The Jaguars went just 3-13 in 2016, but were a lot closer to being a respectable team than people realize. Eight of their 13 losses came by a touchdown or less and many of their games were decided by just a couple plays. Usually, one of those plays was a turnover, as they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -16, but, fortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. They finished last season 15th in first down rate differential, so, if they can play closer to turnover neutral football, that would likely lead to a big jump in win total, especially considering how many near victories they had last season.
You might think that the Jaguars playing turnover neutral football is an impossibility because of quarterback Blake Bortles, who has the second most interceptions in the league over the past 3 seasons, but he wasn’t the biggest problem for the Jaguars in terms of turnover margin last season. He threw 16 interceptions on 625 attempts last season, an interception rate of 2.55%, which was actually the lowest rate of his career and just 19th highest among 48 quarterbacks who threw more than 50 passes. He actually had a lower interception rate than Ben Roethlisberger (2.56%), Cam Newton (2.75%), and Eli Manning (2.68%). As a team, they ranked tied for 8th in interceptions with three other teams.
The bigger problems for the Jaguars were fumbles lost (13, tied for 4th), and takeaways (13, tied for 2nd fewest). Both of those should be better this season. The Jaguars ranked dead last in fumble recovery rate last season, recovering just 2 of 15 offensive fumbles, which is more bad luck than anything, and their defense is too talented to not generate more takeaways in 2017 (a lot more on that later). Bortles did lose 6 fumbles last season, tied for the league lead with Jameis Winston, but he only lost 6 fumbles combined in his first 2 seasons in the league, so this doesn’t seem to be a pattern with him.
None of this is to say that Blake Bortles is a good quarterback. In fact, he’s pretty bad one. But even if he ranks among the league leaders in interceptions again this season, the Jaguars could still have a reasonable turnover margin. Bortles’ biggest issue is his accuracy, as he has completed fewer than 60% of his passes in all 3 seasons in the league. He had better overall yardage and touchdown numbers in what looked like a breakout season in 2015, but his total career numbers are very underwhelming. In 45 starts in 3 seasons in the league, he has completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.59 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 51 interceptions.
Even in his best season in 2015, he still finished 23rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. In 2014 and 2016 respectively, he finished dead last and 28th out of 34 eligible at the position. As a result of his incompetency, the Jaguars ranked just 23rd in first down rate last season, so their issues on offense definitely go beyond turnovers. The Jaguars used the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Bortles and will give him another shot as the starter in 2017, still only his age 25 season, after not adding any meaningful competition for him this off-season, but this is a make or break year for him. The 2018 free agency class and draft class are both much more talented at the quarterback position than 2017’s and Bortles’ 19.053 million dollar salary for 2018 is guaranteed for injury only. This could easily be his final season in Jacksonville if he doesn’t get it together.
The Jaguars’ offensive struggles last season weren’t all Bortles’ fault and the Jaguars needed to find upgrades at multiple spots on offense around him this off-season. Running back wasn’t seen as a glaring need as both TJ Yeldon and Chris Ivory are capable backs, but the Jaguars couldn’t resist LSU running back Leonard Fournette at #4 overall in the first round. Fournette isn’t quite as complete of a back as last year’s #4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, but he runs with great power and can have an instant impact for this team on early downs. Even with Yeldon and Ivory on the roster, he’s clearly their best runner.
It will be interesting to see how they work in Ivory and Yeldon behind him. They averaged just 3.67 and 3.58 YPC respectively last season, but that wasn’t completely their fault because they didn’t have a lot of supporting talent around them. On top of that, Ivory rushed for 1000 yards in 2015 with the Jets and Yeldon is a 2015 2nd round pick. Yeldon has the most obvious path to a role because of what he can do on passing downs. Yeldon has a mediocre 3.86 career YPC on 1,205 carries and just 3 rushing touchdowns, but has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons because he has caught 86 passes in 2 seasons and because he’s a reliable pass blocker. Fournette isn’t a great passing down option, so Yeldon would complement him well.
Ivory’s path to playing time is much less clear, even though the Jaguars gave him a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. Unlike Yeldon, Ivory is useless on passing downs with 73 career catches in 81 games and he is coming off of a way worse season, finishing 61st out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus last season. Ivory has had success in the past and much of his struggles last season were injury related, but injuries have always been an issue for him because of his violent running style. He’s missed 31 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has played through injuries in countless others.
Ivory has a career 4.47 YPC average on 1,000 carries, but, now going into his age 29 season, he might be running out of gas. There isn’t really anything that Ivory does well that Fournette doesn’t do much better, so it’s hard to see Ivory having a big role this season, especially with Yeldon also in the mix. They will probably try to trade Ivory, but he’s owed 5 million guaranteed this season, so that will be next to impossible. The Jaguars will have to just eat the money and release him next off-season. It’s a much upgraded backfield with Fournette entering the mix. They will try to run the ball heavily and win games with a conservative offense and a good defense.
