Expectations rise for young Jags
Now comes the tough part for the Jaguars: prosperity and expectations. That is the new territory for the previously downtrodden franchise. Following a decade filled with coaching and front-office changes, quarterback instability and, most of all, losing, the Jaguars improved last year by seven wins and reached the AFC Championship Game. All of which meant nothing this spring when coach Doug Marrone addressed his players. Every team has the same record. Every team is starting over. Last year’s foundation must be built upon, not admired.
But what a time to be a Jaguars fan. Twenty-one of the 22 starters should be set entering camp, the defense is one of the NFL’s best and the offense has been fine-tuned. There is no reason to believe the Jaguars won’t return to the playoffs. They have not made consecutive postseason appearances since a four-year streak from 1996-99.
Last year, the Jaguars led the NFL in rushing attempts (527) and rushing yards per game (141.4). Wash, rinse and repeat, right? Well, kind of. Yes, the Jaguars return tailback Leonard Fournette and want to continue to pound opponents, but they did not stand pat. And most of it has to do with the playoff loss at New England. Up 10 in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars tried to run it and couldn’t. New England rallied for the win.
Enter left guard Andrew Norwell. For perhaps the best free agent available, the Jaguars crafted a five-year, $66.5 million contract for the Carolina All-Pro. The Jaguars believe Norwell is the kind of mauler who can open up more room for Fournette and prevent penetrating defensive tackles from ruining plays. Left tackle Cam Robinson, center Brandon Linder, right guard A.J. Cann and right tackle Jermey Parnell return. This group excelled at protecting quarterback Blake Bortles, but despite the gaudy statistics, the offensive line needs to be more consistent in run blocking.
Bortles underwent right (throwing) wrist surgery in January and a month later was signed to a contract extension that essentially locks him into the starting role for the next two seasons. The people who don’t like Bortles’ game will never like it. But executive vice president Tom Coughlin saw enough to keep the quarterback he inherited. Bortles was turnover-free in the playoffs and can extend plays and convert third downs with his athleticism. But he needs to continue to work on his short-to-medium range accuracy.
The quarterback, tailback and most of the offensive line return, but the Jaguars overhauled their receiver and tight end corps in free agency and the draft.
At receiver, gone are Allen Robinson (Chicago) and Allen Hurns (Dallas). They posted 1,000-yard seasons in 2015, but Robinson missed last year with a torn ACL and Hurns was too expensive ($7 million) for a down-the-depth-chart player. In are Donte Moncrief, formerly of Indianapolis, and second-round pick DJ Chark. Marqise Lee was re-signed, and second-year players Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole showed promise last year. The Jaguars’ hope is that the running game will pull an extra defender near the line of scrimmage to allow for the receivers to work against man coverage.
At tight end, Marcedes Lewis was released after 12 seasons with the team. Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul were signed in free agency, and they join Ben Koyack and James O’Shaughnessy. The Jaguars semi-surprisingly passed on taking a tight end in the draft. Fournette is back to lead the rushing attack, followed by T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant.
Second in sacks and fewest yards allowed per game. First in fewest passing yards per game allowed. Second in the red zone, takeaways and fewest points allowed. It is a tough act to follow for the Jaguars’ defense, but there is little reason to believe it will not happen. They return so much talent. The Jaguars have allocated myriad resources -- draft picks and free-agent dollars -- so they can vice-grip opponents and give their offense short fields and scoring help.
The Jaguars envision a straight two-platoon system on the defensive line after drafting Taven Bryan in the first round. At strong-side end, Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks) was one of the best free-agent signings ever and is a leadership force on the field and in the locker room. He will be subbed by second-year player Dawuane Smoot, who flashed last year in limited opportunities. The Jaguars should think about playing him more to further maximize Campbell’s snaps. At the rush end, Yannick Ngakoue became a star last year, a steal of a third-round pick in 2016 who had 12 sacks. His backup is Dante Fowler, a former No. 3 overall pick who gives the Jags another athletic edge-rush option on third down when Campbell moves inside. Wait, there’s more. Malik Jackson and Bryan will play the three-technique, and Bryan could kick outside to strong-side end if needed. And at nose tackle, Abry Jones and Marcell Dareus will split time. Yes, they can rush the passer, but a key will be improving their work against the run. The Jaguars allowed 4.3 yards per carry last year.
Telvin Smith and Myles Jack make up perhaps the most athletic pair of linebackers in the NFL. They combined for 192 tackles last year. They have sideline-to-sideline range and have improved their tackling fundamentals. Smith will stay on the weak side, and Jack will move to middle linebacker instead of splitting snaps between the middle and strong side. If Jack holds up physically this year, he could join Smith as owner of a long-term contract extension. Blair Brown will get the first shot to win the strong-side linebacker role in camp. The Jaguars hope spending last year around the now-retired Paul Posluszny prepared Brown well for a bigger role.
The league’s best secondary last year lost nickel cornerback Aaron Colvin to Houston but returns free safety Tashaun Gipson, strong safety Barry Church and Pro Bowl cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. That quartet combined for 18 regular-season interceptions last year. Ramsey should be considered the game’s top cornerback. He excels in coverage and is physical in the run game. Bouye became a star last year and should expect teams to challenge him again instead of going after Ramsey. D.J. Hayden was signed to replace Colvin as the nickel. The Jaguars drafted safety Ronnie Harrison in the third round. He figures to replace Church in the long term; in the short term, he could give defensive coordinator Todd Wash some sub-package options because he can cover slot receivers and tight ends.
The Jaguars recognized that special teams were a sore point last year and addressed them accordingly. They signed projected core special teams players Niles Paul, Don Carey, and Cody Davis in free agency and re-signed Lerentee McCray. And they used their final draft pick on punter Logan Cooke. One positive last year was kicker Josh Lambo, who was signed in October and hit 19-of-20 field goals in the regular season. Cooke, who will replace Brad Nortman, also will get a chance to handle kickoffs. In the return game, Grant is the likely kick returner. One of the best competitions in camp will be punt returner and how the roster math works out. Westbrook, Chark, Lee, Jaydon Mickens and Rashad Greene are all options. Long snapper Carson Tinker is expected back after missing all of last year with a torn ACL sustained in camp.
Years of high draft picks and free-agent spending paid off with a 10-6 record. Now it is all about taking the next step -- if they get a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the conference title game, the Jaguars believe they are better equipped to finish off the win. The keys will be keeping Fournette healthy, getting more big plays out of the passing game, continuing last year’s dominant pass rush and improving against the run. Do that and the Jaguars should be considered a Super Bowl contender.
Prediction: 1st in AFC South
(Top photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)