Jags QB duel: Henne big hurdle for rookie Bortles

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Sometimes it takes good competition to bring out the best in a player.

That is proving to be the case for three Jacksonville Jaguars players, all of whom have turned in impressive showings during the team's OTA sessions thus far.

Headlining the list is quarterback Chad Henne, last year's starting quarterback who pushed Blaine Gabbert aside and eventually out the door to inherit the starting job for 2014.

Henne is joined by the team's leading receiver from a year ago in Cecil Shorts and defensive end Andre Branch.

Shorts was a targeted receiver last year after the Jaguars next best receiver, Justin Blackmon, was suspended for all but four games in 2014.

Branch was close to being released during training camp a year ago.

"I think there's three guys to note -- Henne, Shorts and Branch," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said when asked about standouts through the first two weeks of team OTAs. "Those guys really stand out to me. They stand out as far as what we're talking about as far as limiting distractions and controlling what you can control."

All three players turned in superlative efforts on the field last year. Henne's 3,241 passing yards missed by 60 yards of being his all-time best in his six seasons in the NFL that included four years with the Miami Dolphins. His 503 attempts and 305 completions were single-season, career bests.

Yet during the offseason, there was an abundance of talk about how the Jaguars needed to draft a franchise quarterback of the future. They did just that, selecting Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in the draft. That provides instant competition for Henne to hold off the promising rookie from Central Florida.

"I think whenever you draft a quarterback like we did as high, sometimes there can be some distractions, but not for Chad," Bradley said. "He's really done a great job."

When Blackmon drew the indefinite suspension from the NFL for violation of the league's substance abuse policy, it forced the Jaguars to turn their attention to adding to the receivers corps through the draft.

They did that by selecting a pair of receivers in the second round in Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. And even though both players missed most of last week's OTAs with injuries, there's been plenty of talk about how they'll eventually emerge as the Jaguars go-to receivers in the future, whenever that may be.

That hasn't affected how Shorts has gone about his business during the OTAs, Bradley said.

"I think for Cecil it's the same thing where we drafted a couple of receivers. There could be some uncertainty but not with Cecil," Bradley said. "He's done a great job and a great job leading now."

For Branch, who had an unproductive rookie season in 2012 in which he played in 13 games but registered just 20 tackles and only one sack, not the type of production the team had hoped for in selecting Branch in the second round, No. 38 overall.

With a slow start in training camp in 2013, there was talk of Branch not making the 53-man roster. His regular season play in the early going was also non-productive with 14 tackles and one sack in the team's first eight weeks. But in the second-half season he responded with much better numbers, making 23 tackles and recording five sacks.

During the offseason, the Jaguars made the defensive end spot a priority, especially in free agency where they obtained proven veterans Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, resigned 11-year veteran Jason Babin and drafted highly-touted Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith who had 18 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss in his last two seasons with the Razorbacks.

All of which has made the competition at defensive end a challenging one for Branch.

"A guy like Branch we've already got some good players there in Babin and then to bring a guy in like Chris Clemons, you see Andre really focused and really capture every opportunity," Bradley said.

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