The Jaguars have been the worst team in the league in terms of win-loss record over the past 5 seasons, going 19-61 since the start of the 2011 season, including just 5-11 last season. However, things were really looking up for them going into this off-season, thanks to the combination of exciting young talent, a lot of cap space, a high draft pick, and last year’s high draft pick (#3 overall) Dante Fowler coming back from an injury that cost him his entire rookie season. After a strong off-season, this team is in position to compete in the weak AFC South. I’ll get into the rest later, but the most obvious reason why things are looking up for this team is young quarterback Blake Bortles, the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Bortles struggled mightily as a rookie, completing 58.9% of his passes for an average of 6.12 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, while finishing dead last among eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. However, he was better in every aspect in his 2nd year in the league, completing 58.6% of his passes for an average of 7.31 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions, while finishing just slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, 23rd out of 38 eligible quarterbacks. The big, athletic 6-5 246 pounder has also rushed for 729 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 108 carries in 2 seasons in the league, an average of 6.75 yards per attempt. Only going into his age 24 season, he obviously could take another step forward in 2016.
Of course, it’s unfair to give Bortles all the credit for his improved pass numbers, as Bortles had arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL in 2015, as fellow 2nd year players Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns both had 1000+ yard breakout seasons. Robinson’s breakout year wasn’t a huge surprise, as the 2014 2nd round pick was on a solid pace through 10 games as a rookie, before going down for the season with injury, catching 48 passes for 548 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, he caught 80 passes for 1400 yards and 14 touchdowns in 16 games, while ending the year as Pro Football Focus’ #12 ranked wide receiver, more than anyone was expecting out of him.
Hurns’ breakout year was way more of a surprise, considering he didn’t even get drafted in 2014. Hurns played 805 snaps in 16 games as a rookie, making 8 starts, but it felt like he was playing out of necessity more than anything, as he struggled, finishing 104th out of 110 eligible wide receivers that year. Many expected Marqise Lee, also a 2nd round pick in that 2014 draft, to beat out Hurns for the starting job in 2015, after an injury plagued rookie season. Instead, Hurns kept the starting job all season and caught 64 passes for 1031 yards and 10 touchdowns, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver. He was rewarded with a 4-year, 40 million dollar extension this off-season. Both he and Robinson are going into just their 3rd year in the league, so they have very bright futures. Between Bortles, Robinson, and Hurns, the Jaguars found a ton of offensive talent in the 2014 draft class.
As I mentioned, the Jaguars also added Marqise Lee in the 2nd round of that 2014 draft, obviously wanting to surround Bortles with as much young offensive talent as they could. Lee hasn’t been nearly as good in 2 years in the league though, missing 9 games with injury, catching just 52 passes total, and grading out below average in both seasons. He played just 240 snaps last season and it’s no guarantee that he plays more snaps this season. He’ll compete for the #3 receiver job with Rashad Greene and Bryan Walters. Greene was their 5th round pick in 2015, while Walters is a 2010 undrafted free agent and veteran journeyman who actually flashed on 313 snaps last season. Prior to last season, he was primarily a special teamer though, with just 9 career catches from 2010-2014. Greene is reportedly the favorite, despite struggling on 170 snaps as a rookie.
As promising as the Jaguars’ offense is right now, Lee isn’t their only recent bust in terms of a player who was added with great expectations that has not lived up to them thus far. The Jaguars signed ex-Broncos tight end Julius Thomas to a 5-year, 46 million dollar deal last off-season, but he did not play well in his first year in Jacksonville, missing 4 games with injury and grading out 48th out of 67 eligible tight ends when he was on the field. That’s not a surprise, considering Thomas was largely a one-year wonder coming into the season. He’s also never played more than 14 games in a season in 5 years in the league and is not a good blocker. He could have a better year as a pass catcher in 2016, which is much needed on a team that doesn’t currently have a reliable 3rd option in the passing game, but he’s unlikely to ever live up to his contract.
The Jaguars also still have tight end Marcedes Lewis after all these years, keeping the 2006 1st round pick on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Going into his age 32 season, with Thomas also in the mix, he obviously doesn’t have the same kind of role he used to have and he only has caught 59 passes in 35 games in the last 3 seasons, but the big 6-6 275 pounder is still valuable to the Jaguars as a run and pass blocker. He’s not a legitimate option in the passing game though and neither are any of the Jaguars’ wide receivers behind Robinson and Hurns, so they’ll need Thomas to step up and be a reliable 3rd option. It’s an overall strong receiving corps regardless, thanks to arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.
