to see why he struggled. Everything was working against Gabbert last season.

He was completely thrown into the fire in Week 3 after the team unexpectedly cut David Garrard and opening week starter Luke McCown got off to a disappointing start. Very few of us were expecting Gabbert, acknowledged by most experts as talented but extremely raw, to get much playing time in 2011.

Gabbert also didn't have much to work with in the receiving corps last season: tight end Marcedes Lewis led the squad in receiving with just 460 yards.

To make matters worse, Gabbert received barely any protection from the Jaguars' porous offensive line. Only six clubs allowed more sacks than the 44 Jacksonville let up in 2011.

It was a season to forget for Gabbert and with super-star tailback Maurice Jones-Drew still on the roster (for now: he might hold out if the Jaguars' front office doesn't meet his salary demands), it's easy for NFL experts to write off Jacksonville's passing attack.

But I'm a glass half-full guy. Things could be a lot worse for Gabbert and the Jags.

I think a lot of us may have forgotten this because of how good Cam Newton was last year but the fact remains: rookies aren't supposed to be good.

Newton and Andy Dalton both made the Pro Bowl as rookies last season but they are in the minority.

Even Tom Brady and Peyton Manning weren't great in their first seasons in the league.

Manning chucked up a league-high 28 picks when he was a rookie in 1998. Brady won the Super Bowl in his first year as a starter but his stats weren't pretty (only 2,843 yards passing, 12 interceptions, nine fumbles).

Both players showed glimpses of greatness but neither one was particularly polished. They were raw, just like Gabbert.

Gabbert won't be a top-10 fantasy quarterback this year and he may not even be in the top 20. But I have plenty of reason to think he'll be much better in 2012 than he was in his first year in the league.

This kid has plenty of potential. Gabbert has terrific size (6-foot-5, 233 pounds) and though he only managed 98 yards rushing last season, he's much more mobile than people give him credit for.

Gabbert's teammates and people who have seen him play this spring have all said that the former University of Missouri stand-out looks as confident and comfortable as he ever has.

Maybe Gabbert's increased confidence stems from all the upgrades Jacksonville made at wide receiver during the offseason.

Laurent Robinson came over from Dallas as a free agent and looks poised to become Gabbert's new favorite target. After struggling with the Atlanta Falcons and St. Louis Rams early on in his career, Robinson came into his own with the Cowboys last season, hauling in a team-high 11 touchdown grabs. He also put up a career-high 858 receiving yards, a 400-yard improvement over his previous career high.

Gabbert will also have Justin Blackmon to throw to in 2012. Blackmon, college football's top receiver over the last two seasons, has drawn comparisons to 49ers great Terrell Owens because of his speed, great hands and muscular build.

Blackmon's skillset makes him arguably the most NFL-ready rookie in this year's draft class. While some fear that Blackmon's recent DUI arrest could affect his performance on the field, I think he'll use this embarrassing mistake as extra motivation to prove his critics wrong. I expect Blackmon to be stronger and more determined than ever when he suits up for the Jaguars this season.

Robinson and Blackmon will be Gabbert's go-to receivers but he'll also have speedy wideout Mike Thomas (he runs a 4.3 40-yard-dash) to throw to in the slot and the 6-foot-6 Lewis is always a threat in the red zone because of his superior size (Lewis reeled in 10 touchdowns in 2010).

Having Jones-Drew should take some of the pressure off of Gabbert as well. Jones-Drew has good hands for a running back and if Gabbert finds himself struggling with the deep ball, he can always toss a few short slants to Jones- Drew to help get his confidence back.

Just like Blackmon, Gabbert will also be playing with a little extra incentive this season. Jacksonville signed veteran quarterback Chad Henne as a backup during the offseason. Henne has 36 games of NFL experience under his belt and could easily swoop in and take the starter's job from Gabbert if he stumbles this season. Gabbert will be playing for his job in 2012 and I think that threat will bring out the best in him.

Jack Del Rio was always a defensive-minded coach and probably didn't pay his quarterbacks enough attention during his stint as head coach. This offseason, the Jaguars replaced Del Rio with Mike Mularkey, a former NFL tight end with a knack for producing star quarterbacks.

He was the offensive coordinator during Matt Ryan's first few seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and was also the OC for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001 when Kordell Stewart recorded the highest QB rating of his 11-year NFL career. If there is anyone who can turn Gabbert into a star it's Mularkey.

Plus, the Jaguars' schedule isn't all that tough. They are right in the middle of the pack in terms of strength of schedule (the combined winning percentage of their opponents is an even .500). They'll face six playoff teams in 2012 but two of those games are against New England and Green Bay, two of the worst defensive teams in the league. Going up against the Houston Texans, New York Jets and Chicago Bears will be tough, but three of those four games will be in Jacksonville.

I'm not saying Gabbert will be a fantasy home run next season, but if 20-25 touchdown passes and 3,000 passing yards is all you need, I think Gabbert can give you that.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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