Jags look to bounce back from disappointing season
A sixth losing season in the seven years since he purchased the franchise convinced Jaguars owner Shad Khan that he needed to think big. Like Super Bowl MVP big. Changes were necessary after the Jaguars finished a disappointing 5–11 in 2018, and the changes started with the quarterback position. Blake Bortles was out, and Khan knew exactly who he wanted to replace him.
“I can tell you this, categorically, that as soon as the season was over, our dream was to get Nick Foles,” Khan says. “And it happened.”
And there is a renewed sense of optimism around the Jaguars because of it. They’ve made the playoffs just three times since the start of the 2000 season, but that wasn’t part of coach Doug Marrone’s message to the team this spring. The Jaguars will set out to get back to the postseason with the same fresh slate as every other NFL team — regardless of what happened the year before. If Foles and a revamped offense can produce more points — their 15.3 per game in 2018 didn’t cut it — the Jaguars believe a still-talented defense will allow them to challenge in a suddenly competitive AFC South.
Once the Jaguars hired John DeFilippo to be their offensive coordinator in January, it seemed a formality that Foles would join him. The two last worked together in Philadelphia in 2017 when DeFilippo was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach and Foles filled in for an injured Carson Wentz. That ended with both of them under a thunderstorm of confetti after beating New England in the Super Bowl.
What the Jaguars need most from Foles is stability. He was steady during the regular season and dynamic in the playoffs during his two-year second stint in Philadelphia.
The Jaguars still want the identity of their offense to be built around running back Leonard Fournette. Such was the case during Fournette’s rookie season in 2017, and he helped carry them to the AFC title game. Then came a mess. Fournette missed seven games due to injuries and another because of a suspension for fighting. He ran for only 439 yards and five touchdowns, derailing a team that was built to run, run, run and then run some more. Fournette is again expected to be the workhorse, but the Jaguars made adding depth behind him a focus. They signed Alfred Blue away from division rival Houston, took a chance on Thomas Rawls and drafted Ryquell Armstead out of Temple in the fifth round. Plenty of power, though none is a true pass-catching, third down back.
So, is it back to running the ball 25-30 times per game? Maybe not quite. If the Jaguars are able to establish their ground attack early in games, they believe they have the right group of receivers to take advantage of opposing defenses. Chris Conley was signed after a career year in Kansas City’s high-volume offense, joining a group that will get back Marqise Lee (torn ACL in 2018 preseason) and includes Dede Westbrook, DJ Chark and Keelan Cole.
DeFilippo’s track record suggests that the Jaguars could open up their playbook, mixing shotgun looks with play-action principles. Conley (6'3") and Chark (6'4") are big-bodied receivers who can work outside the numbers and downfield, but Westbrook should really spark DeFilippo’s creativity. He led the team with 66 catches for 717 yards and five touchdowns and should push for his first 1,000-yard season with better quarterback play.
The Jaguars also drafted tight end Josh Oliver in the third round and signed Geoff Swaim. If they can provide any juice, that will be a huge plus. James O’Shaughnessy led Jaguars tight ends with 24 catches for 214 yards last season, and the team hasn’t gotten a 100-yard game from the position since Julius Thomas on Nov. 29, 2015.
All of that said, it won’t matter that the Jaguars upgraded their quarterback position if the offensive line doesn’t play better in front of Foles. Crushed by injuries a year ago (right guard A.J. Cann was the only Week 1 starter to make it to Week 17), the Jaguars allowed 53 sacks, tied for third most in the league. They bring back four of five starters and add second-round right tackle Jawaan Taylor to replace Jermey Parnell.
The Jaguars aren’t going to be confused with Kansas City or New Orleans. And that’s fine. But they have to at least be competitive enough to give the defense a chance.
The Jaguars were tied for fourth in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) and ranked fifth in yards allowed (311.4 ypg) last season. So, why does it feel like the unit was such a disappointment? It has to start with a lack of game-changing plays. From 2017 to 2018, the Jaguars saw their sack total dip from 55 to 37, their takeaway count plunge from 33 to 17 and their trips to the end zone seemingly vanish.
And because of a series of salary cap cuts and one unexpected departure, it’s not getting any easier. Gone are defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Telvin Smith, and free safety Tashaun Gipson, three players who still have something in the tank. Up front, 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan needs to show progress in replacing Jackson after a one-sack rookie season. On the back end, the Jaguars seem likely to go with the largely untested duo of Ronnie Harrison and Jarrod Wilson at the two safety spots. Those two have a combined 10 NFL starts.
That’s the concerning part. The good news for the Jaguars is that defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue are still around to harass opposing quarterbacks, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey is still patrolling (and talking all kinds of trash) in the secondary along with A.J. Bouye. First-round pick Josh Allen arrives to spell Ngakoue as necessary when the Jaguars are in their base 4-3 defense, and he’ll rush opposite him when they are in their sub package and move Campbell inside to work against opposing guards.
One of the more interesting training camp storylines is what the Jaguars will do at linebacker. They signed former Green Bay inside linebacker Jake Ryan, which could allow them to shift Myles Jack from middle to strong-side linebacker or add some 3-4 wrinkles. Early in the spring, the Jaguars pushed back on the idea of relocating Jack, but in the aftermath of Smith announcing in mid-May he was stepping away from football to focus on other parts of his life, the team may have no other choice.
The Jaguars return two key components of their special teams in placekicker Josh Lambo and punter Logan Cooke. They moved swiftly to re-sign Lambo to a four-year contract in February. Lambo solidified what had been a shaky kicking game, at one point making a team-record 24 consecutive field goals from November 2017 to November 2018, including a career-long 57-yarder against Philadelphia in London. Cooke settled down after a nervous start to finish with a net average of 41.3 yards per punt.
Another training camp competition will determine what the return game looks like. Westbrook is the favorite to handle punt returns, and free agent addition Benny Cunningham has experience returning kicks. His roster spot could depend on securing that role.
The Jaguars believe that signing Foles answers the question that has weighed down the franchise for years, but other questions remain. Can Fournette stay healthy and be accountable? Did they move on from the wrong players in Gipson and Jackson to keep defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and acquire Foles? Will Marrone get through to a locker room that at times felt fractured during a five-win season?
If those answers are yes, no and yes, Foles and the Jaguars should compete for an AFC wild-card spot. Anything short of that, and the Jaguars probably won’t be a playoff team. Then, Khan could be thinking big again. Big staff changes.
Prediction: 4th in AFC South
(Top photo courtesy of www.jaguars.com)