The Jaguars also used their 2nd round pick on an offensive player, taking Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson at 34 overall. They also acquired veteran Branden Albert from Miami for a late round pick. Those two will probably make up a remade left side of the offensive line, although Albert has yet to report to the team since being traded. Albert has yet to miss anything mandatory, but his absence from the team is giving Robinson a leg up on the competition for the left tackle job. Albert is reportedly holding out for more money, a strange move considering the Dolphins likely would have just cut him if the Jaguars didn’t trade for him.
The Jaguars didn’t give much up for him and he’s already owed 9 million this season. Going into his age 33 season and coming off of a terrible season in which he finished 65th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles, Albert wouldn’t be able to get half of that on the open market. Without any guaranteed money left on his contract, the Jaguars can just cut him if he doesn’t report for mandatory activities. Even if he does report, he could still end up having to move back to left guard, where he last played in college in 2007. He has made 118 starts at left tackle over the past 9 seasons and graded out above average in every season from 2010 to 2015, but he’s not the same player anymore and Robinson could impress.
Albert and Robinson do have a good chance to be an upgrade over what they had on the left side last season. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum struggled all season, while left guard Luke Joeckel struggled until tearing his ACL and going down for the season. His replacement Patrick Omameh was solid in 7 starts, but he’s struggled in the past and is best as a reserve, which is what he’ll be this season. He will backup whoever ends up with the left guard job and right guard AJ Cann, who made 29 starts in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 3rd round in 2015, but has underwhelmed. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but he’s also only a former 3rd round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into an above average starter.
Center Brandon Linder was their best offensive lineman last season, finishing 5th among centers on Pro Football Focus in his first season at the position. Linder ranked 10th among guards as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 too, but missed most of 2015 with injury and was moved to center last off-season. Center seems to be his best pro position, but his versatility is very valuable, especially on an uncertain offensive line this one. The Jaguars would be wise to lock him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.
Rounding out the offensive line is right tackle Jermey Parnell, who is also a capable starter. A 2009 undrafted free agent, Parnell was very much a late bloomer, making just 2 career starts in his first 5 seasons in the league. In his 6th year in the league in 2014, he flashed in 5 starts for the Cowboys, which landed him a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal with the Jaguars. It was a risky deal to give to someone with 7 career starts, but it has paid off, as he has graded out above average in both seasons with the Jaguars, including a 31st place rank last season. He’s going into his age 31 season, but could still be a solid starter for another couple years. This offensive line has the potential to be better in 2017, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty.
The receiving corps was the Jaguars’ best offensive unit last season, though largely by default. They weren’t bad, but they played significantly worse than they did in 2015, specifically wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who seemed to have breakout years in 2015. A year after both topped 1000 yards (one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to do so) neither had 1000 yards. Hurns was especially bad, dropping from a 64/1031/10 slash line to a 35/477/3 slash line. Hurns missed 5 games with injury, but did not look like his 2015 self even when on the field, catching just 46.1% of targets and finishing 106th among 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus.
Hurns ranked 18th at his position in 2015, but was also a bottom-10 wide receiver as a rookie and went undrafted in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Jaguars locked him up on a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension last off-season after just 2 seasons in the league and that deal could end up as one the biggest mistakes in recent years if he doesn’t turn it around. The Jaguars have already paid him over 8 million in new money on that extension and it hasn’t even technically started yet. His 7 million dollar salary for 2017 is guaranteed. Fortunately, they can get out of the deal after this season without penalty, but they’ll have essentially paid him over 15 million dollars in new money for one year if they do that.
While Hurns was an undrafted free agent who may have had a fluke season in 2015, Allen Robinson has much more talent and much more bounce back potential for that reason. Even in his down season last year, he still caught 73 passes for 883 yards and 6 touchdowns and graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. He also caught fewer than 50% of his targets, but a lot of that had to do with quarterback play and how much bracket coverage he received. In 2015, Robinson caught 80 passes for 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns and finished 12th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and, still only going into his age 24 season, the 2014 2nd round pick still has a bright future. Even if Bortles continues to struggle this season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Robinson topped 1000 yards again. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Jaguars would be wise to lock him up long-term while his value is at a low point.
Fortunately, Marqise Lee had a mini-breakout year to help offset some of the dip in production by Robinson and Hurns. A 2014 2nd round pick like Robinson, Lee couldn’t stay on the field in his first 2 seasons in the league and didn’t play very well when on the field, catching just 52 passes in 23 games. Finally healthy in 2016, Lee had a breakout year, catching 63 passes for 851 yards and 3 touchdowns and finishing ahead of Robinson on Pro Football Focus, 39th among wide receivers. If the Jaguars can ever get all 3 of Robinson, Hurns, and Lee playing well at the same time, this could be a dangerous group of wide receivers, but that’s a big if. Robinson is the only one who I have a high level of trust in for 2017.
