Leonard Fournette and the young Jaguars look for improvement after last season's 6-10 showing
The Jaguars will be one of the youngest teams in the NFL this season. Sixty-eight players on their 90-man roster have four years of experience or less. And 39 current players were not on the team last year. They still have some promising young talent, but not enough to make a strong push in the AFC South. Because they lack experience at too many key positions, including quarterback, the Jaguars are likely headed for their third consecutive losing season under Doug Marrone after reaching the AFC title game following the 2017 season.
Cornerback CJ Henderson, whom the Jaguars drafted ninth overall in the April draft, will be expected to stay in front of every opponent’s top receiver and force his share of pass breakups.
In the trenches, Marrone wants to see rookie outside linebacker/edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson come off the edge with similar ferocity as current Jags Josh Allen or Yannick Ngakoue, if the latter is not traded.
Offensively, the Jaguars don’t have enough proven playmakers with breakaway speed despite selecting former Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. in the second round.
Pro Bowl wideout DJ Chark Jr. will draw most of the attention of opposing defenses, but the Jags need more big-play capability from both Dede Westbrook and Chris Conley, especially in terms of yardage after the catch and more touchdown grabs in the red zone.
The Jaguars declined to exercise running back Leonard Fournette’s fifth-year option, and the former No. 4 overall pick should be motivated to achieve a breakthrough season in the final year of his rookie contract.
Bottom line, though: It is Gardner Minshew II’s team after the Jaguars traded veteran Nick Foles to the Chicago Bears in March.
It will be new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s job to revitalize the Jaguars offense with a more potent vertical passing game and develop Minshew into a more polished quarterback. Marrone expects to see more steadiness from Minshew — more touchdown passes, better success in the red zone and fewer lost fumbles than the seven he had in 2019, tied for second most among quarterbacks.
Chark will be the featured weapon. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns after having only 14 catches for 174 yards and no touchdowns in 2018 as a rookie.
Most of the Jaguars’ opponents will probably provide their cornerbacks with safety help to limit Chark’s downfield opportunities. That means wideouts Westbrook, Conley and Shenault will have to emerge as threats on underneath routes. Gruden’s offense is designed around play-action passing, taking shots downfield and quick reads by the quarterback.
The Jaguars did little to upgrade their offensive line this offseason. Because of the line’s inconsistent play, the Jaguars ranked 31st in red zone efficiency (40.43 percent) last season. Also, the unit allowed 182 quarterback pressures, the 10th most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Left guard Andrew Norwell has underperformed. Left tackle Cam Robinson played hurt the entire season in 2019 after hyperextending his right knee three days before a Week 1 loss. The Jaguars drafted former Division III offensive lineman Ben Bartch in the fourth round. He could push Robinson at left tackle, but he likely will need to develop, especially with the limited offseason work. The Jaguars need to move Robinson to guard and move guard Will Richardson Jr. to tackle. But Richardson couldn’t beat out A.J. Cann for the starting right guard job. Center Brandon Linder remains the mainstay. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor played all 1,091 snaps, but he tied for the most penalties in league with 15.
In Gruden’s offense, Fournette is not likely to get the workload he had in 2019, when he carried it 265 times and added 76 catches for 522 yards. Chris Thompson, signed in free agency, is expected to be the team’s top third-down back because of his pass-catching skills. Thompson has 212 career catches for 1,772 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven seasons with the Redskins.
The Jaguars signed former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert in free agency. Eifert has struggled with injuries, but he did not miss a game last season for the first time in his career, catching 43 passes for 436 yards with three touchdowns. Since 2018, Jaguars tight ends have combined to score only four touchdowns in 32 games.
The Jaguars are counting on 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan to be productive after the defensive tackle struggled to meet expectations. They want him to use his hands more to get off blocks, become more instinctive to get in position to make tackles and take advantage of more pass-rush moves other than the straight-ahead bull rush. Though it’s a rebuilding season, the Jaguars can no longer wait on Bryan to develop. Bryan could be unseated as a starter by veteran Rodney Gunter.
The Jaguars made a concerted effort in the offseason to improve their defensive front, signing Gunter, Al Woods and Cassius Marsh Sr. in free agency, but Woods opted out of playing this season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In the draft, the Jaguars used a third-round pick to select former Ohio State defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton.
The Jaguars finished 28th in the league against the run, and they allowed 23 rushing touchdowns — the second-highest total behind Carolina’s 31.
With the Jaguars trading veteran defensive end Calais Campbell and top cornerback A.J. Bouye and parting ways with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus’ contract, defensive coordinator Todd Wash plans to be more flexible schematically.
Wash is going interchange his customary 4-3 alignment with the 3-4 in the base sets. Marrone says that the Jaguars need to be a more attacking defense to take advantage of Allen’s athleticism by playing him at outside linebacker, where he can make more plays sideline to sideline.
The Jaguars also upgraded their middle linebacker position with the addition of former Cleveland Brown Joe Schobert, who gets off blocks well to stop inside runs. They added depth at the spot by selecting Shaquille Quarterman in the fourth round. Quarterman never missed a game in four seasons at Miami and was a first-team All-ACC selection last season after finishing with 107 tackles.
The Jaguars don’t have much behind projected cornerback starters Tre Herndon and Henderson. They did sign former Detroit Lion Rashaan Melvin in free agency but he opted out this season. D.J. Hayden is the starting nickel corner.
The two most stable positions on the Jaguars’ roster heading into the season are kicker and punter. Kicker Josh Lambo has a franchise-best 94.7 field-goal percentage, which is the highest by any player in the NFL since 2017 (min. 10 FGA). He will enter the season trying to extend a streak of 42 consecutive made field goals in home games since joining the Jaguars in 2017. Punter Logan Cooke’s 42.8 career net punting average ranks first in franchise history. The Jaguars drafted Chris Claybrooks in the seventh round to become the team’s kick returner, and Westbrook will return punts.
The Jaguars don’t have enough proven, experienced talent to achieve a winning record. At best, they could finish with five or six wins, but this is a rebuild with plans of continuing to add young talent to the roster. The Jaguars have nine picks in the 2021 draft, including two in the first round for the second consecutive season.