As I mentioned, the Jaguars had a lot of cap space coming into this off-season. While they used most of it on defense, the Jaguars did make some big signings on offense this off-season, including running back Chris Ivory, who was lured over from the Jets with a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money for someone who is purely a two-down player. He’s rushed for 4031 yards and 24 touchdowns on 883 carries (4.57 YPC) in 6 years in the league, grading out above average in run grade in all 6 seasons, but he’s only caught 53 passes in 70 career games and has only once graded out above average as a pass catcher. He’s also never played more than 551 snaps in a season in his career, as a result of how one-dimensional he is.
It doesn’t help matters that Ivory is going into his age 28 season. That’s not old yet, but running backs don’t have very long careers and Ivory’s bruising running style makes him more susceptible to injuries. He’s only missed 2 games with injury over the last 3 seasons, but he’s missed 26 in 6 years in the league and has been limited in many other games by injuries. It’s also worth noting that he’s only once exceeded 200 carries in a season. He’ll likely split snaps with holdover TJ Yeldon, who was a 2nd round pick in 2015.
Yeldon was pretty good as a rookie, which is why it’s a surprise that the Jaguars brought in Ivory, especially considering how much they paid Ivory. Yeldon finished his rookie year as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back, rushing for 740 yards and 2 touchdowns on 182 carries (xx ypc), while adding 36 catches for 276 yards and another 1 touchdown through the air in 12 games. His overall numbers don’t look fantastic, but he broke a lot of tackles and got great yardage after contact. He and Ivory should form a two-headed monster at running back this season, with Yeldon seeing at least a third of the carries, playing passing downs, and providing insurance in case Ivory gets hurt again.
Ivory wasn’t the only big money free agent the Jaguars added this off-season, as they signed ex-Steelers offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal. Beachum played all over Pittsburgh’s offensive line, but is expected to start at left tackle for the Jaguars in 2016. Beachum finished the 2014 season as Pro Football Focus’ #5 ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts at left tackle and was on his way to another solid year on the blindside in 2015, but tore his ACL 6 games into the season and missed the rest of the year.
The 2012 7th round pick has spent the last 2 seasons at left tackle, but is still a one-year wonder as a top level offensive lineman. He graded out below average in the first 2 seasons of his career, so he’s really only been good for 22 starts and he’s coming off of a serious injury. However, he’s only going into his age 27 season and has great bounce back potential. The way the Jaguars structured this deal is great for them because only 5 million in the first year is guaranteed, so the Jaguars can get out of the remaining 40 million over 4 years if he struggles this year. Most likely, he won’t struggle and will come back strong, but there are no guarantees.
Beachum will move incumbent left tackle Luke Joeckel inside to left guard. Given that Joeckel does not have experience at guard and Beachum does, Joeckel being moved inside should tell you all you need to know about how Joeckel’s tenure at left tackle went. The #2 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Joeckel has made 30 starts at left tackle over the past 2 seasons, but has largely proven to be a bust. He was Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked offensive tackle out of 77 eligible in 2014 and 67th out of 84 eligible in 2015. The Jaguars declined his 5th year option for 2017, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, so this seems like Joeckel’s final year in Jacksonville. The only way he sees action on the blindside this season is if Beachum gets hurt again.
He’s no lock to even be the starter at left guard, as the Jaguars have 5 players competing for 3 starting jobs at left guard, center, and right guard. Joeckel is joined by Brandon Linder, AJ Cann, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Luke Bowanko. Linder was great as a 3rd round rookie at right guard in 2014, grading out 10th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He was limited to 197 nondescript snaps in 2015 by injuries, but he was too good as a rookie not to regain a starting job somewhere on this offensive line in 2016, as long as he’s healthy. He’s spent most of the off-season at center.
AJ Cann replaced Linder when he was injured last season and it appears the 2015 3rd round pick will at least be given every chance to keep the right guard job in his 2nd year in the league. Cann wasn’t great as a rookie though, grading out below average. Given that he fell to the 3rd round, he’s not guaranteed to be better this year than he was last year. He could face competition for his job from free agent acquisition Mackenzy Bernadeau. Bernadeau has experience and versatility, making 40 career starts and playing left guard, right guard, and center, but he’s graded out below average in 6 of 8 seasons in the league since going in the 7th round in 2008 and isn’t getting better going into his age 30 season.
Bernadeau and Luke Bowanko are the only linemen on the roster with experience at center, but neither of them are legitimate candidates for the starting job unless Linder noticeably struggles at center. Bowanko made 14 starts at center in 2014 as a 6th round rookie, but finished 29th out of 41 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus and didn’t play a snap in 2015. He’ll be nothing more than a backup. Bernadeau, meanwhile, is much more likely to win a starting job at either left guard or right guard than center. He’s reportedly taken a lot of first team reps at left guard this off-season, with Beachum did working back from the injury and Joeckel still playing at left tackle as a result. Bernadeau’s familiarity with the position could land him the starting job to start the season.
