There is a new sheriff prowling the halls of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ facility, and it is the same man who helped lead the franchise into the NFL more than two decades ago and to the cusp of the Super Bowl after the 1996 and ’99 seasons. Tom Coughlin was hired in January by owner Shad Khan to resuscitate the entire organization — just not as the head coach. Coughlin’s title is executive vice president of football operations, and he has final say on roster decisions, taking that responsibility away from GM Dave Caldwell. Doug Marrone, the offensive line coach from 2015-16, was promoted to head coach.
Does Coughlin still have the touch? Although the Jaguars were busy in free agency, signing three starters and multiple role players, the success of this season will rest largely on players Coughlin inherited, chiefly quarterback Blake Bortles. A total bust or ready for a boon? For as impressive as the defense looks — led by second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey and newcomers A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell and Barry Church — if the Jaguars are unable to score more points, Coughlin’s return will not equal a return to relevance for the Jaguars.
Since 2008, when the Jags’ current playoff drought began, their 18.3 points-per-game average is third worst in the NFL. And since 2012, a year after Maurice Jones-Drew won the rushing title, the Jaguars’ per-game rushing average of 92.1 yards is the league’s worst. The Jaguars are counting on Leonard Fournette — who rushed for 3,830 yards in three seasons at LSU — to impact both categories. The Jaguars selected Fournette fourth overall, and running backs taken that high have turned into Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk — but also Trent Richardson and Darren McFadden.
A one-man wrecking crew since he was in high school, Fournette will have to do the Jaguars’ heavy lifting, because Bortles proved last year he wasn’t ready for that task. Bortles had his 2018 contract option picked up on May 1, but it is guaranteed only for injury, meaning this remains his make-or-break season. If he wants to remain the Jaguars’ starter beyond this year, he must commit fewer turnovers (51 interceptions in 46 games) and be more accurate (58.8 career completion percentage). The Jaguars didn’t draft a quarterback, which can be viewed as a vote of confidence or a sign Coughlin is merely waiting until 2018 to take one.
The Jaguars believe they have provided Bortles with ample weapons. Now entering their fourth year, receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee have shown flashes of consistent play, just not at the same time. Robinson and Hurns eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2015, but their numbers dipped because of extra attention (Robinson) and injuries (Hurns). Lee hasn’t been able to use his speed to stretch the field. Although they enter as the top three receivers, rookie Dede Westbrook could become an option operating from the slot. After a rather ordinary junior season at Oklahoma — his first after transferring from junior college — Westbrook exploded for 80 catches for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. His 19.1-yard average was the best in college football for players with at least 75 catches.
Getting more production from the tight ends would help matters on the outside. The Julius Thomas experiment failed, and he was shipped to Miami in exchange for a seventh-round pick. The Jaguars want their tight ends to be equally effective as receivers and blockers. Marcedes Lewis, the longest-tenured Jaguar with 11 seasons of service, checks the blocking box, and the team believes that former Raider Mychal Rivera can be an efficient receiver.
Along the offensive line, there are issues. Again. Branden Albert was expected to be the left tackle, but he decided to retire around the start of training camp, only to change his mind shortly after. If he plays this season it won’t be for Jacksonville, as the team decided to cut its losses and released him. The Jaguars drafted Cam Robinson — a three-year starter at Alabama — in the second round but wasn’t planning on throwing him out there at left tackle right away. Center Brandon Linder is their best lineman, but the right side of guard A.J. Cann and tackle Jermey Parnell must be better this year. Neither missed a snap in 2016, but they did miss plenty of blocks.
At least the Jaguars didn’t fall in love with some of their misleading 2016 stats and stand pat defensively. Coordinator Todd Wash was retained, but myriad other changes occurred: Five new assistant coaches, new starters in Campbell (strong-side end), Church (strong safety) and Bouye (cornerback), as well as Myles Jack’s move to middle linebacker.
The Jaguars tied for 19th in the NFL with 33 sacks; their seven interceptions were fewest in the NFL; and their 12 completions allowed of at least 40 yards tied for fifth most. It was a defense that was unable to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback, take the football away or prevent the explosive play downfield. The Jaguars spent accordingly.
Up front, free agency and the draft have helped overhaul the line. Among the top eight linemen, only nose tackle Abry Jones played for the Jaguars before 2016. Added since then are Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue, Sheldon Day and Dawuane Smoot in the draft and Campbell, Malik Jackson and Stefan Charles via free agency. Wash wants two-platoon depth, and the Jaguars have achieved that. Ngakoue, the starting weak-side end, led the team with eight sacks. His production could increase if Campbell — when he slides from end to tackle — and Jackson form a solid interior pass rush.
The Jaguars’ starting linebackers will be the same as the end of last year, but Jack is now in the middle and veteran Paul Posluszny was moved to the strong side — and his playing time is expected to be greatly reduced. Jack showed his lights-out athleticism last year in run pursuit and coverage, but the Jaguars played him on only 25 percent of the snaps, unwilling to take Posluszny off the field. Telvin Smith remains at the weak-side spot and must reduce his missed tackle total (team-high 26 last year).
Half of the Jaguars’ secondary is new. Bouye, following a breakout year in Houston, was one of the game’s top free agents, and the Jaguars poached him from their division rivals. Bouye will team with Ramsey to give the Jaguars one of the top cornerback duos in the league. Aaron Colvin is the favorite to play nickel, but Ramsey could also cover the slot receiver depending on the matchup. Tashaun Gipson returns as the free safety after a disappointing debut season marked by too many missed tackles and not enough takeaways. Church, the former Cowboy, was signed to replace Johnathan Cyprien, who was allowed leave via free agency. He signed with AFC South rival Tennessee.
The major change Wash will make to the scheme is having Church and Gipson be interchangeable, which will allow the Jaguars to be less predictable.
The Jaguars needed to do something to improve a special teams unit that committed 30 penalties last year (at least one in 15 of 16 games), allowed 12.5 yards per punt return and rarely flipped the field. New coordinator Joe DeCamillis, most recently with Denver and in his second tour with the Jaguars, was lured back to Jacksonville due to Coughlin’s commitment to special teams.
Placekicker Jason Myers, punter Brad Nortman and long snapper Carson Tinker return in the same roles, but many faces will be new. The Jaguars signed Audie Cole, Josh McNary and Lerentee McCray in free agency and drafted Westbrook, Blair Brown, Jalen Myrick, and Marquez Williams in an effort to find some core special teams players. The Jaguars need to get more positive game-changing plays in the kicking game.
Starting with the 2009 season, the Jaguars are 7–24 in September, a .226 winning percentage that is worst in the league. Slow starts have led to draft talk in November, coaching changes in January and roster overhauls in March. If Fournette can lead the offense and the defense jells quickly, the Jaguars could finally start quickly and develop a buzz that has been lacking. But their streak of non-winning seasons will reach a full decade because the offensive line won’t be able to protect Bortles well enough and the defense still doesn’t produce enough of a pass rush.