This receiving corps is also hurt by their lack of a good receiving tight end. Julius Thomas led all tight ends in catches in 2016 with just 30 and now he’s not even with the team anymore, after the Jaguars sent him to the Dolphins for a late round pick. It was the right decision because Thomas was not worth his 7.1 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2017 and they likely would have just cut him if they couldn’t trade him, but it left them very thin at the tight end position. After the trade of Thomas, many thought the Jaguars would draft the draft’s best tight end OJ Howard at #4 overall, but they didn’t spend a single draft pick on the position.
All three of Marcedes Lewis, Mychal Rivera, and Ben Koyack could see action as the Jaguars try to patch things together with a tight end by committee type situation. Lewis has by far the most experience, with 141 starts in 154 games in 11 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 33 season, Lewis is not the same player he once was and has missed 19 games with injury over the past 4 seasons, so he may be breaking down. In his prime he was an underrated overall player who could run block, pass block, and catch passes, but isn’t much more than a solid blocker anymore, even when he is on the field. He has just 79 catches over the past 4 seasons. He could see a slight uptick in targets with Thomas gone but, he probably won’t catch more than 25-30 balls even if he can stay healthy this season.
Mychal Rivera also has some experience, playing 61 games in 4 seasons in the league, but only starting 15 of those games. Ten of those starts came in 2014, when he caught 58 passes, but averaged just 5.39 yards per target and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end on the season. He’s been alright as a #2 tight end, but the former 6th round pick has averaged just 353 yards per season in his career and doesn’t block well either. Koyack has the most upside of the bunch, but the 2015 6th round pick played just 363 snaps last season and spent his rookie season on the practice squad, so he’s very unproven. The Jaguars will probably use more 3-wide receiver sets to offset their lack of depth at tight end, but not having a good receiving tight end will hurt this offense.
As I mentioned earlier, the Jaguars struggled to force takeaways last season, finishing tied for 2nd worst with 13 takeaways, but turnovers tend to be very inconsistent and they’re just too talented not to force more takeaways this season. They finished last season 6th in first down rate allowed and look like a top-5 defense on paper after adding more talent in free agency this off-season. Their biggest off-season acquisition was defensive end Calais Campbell, who comes to the Jaguars on a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal, after spending the first 9 seasons of his career with the Cardinals.
Campbell has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the past 6 seasons and ranked #1 at the position last season. Going into his age 31 season, Campbell’s age is a bit of a concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of aging yet. In Jacksonville’s 4-3 defense, the 6-8 286 pounder will play defensive end in base packages and move inside and rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, like he’s used to. One of the best defensive linemen in the league, Campbell is a huge addition to an already talented defense.
Last off-season, they also made a huge addition to their defensive line in free agency, signing ex-Bronco Malik Jackson to a 6 year 85.5 million dollar deal. A 6-5 290 pounder, Jackson also came from a 3-4 defense and played in a hybrid role in his first season in Jacksonville like Campbell will, finishing 8th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished in the top-12 at his position in 4 straight seasons. With Campbell in town, Jackson will probably play more of a traditional defensive tackle role. Wherever they line up, they should be nightmares for opposing offenses.
The Jaguars are also hoping that 3rd year defensive end Dante Fowler can take a step forward and give them a third nightmare for opposing defenses. The 3rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Fowler missed his entire rookie season with injury and was underwhelming on 569 snaps last season, but still has huge upside and could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league in 2017, still only his age 23 season. That would obviously be another big boost for this defense.
The Jaguars have four other young defensive lineman who will play rotational roles on this defense: Yannick Ngakoue, Dawuane Smoot, Abry Jones, and Sheldon Day. Ngakoue actually led all Jaguar defensive ends with 706 snaps played last season as a 3rd round rookie, but finished 103rd out of 109th eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus and will probably have a smaller role this season with Campbell coming in and Fowler taking on a larger role. His primary role will be rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages opposite Fowler, which is good for him because he was horrible against the run as a rookie. This year’s 3rd round pick, Dawuane Smoot, could also have a role as a rookie.
Jones and Day, meanwhile, will have roles at defensive tackle in base packages. Jones was re-signed this off-season to a 4-year, 15.5 million dollar deal after a breakout 2016 season in which he finished 12th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. A tough run stuffer at 6-3 313, Jones will probably play around the 463 snaps he played last season. The 2013 undrafted free agent entered last season with just 2 career starts and graded out well below average in both 2014 and 2015, but he is still only going into his age 26 season and could continue to be a solid base package player for them. Sheldon Day also played pretty well in limited action last season, although he only played 203 snaps. The 2016 4th round pick could have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. This is one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in football.