Rounding out the offensive line at right tackle is Jermey Parnell. Parnell came over from the Cowboys last off-season on a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal, after a 2014 season in which he flashed on 388 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked offensive tackle in 5 starts. It was a risky deal considering 2014 was the first time in Parnell’s career in which he graded out above average, since going undrafted in 2009. However, Parnell wasn’t bad in his first year in Jacksonville, making 15 starts and grading out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. His age is a concern, as he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he appears to be a capable starter. The offensive line should be better this season with Linder coming back and Beachum coming in, but there are still obvious problems.
As I mentioned earlier, the Jaguars are getting 2015 #3 overall pick Dante Fowler, a defensive end out of the University of Florida, back from a torn ACL that cost him his entire rookie season. Fowler is obviously unproven and coming off of a serious injury, but he’s a very talented, high upside player whose return is essentially like having a second top-5 round pick. The Jaguars’ injury issues on defense went beyond Fowler, as the Jaguars finished with the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury on defense in the league. They will likely have better injury luck this season.
Along with Fowler, another defensive lineman who basically had a lost season in 2015 was defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks. Marks was limited to 144 nondescript snaps in 4 games by various injuries. He missed the start of the season coming back from a torn ACL he suffered late in 2014 and then his season ended prematurely with a torn triceps. Prior to 2015, he had missed just 2 games with injury in the previous 4 seasons and was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked defensive tackle in 2014. The 7-year veteran remains a one-year wonder, as 2014 was the only season in his career in which he’s graded out above average, and he’s going into his age 29 season coming off of two major injuries, but having him back should be nice, even if it’s just for depth purposes.
In addition to the two players returning from injury, the Jaguars also made an aggressive move in free agency to add ex-Bronco Malik Jackson on a 6-year, 90 million dollar deal. They might have overpaid a little, but the move certainly made sense. The Jaguars desperately needed help on a defense that ranked 27th in rate of moving the chains allowed and had plenty of cap space with which to be aggressive. Jackson’s a huge addition. The 2012 5th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked defensive tackle in 2013, their 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2014, and their 5th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. The only reason he was allowed to hit the open market is because the Broncos needed the franchise tag for Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. Otherwise, Jackson would have been an obvious franchise tag candidate. The Broncos’ loss is the Jaguars’ gain.
Jackson will likely play defensive end in base packages opposite Jared Odrick, with Fowler sprinkled in. Odrick is similar to Jackson in frame (Odrick is 6-5 302 and Jackson is 6-5 293) and both have experience at 4-3 defensive tackle, 3-4 defensive end, and 4-3 defensive end. Both will move inside and rush the passer in sub packages. That’s where both are most valuable. Odrick is an inferior player to Jackson, but still a valuable asset upfront. A 2010 1st round pick, Odrick was a bit of a late bloomer, but finished in the top-19 among defensive tackles in 2013 and 2014, earning him a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract from the Jaguars. In his first season in Jacksonville, he finished 54th among edge defenders, unspectacular, but solid. He and Jackson should lead this defensive line in snaps played.
Fowler will play primarily in sub packages in what’s essentially his rookie season, but could see 600 or so snaps. On the other side in sub packages, it’ll primarily be Yannick Ngakoue, a 3rd round rookie defensive end out of the University of Maryland. The Jaguars also used a 4th round pick on Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who will compete for snaps at defensive tackle. Veteran holdovers Tyson Alualu and Roy Miller will likely play the majority of the snaps in base packages inside, as they did last season. Miller played well, finishing 36th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, but Alualu finished 87th out of 123 eligible. Alualu has been a massive bust as a 2009 1st round pick, grading out below average in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league.
Meanwhile, even though Miller played well last season, that hasn’t been the norm of him in his career, as it was the first time in his 7-year career that he graded out above average. Going into their age 29 seasons, things are not looking up for either of them. Both of them could see significantly fewer snaps this season on a defensive line that’s added much needed depth and talent. Marks returns, Day enters, and defensive end Dante Fowler could take over an every down role by the end of the season, pushing either Jackson or Odrick inside full-time. Anyway you look at it, it’s a deep defensive line that doesn’t have enough snaps for everyone to play as much as they should. That’s a good problem to have.
In addition to using their 3rd and 4th round picks on defensive linemen, the Jaguars also used their 1st and 2nd round picks on defensive players, which makes sense considering it was definitely the problem side of the ball in 2015. I’ll get into their first round pick later, but second round pick Myles Jack, a linebacker out of UCLA, has the potential to be a great pick. Before a pre-draft slide, many expected the Jaguars to take Jack at 5 in the first round. Instead, they were able to get him in the second as teams were scared off by his knee. Jack tore his meniscus in 2015 and missed most of the season. In the pre-draft process, it was apparently discovered that he may need microfracture surgery down the line, something Jack himself essentially confirmed. A top-5 talent, the Jaguars get an obvious steal if he’s healthy, but he’s a boom or bust pick because of the knee.
