Offensive lineman Luke Bowanko was one of the more overlooked players on the Jaguars in 2015. Drafted in the 6th round of the loaded 2014 draft class out of the University of Virginia, Bowanko was the team’s solution to revolving door at center in the 2014 season. He originally replaced the dreadful Jacques McClendon near the end of the week 2 game against the Washington Redskins (fans might remember Chad Henne being sacked 10 times in McClendon’s last full game) and never looked back. Bowanko was not perfect, making some communication errors and often looking confused against blitzes in pass coverage. However, he looked very good as a run blocker for most of the season and improved in pass coverage as the 2014 season progressed. He finished the season expecting that he would be the starter for the franchise in 2015.
However, the Jaguars changed those plans and signed Stefen Wisniewski to a one-year deal to play the same position. Wisniewski was coming off of a solid four-year career as the starting center for the Oakland Raiders, but his expressed disdain with the team led him to search for other options. Jaguar fans (including myself) were incredibly happy to see the team fill what looked like the biggest remaining hole on an offensive line that was coming off the worst performance by an O-line in the history of the franchise. Gus Bradley and the coaching staff openly said that there would be an open competition between Bowanko and Wisniewski and made it look like there was an actual competition taking place (Bowanko got the first start of the preseason against the Steelers). Both players started one game in the 2015 preseason and the job was awarded to Wisniewski, again to the applause of most fans of the team. Wisniewski would proceed to start all 16 games of the regular season. During this time, Bowanko filled the backup center role and was converted to an emergency tackle but didn’t even dress out for 10 of the 16 games.
When given the chance, Bowanko was a very nice player, especially in the run game. In 2014, he showed nice power and movement skills as a run blocker. He occasionally missed assignments, but his performance on the field improved as he started more games and meshed with the offensive line. He wasn’t fantastic in the passing game, but again showed progress as the season came closer to an end. Unlike Jacques McClendon and Stefen Wisniewski, Bowanko showed the ability to consistently deliver on-target snaps, although he sometimes would snap a bit too low and give Blake Bortles less time to go through his progressions which often led to sacks or turnovers. Snapping the ball correctly seems easy to an average viewer, but the failures of Wisniewski (supposedly a very good center when we signed him) in this regard make a center who can snap properly even more valuable. Bowanko is also a good athlete, which helps his physicality in the run game. He moves extremely well and shows his strength when asked to block nose tackles one-on-one in run blocking situations. Bowanko needs to work on consistency as a pass protector, correcting misplaced snaps and avoiding miscommunications, but he has shown all the necessary tools to be a starting NFL center.
All this talk about Bowanko as an underrated player that is capable of starting got me thinking- how did he not start a single game in 2015? What did Stefen Wisniewski show in the preseason and throughout the regular season that entrenched him as the starter? I decided to do a little comparison on the two to see what the coaching staff saw.
Bowanko started the first preseason game with the first-team offense and played fairly well. Wisniewski would play later in the game and also played adequately. Wisniewski got the start in the second game, while Bowanko was coming in with the second team and both players (again) played well. At this point, it’s a push on who gets the start. The team went with Wisniewski in a move that was easily justifiable at the time.
This is the part that confuses me. I watch tape on Stefen Wisniewski from this year and wonder how the coaching staff got this choice so wrong. Wisniewski clearly regressed from his play as a Raider and didn’t play well for most of the season. As a run defender, he couldn’t get any push on most plays, even when AJ Cann replaced Brandon Linder and gave the offensive line a bit more strength in the run game. Pass protection, his supposed area of expertise, wasn’t much better, as he was unable to recognize and pick up blitzes throughout the 2015 season. I feel like the coaching staff really misevaluated him coming into the season.
I also question the coaching staff’s choice to not replace Wisniewski at any point during the season to give Bowanko a shot to help the line improve. Bowanko was only active for 6 games this year and did not see any playing time. Even as Wisniewski regressed over the course of the season, Bowanko still couldn’t make the active 47-man roster on game days. This was just one of many questionable decisions by the coaching staff in the 2015 season (playing Chris Clemons too much, keeping Pozluszny on the field for passing downs, everything they’ve ever done with the safety group, etc.) and really makes me worried as a fan of the team that these types of decisions will keep the team from reaching its potential. What harm would it have done to start Luke Bowanko the final two weeks of the season? We weren’t winning those games, Wisniewski was playing poorly and looked to be playing his final snaps for the team and Bowanko is a young player who needs snaps to develop. It just doesn’t make much sense to me as a fan or a player evaluator.
I know this article got off track (very far at some points), but the message of everything I’ve been saying is simple: Luke Bowanko is a very good player who could be the future of the franchise at center. I really like his aggressiveness and athleticism in the run game and think he’s a capable pass protector who will play consistently at a good level. Maybe the team will wake up next season and realize they have a starting center sitting and wasting his career on the bench.
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