It took 18 years for the Jaguars to get their first franchise quarterback since Mark Brunell. But now they can build around a generational talent at the position with former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Attention this season will focus on whether Lawrence and head coach Urban Meyer, who came out of a two-year retirement to make the jump to the NFL, can return Jacksonville to relevancy.
The Jaguars have enough of a veteran mix and young, emerging players to be more competitive than last season. But after nine losing seasons in 10 years, including an NFL-worst 1–15 record last season, this is not a quick fix.
This season will be uncharted territory for both coach and quarterback. In 17 years as a college head coach, Meyer never experienced a losing season, winning two national championships at Florida and one at Ohio State. Lawrence never lost a regular-season game, going 34–2 as the starter during his three seasons as Clemson’s quarterback. Getting five or six wins this season could be a stretch for the duo.
Lawrence will get a quick introduction to the NFL game. It will be paramount for him to recognize blitzes, take advantage of his mobility and make quick, accurate passes. Look for the Jaguars to spread the field with empty formations and three-receiver sets to provide Lawrence with targets, especially short and mid-range.
Lawrence won't have Travis Etienne, a fellow first-round pick and a teammate at Clemson. Etienne was expected to be a matchup nightmare for opponents, but he's lost for the season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in the Jaguars' second preseason game. In his absence, James Robinson will get the opportunity to shine as the featured back. Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell are going to have to get more creative on offense with Etienne no longer in the picture.
It was a no-brainer for veteran Carlos Hyde to return to Jacksonville and play for Meyer, his former coach at Ohio State. For his second stint, Hyde will complement Robinson, especially in short-yardage situations and in the red zone.
The Jaguars’ biggest weakness offensively is the lack of a receiving tight end, and they didn’t address the need in free agency or the draft. But free-agent addition Chris Manhertz is an exceptional blocker, and they added another blocking tight end, Luke Farrell, a fifth-round pick from Ohio State. Establishing the running game will be a focus, and two-tight-end sets will help with the run blocking.
The wide receiver position is a strength. Veteran Marvin Jones Jr., a free agent signee, caught 18 touchdowns and averaged more than 12.5 yards per catch the previous two seasons with the Detroit Lions under Bevell, with whom he’s reunited in Jacksonville. Exceptional at finding open spaces, Jones will be the Jaguars’ top deep threat. The Jaguars are going to need fourth-year receiver DJ Chark Jr. to return to his 2019 level, when he made the Pro Bowl after a 1,000-yard season. The Jaguars also will have more speed on the field at the position, especially with Phillip Dorsett II, who signed in free agency. Also, watch out for Laviska Shenault Jr., a gifted athlete who emerged as a slot receiver last season with a team-leading 58 catches. Meyer and Co. are likely to do a better job of utilizing Shenault in the open field than the previous staff did.
The Jaguars made a mistake in free agency by not acquiring veteran help for the offensive line. They took Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little in the second round, but he has played just one game since 2018 after opting out last season and missing all but the first game in 2019 because of a left knee injury. Little is going to be the eventual replacement for Cam Robinson, who was tendered the $13.7 million franchise tag this offseason but likely won’t be extended a long-term deal. Jawaan Taylor is on notice that he must perform better to hold on to his starting job. The offensive line is in much better shape on the interior with center Brandon Linder and guards A.J. Cann and Andrew Norwell.
Defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, who spent the past five seasons as the Baltimore Ravens defensive line coach, will have his work cut out for him trying to turn around a unit that finished near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category last season. Cullen plans to use a 3-4 scheme, touted as a better fit for the existing talent.
With only 18 sacks, the Jaguars spent the offseason making a push to improve their defensive front, signing former Bears defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris and former Ravens defensive end Jihad Ward in free agency. And the Jaguars acquired defensive tackle Malcom Brown in a trade with the Saints in exchange for their 2021 seventh-round pick. Brown is a key addition because of his strength as a run stopper.
With the influx of defensive help, the Jaguars are not likely to depend much on former first-round pick defensive tackle Taven Bryan, who has been a major disappointment. In May, the Jaguars declined Bryan’s fifth-year option.
The Jaguars are expected to have a solid rotational piece in fourth-round pick Jay Tufele, who played at USC. Tufele was one of the fastest defensive linemen in the 2021 draft class, running a 4.97 40 at his Pro Day.
In the 3-4 scheme, Josh Allen can take advantage of his athleticism to make more plays in space as an outside linebacker. K’Lavon Chaisson, a first-round pick in 2020, has that same potential; he was overmatched as an edge rusher because of his size disadvantage. Both Allen and Chaisson can drop in coverage on passing downs. Inside linebacker Joe Schobert will have to be a more physical presence and make more plays at the line of scrimmage. Inside linebacker Myles Jack is the Jaguars’ most talented player in their starting unit. He’s coming off a career-high 118 tackles.
Former Seattle Pro Bowl cornerback Shaquill Griffin was the Jaguars’ biggest free-agent signee and will be the team’s No. 1 cornerback. Opposite Griffin is CJ Henderson, a first-round pick last season who spent the offseason recovering from labrum surgery. He’s been put on notice that his production must improve. The Jaguars drafted Tyson Campbell with the first pick in the second round, and he could challenge Henderson for a starting job. If Campbell doesn’t unseat Henderson, he will be the starting nickel.
The Jaguars have significantly improved the back end of their defense with the addition of former Chargers strong safety Rayshawn Jenkins. He’s a bruiser in run support and can cover tight ends and receivers. Jarrod Wilson is a returning starter at free safety. The Jaguars improved their free safety depth with the addition of Andre Cisco, a third-round pick in the 2021 draft. Cisco is a dynamic playmaker with 13 interceptions in 24 college games.
The Jaguars had six different players attempt a PAT or field goal in 2020, the most in a single season by a team since the 1970 merger. Top kicker Josh Lambo went on injured reserve twice because of a hip injury. Lambo is expected to return healthy for this season, but the Jaguars re-signed Aldrick Rosas in the offseason. Former Lion Jamal Agnew, who was signed in free agency, will handle both punt and kickoff returns. Logan Cooke is the punter (47.7-yard average) and will handle kickoffs.
Meyer knows little about losing, but he will experience his share this season. However, he is changing the culture, and the team has its franchise quarterback with Lawrence. Still, it will take Meyer time to rebuild the Jaguars. Coming off a one-win 2020, getting six this season would be an accomplishment.