Immediately, he’ll compete with veteran incumbent middle linebacker Paul Posluszny for playing time. Posluszny has had a good career, but his best days are behind him. He’s graded out below average in each of the past 4 seasons and is going into his age 32 season. At this stage of his career, he’s only suited to be a two-down linebacker, so Jack could and should play sub packages as a rookie at the very least. Jack should have somewhat of a rookie role and could be an every down player by season’s end. He has a chance to be good in that role in year 1.
Telvin Smith will play every down outside, while Dan Skuta also remains as a two-down player outside, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Smith was a mere 5th round pick in 2014, but he quickly became a starter, making 23 starts in 2 seasons in the league. He graded out slightly above average in 2014, slightly below average in 2015, and figures to be somewhere around there again in 2016. The 6-3 218 pounder predictably struggles against the run, but is great in coverage.
Skuta, meanwhile, also graded out slightly below average last season in his first season in Jacksonville. A 7-year veteran, Skuta has graded out above average in 3 of the last 5 seasons, but has just 30 career starts and the 417 snaps he played last season were a career high. He’s a capable base package outside linebacker, who can also rush the passer off the edge some in sub packages, but he’s an unspectacular player who is going into his age 30 season. It’s a solid, but unspectacular linebacking corps.
As I mentioned, the Jaguars also used their first round pick on defense, taking Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey at #5 overall. Like Jack, Ramsey was a steal, as much as a player can be a steal at #5 overall. At one point a candidate to go #1 to Tennessee before they traded down with the Rams, Ramsey was not expected to get past 4 on draft day, but was inexplicably passed on by both San Diego and Dallas at 3 and 4. Ramsey was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked draft prospect and compares favorably to Arizona’s Patrick Peterson. Off-season knee surgery slows down his development, but he will probably start the season as the #1 cornerback.
The Jaguars also added veterans Prince Amukamara and Tashaun Gipson in free agency. The former will start next to Ramsey at cornerback, while the latter is a safety. Amukamara came very inexpensively this off-season, getting just 5 million on 1-year deal. It makes some sense that Amukamara would take a short-term deal and try free agency again next off-season, considering he missed 5 games with injury in 2011, but he’s missed 25 games with injury in his career, so he’s never been a durable player. He’s always been good when he’s on the field though, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 32nd in 2015. As long as he stays relatively healthy, he should be worth what the Jaguars paid him this off-season.
Last season, without Ramsey and Amukamara, Aaron Colvin, Davon House, and Dwayne Gratz were the Jaguars’ top-3 cornerbacks. Gratz graded out below average in 2015, as the 2013 3rd round pick did in 2014 as well, but Colvin and House weren’t bad. House, who got a 4-year, 24.5 million dollar contract last off-season, is the favorite for the #3 cornerback slot. He graded out around average in 2015, as he has in every season of his 5-year career. Colvin is a solid player as well, but he’s serving a 4-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs to start the season. That makes it very, very tough for him to beat out House for the #3 job. It’s a much deeper group of cornerbacks this season, so much so that Gratz is likely on the roster bubble.
Things were horrible at safety last season, as Sergio Brown, Josh Evans, and John Cyprien played 555, 621, and 1015 snaps respectively and finished 82nd, 84th, and 87th respectively among 89 eligible safeties. As I mentioned, the Jaguars signed Tashaun Gipson to plug up one hole at safety, giving the ex-Brown a 5-year, 35.5 million dollar deal. Cyprien, meanwhile, remains as the other starter, going into his 4th year in the league. The 2013 2nd round pick has made 44 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but has never graded out above average and was abysmal in both 2013 and 2015. Going into the final year of his rookie contract, this might be his final season in Jacksonville.
Gipson is not necessarily better. In fact, he was worse last season, finishing 88th out of 89 eligible safeties. He was much better in 2014, when he finished 10th among safeties, but he’s a one-year wonder who has only once graded out above average in 4 years in the league, since going undrafted in 2012. He has bounce back potential and should be an upgrade by default, but it really seems like the Jaguars overpaid for him. He’s part of an overall improved secondary that still has obvious issues.
The Jaguars added a lot of talent to their young core this off-season and figure to take a step forward in 2016, after being the worst team in the league over the past 5 seasons. However, a big step forward from 5 wins still might not put them in the playoffs and they could be a ways away from making any real noise. They still have obvious problems on defense and figure to play a lot of high scoring games. If young players step up and exceed expectations, they could sneak into the playoffs in a weak AFC South, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Prediction: 7-9 4th in AFC South