JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Blake Bortles has yet to miss a game since becoming the Jaguars' starting quarterback during the 2014 season. Regardless of Bortles' notable durability, new backup quarterback Cody Kessler is starting to ease the concerns of those questioning the team's contingency plan at the position.
Through 11 training camp practices and one preseason game, Kessler has been accurate, efficient and turnover-free. The former Cleveland Browns starting quarterback has made the most of his change of scenery, providing quality reps behind Bortles.
Kessler has avoided interceptions by making smart decisions. He looks comfortable in Nathaniel Hackett's offense and isn't stressing out when a play goes the wrong way.
"Nate and [quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich] teaching this offense and the way this offense works makes it a lot easier for me," Kessler said following the Jaguars' preseason opener on Thursday. "Just going through your reads, going through progression, knowing what to do with the football helps you play a lot faster.”
Another positive for Kessler has been his increased desire to push the ball downfield with deeper throws. Known more for his short-to-intermediate accuracy, Kessler has pushed himself to take calculated risks when big plays open up for him and his receivers.
“Yeah, that’s something I’ve obviously worked heavily on in the offseason and, like I said, I had a couple deep balls with DJ [Chark Jr.] and a couple with Keelan [Cole] and some other guys [during training camp]," Kessler said. "It’s been nice being able to show that I can push the ball down the field a lot more, but, like I said, still being smart about it, not just throwing it up for grabs. If it’s there, take a shot. If not, check the ball down."
Kessler was 0-8 as a starter with the Browns. While Cleveland gave him the opportunity to start as a third-round rookie in 2016, the results were underwhelming. Now in a new situation, Kessler is taking what he learned in his first stop and applying those lessons to his current opportunity.
“Yeah, it’s a fresh start for me," Kessler said. "I think that was the best part. Cleveland, obviously, gave me an opportunity and I played as a rookie and had a chance there and I’m always thankful for that. It was tough last year, it was a tough situation. Having a fresh start here and being in this organization and just how positive everyone here is and excited to really get the season started."
Bortles has witnessed Kessler's gradual improvement from the offseason program to training camp to the preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints. The starting quarterback has been impressed by his backup's progression.
“As a quarterback, it is easy to look good in practice when no one can hit you and you kind of find out who you are as a player when you go play against live competition and I thought he was awesome," Bortles said during his post-game press conference. "He’s had a really good camp. He’s a smart kid and he’s picked up everything extremely quickly and to watch him go out there and run the offense and move the ball the way he did, it was fun to watch.”
Against the Saints, Kessler completed 14-of-17 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown in less than three quarters of action. The third-year quarterback led three scoring drives and left the game with a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. It was an impressive performance for a player who was acquired for a conditional seventh-round pick in March.
Kessler worked within the Jaguars' offense, finding a groove throughout the game. He was able to sustain drives by taking what the defense gave him and avoiding mistakes.
"Coach Hackett [stresses] protecting the football first, but at the same time, he wants the quarterback to stay safe and wants you to eliminate hits," Kessler said. "If you can throw the ball away, throw the ball away. Don’t try to hang onto it, run around and do different things. For me, that was something that I really took pride in this camp is the first progression, the second progression, find your [running] back, find your check down or throw the ball away. Try to eliminate those sacks, eliminate holding onto the football."
Follow Mike Kaye on Twitter: @Mike_E_Kaye.