The Jaguars also got great play from their linebackers last season as Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith both played all 16 games and finished in the top-8 at their respective positions. For Smith, it was a breakout year, as he finished 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers after grading out about average in 23 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is one of the best young 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. The Jaguars are reportedly trying to work out a long-term extension with him ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.
For Posluszny, last year’s #4 finish among middle linebackers came out of nowhere, considering the veteran was on the wrong side of 30 and hadn’t graded out above average since 2011. Now going into his age 33 season, last year’s outstanding season could prove to be a fluke, but it’s possibly he has another couple seasons as a capable starter left in him. The Jaguars drafted Myles Jack in the 2nd round last year to be the long-term middle linebacker and future replacement for Posluszny, but he was limited to 239 snaps as a rookie and could have a hard time winning an every down job in his 2nd year in the league in 2017 with Posluszny coming off such a strong season.
Jack is talented enough for a big role though. He showed promise as a rookie and was seen as a potential top-5 pick in the draft before concerns about his knees dropped him to the 2nd round. The Jaguars have talked him up this off-season and it’s possible he could move inside and beat out Posluszny for an every down role, but he may have to spend another year as a part-time player. Assuming his knees hold up, he should be valuable to this team in whatever role he ends up in. It’s a good problem to have for arguably one of the strongest 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. They have three legitimate every down players.
In addition to Calais Campbell, the Jaguars also signed cornerback AJ Bouye and safety Barry Church to big contracts this off-season, giving them deals worth 67.5 million over 5 years and 26 million over 4 years respectively. Bouye replaces Prince Amukamara, who signed a 1-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Bears this off-season. Amukamara had a good year last year, finishing 41st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but Bouye finished 3rd, which is significantly better than Amukamara has ever been.
Bouye’s issue is that he’s the definition of a one-year wonder. At this time last year, he was the Texans’ 4th cornerback. A 2013 undrafted free agent, Bouye had finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and had just 8 career starts coming into last season. Injuries to guys ahead of him on the depth chart allowed him to play 722 snaps (11 starts) in 2016 and he made the most of it and made himself a ton of money. He’s a major risk because of his inexperience and unproven track record, but he is only going into his age 26 season and comes with obvious upside.
Barry Church is also a one year wonder, although he comes with less risk because he was paid less. He finished last season 11th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, though he replaces John Cyprien, who finished 7th at the position and signed with Tennessee this off-season. Church is also older than Cyprien, going into his age 29 season, and never did anything like what he did in 2016 in any of his first 6 seasons in the league. The former undrafted free agent has 63 career starts, including 59 in the past 4 seasons, and has never been bad, but last season was just the second season he ever graded out above average and it could easily prove to be a fluke.
Last off-season, the Jaguars gave a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal to another one-year wonder, safety Tashaun Gipson, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Unlike Bouye and Church, Gipson’s one year was not his contract year. Gipson finished 10th among safeties in 2014, but graded out below average in his other 3 seasons, including 88th out of 89 eligible in his contract year in 2015. He also had missed 14 games with injury in 4 seasons in the league. The Jaguars took a chance on him, betting that he could stay healthy and bounce back. He played all 16 games, but graded out below average again and was not worth the money they gave him. Going into his age 27 season, he has some bounce back potential, but it’s possible 2014 was a complete fluke for the 2012 undrafted free agent. He is the one weak spot on this defense.
Opposite AJ Bouye, second year player Jalen Ramsey remains as the starting cornerback. The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey made all 16 starts as a rookie and finished 21st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Ramsey has the upside to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league in a few seasons and could take another step forward in his second year in the league. One of the best defensive rookies in the league last season, the Jaguars appear to have made the right selection.
Aaron Colvin is expected to remain as the slot cornerback. Colvin fell to the 4th round in 2014 because of injury and was limited to 6 games as a rookie, but showed his talent in 2015 when he graded out above average in 16 games and made 15 starts. Last season, a combination of injury and suspension limited him to 292 snaps in 10 games, but he still played well when on the field. He won’t beat out either Bouye or Ramsey to win back his starting job, but, assuming he’s healthy, he should be one of the better #3 cornerbacks in the league and play more than half of the snaps. This is a talented secondary with good upside.
The Jaguars will be limited by their passing game, but could win games with their defense and running game. Given all the talent they added in the off-season and how many close losses they had last season, it won’t be hard for them to win a lot more games if they can force more takeaways and recover more of their fumbles. On paper, they have a top-5 defense that is strong on all 3 levels. They have a good mix of cheap young players and talented veterans signed to big contracts in free agency and could easily win 7 to 9 games and push for the AFC South title in an unsettled and underwhelming division.
Final update: The Jaguars’ quarterback situation went from bad to worse in the pre-season and Blake Bortles was briefly benched for Chad Henne. If they had adequate quarterback play, this would be an obvious playoff team in the AFC, but their quarterback situation really limits them.
Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC South