In 2017, the Jaguars looked like a young team on the rise, winning the AFC South and coming within minutes of beating the Patriots and advancing to the Super Bowl. That seemed to continue into 2018, when they started 3-1, including a rematch victory over New England week 2, but everything went downhill quickly from there and they ended the season at 5-11. Suddenly, a seemingly up and coming team regressed back to the team that finished 3-13 in 2016. Much like their 2016 team, the 2018 Jaguars had a strong defense (6th in first down rate allowed in 2016 and 5th in 2018) that was held back by an ineffective, turnover prone offense and a poor record in close games (2-8 in games decided by a touchdown in 2016, 2-6 in 2018).
A team’s record in close games tends to even out over the long run, but the Jaguars finished just 30th in first down rate in 2018, so changes needed to be made on offense. Highly paid quarterback Blake Bortles was benched mid-season for backup Cody Kessler and releasing him to save 11.5 million for 2019 was the obvious decision this off-season. Bortles showed flashes of being the player the Jaguars envisioned when drafting him 3rd overall in 2014, over players like Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and Odell Beckham, but he was widely inconsistent and turnover prone.
After moving on from Bortles, the Jaguars had to decide between signing a veteran in free agency or using their 7th overall pick on a quarterback like Dwayne Haskins. They chose the former, which is understandable for a team that felt that were a quarterback away from being right back in Super Bowl contention, but it cost them, as they had to give ex-Eagles quarterback Nick Foles a 4-year, 88 million dollar contract in free agency. Signing Foles allowed them to save the 7th overall pick to use on the best available player, who ended up being defensive end Josh Allen, but the Jaguars could have signed 2-3 starters at other positions in free agency with the money they ended up committing to Foles.
Ultimately, whether or not this decision pays off depends on what version of Nick Foles the Jaguars get. Moving on from a quarterback who was widely inconsistent, the Jaguars signed a quarterback who has also been widely inconsistent. Foles definitely has a better top level than Bortles, but his career has had plenty of ups and downs. Foles had the 3rd highest single season QB rating of all time in 2013 and led the Eagles on back-to-back playoff runs as the backup quarterback without Carson Wentz the past 2 seasons, including a Super Bowl victory in 2017.
However, he’s also been below an 82 QB rating in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including the 2017 regular season, which was a microcosm of his career, as he struggled in the regular season before going on one of the more improbable Super Bowl runs of all-time. Plenty of quarterbacks could be made to look bad by Jeff Fisher’s offense, which Foles played in during the 2015 season, but he also had a 79.1 QB rating in 2012 with Andy Reid as his head coach and a 81.4 QB rating in 2014 in the same Chip Kelly scheme that he had a 119.2 QB rating in the previous season. Foles is already going into his age 30 season, but it’s tough to know what kind of quarterback he is and he doesn’t seem to be the same quarterback week-to-week.
It’s also concerning that Foles has never made it through an entire 16 game season in his career. Part of that is because he’s been a backup in recent years, but he’s dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career and could easily miss a couple starts in 2019. If that happens, the Jaguars lack another good option, with only 2018 6th round pick Tanner Lee and 6th round rookie Gardner Minshew behind him on the depth chart. It might be the worst backup quarterback situation in the league, so the Jaguars will need Foles to start all 16 games if they are going to get back on top in a now much tougher AFC South. Even if they do get 16 starts from him, how he performs in those starts is tough to project.
One key to helping Foles succeed in Jacksonville is putting infrastructure around him, both in terms of players and coaching. That was something he severely lacked with the Rams the first time he left Philadelphia and his second stint outside of Philadelphia might not go much better if the Jaguars can’t put the right pieces around him. Fortunately, they were able to bring back in his old quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to coordinate the offense. DeFilippo’s first attempt at coordinating an offense last season with the Vikings didn’t go well, leading to him getting fired midway through the season, but he’s still regarded as an up and coming offensive mind and the familiarity with Foles should work to his benefit.
The Jaguars also figure to try to be a run heavy team to take the pressure off of Foles. They’ll likely open up the passing game more with Foles under center than they did with Bortles, but the Jaguars still have a strong defense and can afford to be conservative on offense. This team was built in large part by former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who is about as old school as they come, and he has built this team in that image, now in an executive role. That’s probably a big part of why the Jaguars pursued Foles this off-season rather than starting a rookie, even if doing so would have allowed them to add talent at other positions. Coughlin wants an experienced signal caller under center.
Coughlin isn’t coaching anymore obviously, but head coach Doug Marrone is entering his 3rd season with the team, working under Coughlin, and is obviously on the same page with Coughlin in terms of the kind of offense they are going to run. In 2017, the Jaguars ran just 551 pass plays to 527 run plays and, while they might not have quite that even of a split in 2019, it’s clear the blueprint they want to follow to win games.
The problem with that is they have a lot of uncertainty at running back. The Jaguars used the 4th overall pick in the 2017 draft on running back Leonard Fournette, but his career has been a mixed bag so far. He’s been relied on as a feature back whenever active, averaging 20.6 carries and 16.7 carries per game in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he’s been limited to 21 games in 2 seasons in the league and has just a career 3.69 YPC average.
Lack of offensive talent around him has been a big part of his struggles and he’s actually done a decent job keeping this offense on schedule all things considered, ranking 25th out of 46 qualifying running backs in carry success rate in 2017 (44%) and 26th out of 47 qualifying in 2018 (47%), but he hasn’t been the back the Jaguars expected when they drafted him 4th overall. There were rumors this off-season that the Jaguars were actually looking to move on from Fournette this off-season, after a one-game personal foul suspension last season that voided the remainder of his guaranteed money.
That didn’t end up happening and recent reports have been positive about Fournette’s standing with the team long-term. Still only in his age 24 season, Fournette still has a huge upside and could easily have a breakout 3rd season in the league, supported by better quarterback play. That’s far from a guarantee though and he’ll need to stay healthy, something he has had a lot of trouble doing thus far in his career. Few running backs have his combination of power and explosiveness, but he hasn’t shown it consistently thus far in his career.
The Jaguars especially need Fournette to stay healthy and be more productive because they don’t have much depth behind him anymore. TJ Yeldon has been their passing down back and backup running back the past two seasons (85 catches, 155 carries), but he’s no longer with the team and the Jaguars don’t have a clear replacement. Free agent addition Alfred Blue has 673 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but just a 3.58 YPC average and he isn’t a passing game threat, with 69 catches in 73 career games.
Fellow free agent Thomas Rawls exploded on to the scene by averaging 5.65 YPC on 147 rookie year carries with the Seahawks in 2015, but injuries have limited him to 3.03 YPC on 167 carries in 3 seasons since and he’s also not a pass catcher, with 31 career catches in 34 career games. 5th round rookie Ryquell Armstead is also a redundant talent, a downhill runner who doesn’t contribute in the passing game. None are guaranteed to make the final roster.
Benny Cunningham, another free agent addition, also isn’t a lock for the roster, but he at least has some experience as a passing back down, catching 71 balls in 2 seasons from 2014-2015. However, he has just 78 total touches in 3 seasons since and has never topped 66 carries in 6 seasons in the league. He’s also already going into his age 29 season. He might have the clearest path to a role because his skillset isn’t redundant, but I wouldn’t expect much out of him.
Even if Cunningham can earn a situational pass catching role, I would still expect Leonard Fournette to be more involved in the passing game in his 3rd season in the league than he’s been thus far in his career. He has just 58 catches in 21 career games and wasn’t a great pass catcher in college either, but, even if he isn’t the most refined passing down back, it still makes sense for the Jaguars to try to get the ball in his hands in the open field in multiple ways, given his talent level. If Fournette plays well, it wouldn’t make much sense to regularly take him off the field for a bottom of the roster talent like Cunningham. This group has a high ceiling if Fournette can stay healthy and have a breakout year, but they also have a very low floor if Fournette struggles or gets hurt, because they lack depth.
Fournette was not the only player the Jaguars were missing on offense last season. In fact, they finished with the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury on offense in the league, only behind the Redskins. Poor quarterback play is the biggest reason why they struggled on offense last season, but their banged up supporting cast definitely made things even worse. No unit was more banged up than their offensive line, which had seven players spend time on injured reserve last season, including four of five week 1 starters.
Five of those seven players were their top-5 offensive tackles. Starting left tackle Cam Robinson tore his ACL week 2 and missed the rest of the season. He was replaced by Josh Wells and then Josh Walker, who both followed him to injured reserve. At right tackle, starter Jermey Pernell made it 13 games without getting hurt, but a knee injury ultimately landed him on injured reserve and his backup, 4th round rookie Will Richardson, went on injured reserve back in week 7 with a knee injury, before ever playing an offensive snap.
Needless to say, the Jaguars should have better health at this position in 2019. Robinson is expected to return as the starter at left tackle and, while Jermey Pernell was let go this off-season ahead of a 6 million dollar salary, the Jaguars can replace him with either Will Richardson or 2nd round rookie Jawaan Taylor. Even though Richardson didn’t play a snap as a rookie, he’s still well regarded by the coaching staff and will at least have a shot at the job. Taylor is likely the favorite though, as he was considered a likely first round pick and the Jaguars moved up to get him 35th overall after he surprisingly slipped into day 2. Both players are obviously unproven, but they come with upside.
Left tackle Cam Robinson also comes with some uncertainty, not just coming off of the injury, but also because the 2017 34th overall pick didn’t play all that well as a rookie, finishing 62nd out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Robinson has plenty of upside and he was off to a better start in 2018 before the injury, but that was just 71 snaps. He could continue to struggle in 2019, especially early in the season, coming off of a serious injury.
Left guard Andrew Norwell and center Brandon Linder are also coming off of significant injuries, Norwell going down week 12 with an ankle injury and Linder going down week 10 with a knee injury. Both are set to return in 2019 though and they’re much better players than anyone who is returning at tackle. Norwell was a big free agent addition last off-season, signing on a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal, after finishing in the top-21 among guards on PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, maxing out at 8th in 2017. Prior to going down last season, he ranked 21st at his position, so he was obviously a big loss.
Linder, meanwhile, was PFF’s 5th ranked center when he went down, his 3rd straight season in the top-7 among centers, dating back to when he changed positions from right guard to center in 2016. Linder can play guard if needed and played pretty well there earlier in his career, but he seems to be a better fit at center. Like Norwell, he’ll be a big re-addition. Both Norwell and Linder are also still in the prime of their careers, only in their age 28 and age 27 seasons respectively.
Right guard AJ Cann only missed 1 game with injury last season, but he didn’t play all that well. He’s started 59 games in 4 seasons in the league since going in the 3rd round in 2015, but he’s never been better than an average starter. The Jaguars had an opportunity to try to find an upgrade this off-season with Cann set to hit free agency, but they opted to bring him back on a 3-year, 15.055 million dollar deal. He’s an underwhelming option, but he’s not overpaid and might be the best the Jaguars could do after giving Nick Foles a big contract. This offensive line still has problems, but the re-additions of Andrew Norwell and Brandon Linder will be a big boost and they could easily get better play at the tackle positions as well.
The Jaguars also lost starting wide receiver Marqise Lee with a knee injury before the season even started. He finished 2nd on the team in receiving with a 56/702/3 slash line in 2017. Even without him, it still looked like the Jaguars would have a deep receiving corps, with Donte Moncrief coming in as a free agent, DJ Chark coming in via the second round of the draft, and a pair of 2nd year receivers in Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole looking likely to take the next step. However, Chark did next to nothing as a rookie (14 total catches), Cole regressed, Moncrief was average at best, leaving Westbrook, who led the team across the board with a 66/717/5 slash line, as the only receiver to meet expectations.
Westbrook looks like the favorite to lead them in receiving again in 2019 and he could easily surpass last year’s totals if he’s able to develop good chemistry with his new quarterback, but he’ll have plenty of competition. Not only is Marqise Lee returning from injury, but they added Chris Conley in free agency to replace Moncrief and both Cole and Chark will likely also be in the mix for a role. A 4th round pick in 2017, Westbrook also flashed as a rookie with a 27/339/1 slash line in just 7 games and he has shown the ability to play both outside like he did as a rookie and on the slot like he did last season, which allows him to play in all packages. He’s the most obvious slot option on the team, so he should at least have a role on the slot in 3-wide receiver sets.
Lee could return to a starting outside role and has averaged a 60/777/3 slash line in his last 2 healthy seasons in 2016-2017, but he’s not expected to be ready for the start of training camp and could easily be less than 100% to start the season. He also has a concerning injury history, being limited to just 52 catches in 23 games in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2014-2015 by various injuries. He could easily end up being a significant part of this passing game by season’s end, but there’s a lot of uncertainty with him.
Keelan Cole actually led the Jaguars in receiving in 2017, even with Lee healthy, posting a 42/748/3 slash line. Making that even more impressive is the fact that the 2017 undrafted free agent barely played the first 6 weeks of the season, before catching 36 passes for 701 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 10 games of the season (58/1122/5 slash line extrapolated over 16 games). Cole looked likely to take the next step as a full season starter in 2018, but finished with just a 38/491/1 slash line and progressively saw less and less playing time as the season went on.
Before DJ Chark went down with an injury week 11, Chark was seeing more and more playing time at Cole’s expense and, even after Chark went down, depth receiver Rashad Greene saw some playing time as the 3rd receiver at Cole’s expense. Cole has some bounce back potential in 2019, but it’s important to remember the entire league let him go undrafted, so it’s possible his rookie year proves to be an aberration. He could easily end up behind Chark on the depth chart going in 2019, as Chark has the much higher ceiling and could make a leap from year 1 to year 2.
Free agent acquisition Chris Conley could also end up higher than Cole on the depth chart, as he’s reportedly had a very strong off-season, but it’s important to remember that Conley has always been a workout freak whose athleticism hasn’t translated to meaningful games. In 4 seasons in the league, the 2015 3rd round pick has averaged just 0.87 yards per route run with a career high of 530 yards in a season, despite playing with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes under center in Kansas City. Now in his age 27 season, it would be a surprise to see him suddenly break out, but he could still carve out a rotational role as an outside receiver in an unsettled receiver group.
The Jaguars also had serious injury problems at tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins was signed to a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal in free agency to start at tight end, but he managed just a 11/90/1 slash line in 5 games before going down for the season. His replacements Niles Paul and David Grinnage soon followed him to injured reserve, leaving veteran journeyman James O’Shaughnessy to start the final 8 games of the season. O’Shaughnessy was actually impressive as a run blocker, but struggled mightily as a receiver, averaging 0.78 yards per route run on 276 routes on the season.
Seferian-Jenkins was let go this off-season (as were Paul and Grinnage), making tight end a pressing need for them going into the off-season, but they didn’t do a ton to address the position, using a 3rd round pick on San Jose State tight end Josh Oliver and signing ex-Cowboy Geoff Swaim in free agency. Oliver is a promising receiving prospect and could lead the position group in receiving by default as a rookie, while Swaim will compete with O’Shaughnessy for the blocking tight end job.
Swaim’s contract (2 years 6 million) suggests he’s the favorite for the job. He had just 9 catches in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2015-2017, but didn’t embarrass himself as a receiver in 9 games as the Cowboys’ lead tight end last season, averaging just 9.3 yards per catch pn 26 catches, but catching 81.3% of his targets. He likely won’t be a big factor in the passing game in Jacksonville, but he gives them a little bit better of receiver than O’Shaughnessy without sacrificing blocking ability and he should have a significant role, with rookie Josh Oliver very raw as a blocker. This is an underwhelming receiving corps overall, even if they stay healthier than last season.
The Jaguars have been one of the best defensive teams in the league in each of the past 3 seasons, finishing 6th in first down rate allowed in 2016, 1st in 2017, and 5th last season. They were held back significantly by their offense in two of those three seasons, but they should be better on that side of the ball this season, so if their defense continues to play at a high level, they should be right back into playoff contention. Changes have taken place on this defense in the past two off-seasons though, as they have lost 7 of their top-13 in terms of snaps played from their dominant 2017 defense.
Two of those seven players were defensive linemen, as they traded Dante Fowler (464 snaps in 2017) to the Rams at the trade deadline last year for draft picks and then cut Malik Jackson (756 snaps in 2017) for salary purposes this off-season, but the Jaguars have also used their past two first round picks on defensive linemen, so they still have a very deep unit upfront. This year, they had arguably the best defensive player in the entire draft fall to them at 7th overall in Kentucky’s Josh Allen. He’ll instantly have a significant role on this defense, especially as an edge rusher in sub packages.
He’ll primarily line up opposite Yannick Ngakoue in sub packages. The Jaguars have to deal with the issue of Ngakoue’s contract long-term, as he’s currently holding out ahead of a 2.025 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, but if they can lock him up long-term and Allen can become the player he’s expected to be, they could be one of the best edge rush duos in the league for years to come, with Ngakoue still only going into his age 24 season. The 2016 3rd round pick has 29.5 sacks, 45 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in 3 seasons in the league, though the undersized 6-2 248 has struggled against the run. Given his age, his best days could still be ahead of him.
Calais Campbell is also a dangerous pass rusher, but he’ll likely see more action on the interior in sub packages, with Allen coming in and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who still played 628 snaps last season, no longer on the team. Campbell’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 33 season, but he’s had an impressive career, finishing in the top-10 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 11 seasons in the league and excelling as both an edge defender and interior defender.
Since signing with the Jaguars before the 2017 season, Campbell has been primarily an edge defender and has totalled 25 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate and he also has a 9.7% pressure rate for his career, despite being primarily an interior defender for most of his career. Even if he takes a step back in 2019, he should still be a versatile pass rushing force on this defensive line. The Jaguars also have 2017 3rd round pick Dewuane Smoot in the mix for a situational role at defensive end. Despite being a relatively high pick, Smoot has played just 424 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he played 21.4 snaps per game last season after Fowler got traded and flashed with a 10.4% pressure rate. Still only in his age 24 season, he could easily take a step forward in 2019. This is a very deep group.
Along with Calais Campbell, hybrid defensive lineman Taven Bryan is also likely to become primarily an interior defender this season with Malik Jackson gone. A first round rookie last year, Bryan was seeing more playing time at Jackson’s expense down the stretch last season, averaging 28.2 snaps per game in the final 6 games of the season, after just 13.2 during the first 10 games. He only played 301 snaps overall, but he showed a lot of promise and made it a relatively easy decision to move on from a declining Malik Jackson and his 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019. He should have a bigger role in 2019 and could easily have a breakout season.
In base packages, Marcell Dareus and Abry Jones will start at defensive tackle. A 8-year veteran, Dareus has always been a strong run stuffer and finished 22nd among interior defenders in run stopping grade on Pro Football Focus in 2018, but he hasn’t been as good as a pass rusher in recent years, with 8.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 5.6% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons, as opposed to 28.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 5.4% pressure rate in the first 4 seasons of his career.
Now in his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly find his old pass rush form, but he should remain a strong run stuffer. The Jaguars made him take a paycut down to 10.585 million from 8.085 million to keep his roster spot for 2019. He’ll play around the 563 snaps he played in 2018. Abry Jones, meanwhile, played 498 snaps last season and is a good early down run stuffer. He’s earned an above average run stuffing grade from PFF in 3 straight seasons on an average of 483 snaps per season, but he also has just a 5.2% pressure rate for his career. He’ll also likely play a similar role in 2019 on a still very deep defensive line.
One loss the Jaguars did not plan for was linebacker Telvin Smith, who unexpectedly walked away from the team this off-season. Smith fell to 43rd among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018, after finishing in the top-25 in both 2016 and 2017, so it’s possible whatever caused him to walk away was an issue for him last season as well. He’s still a big loss though. The Jaguars seemed to have some idea they might be without Smith on draft day, taking Alabama linebacker Quincy Williams in the 3rd round. Now he’ll have to play a significant rookie year role.
Williams will likely primarily play in passing situations as a rookie. Not only is the undersized 5-11 225 pounder a converted safety, but the Jaguars have 2018 7th round pick Leon Jacobs, who flashed as a run stuffer in very limited action as a rookie (146 snaps), and Jake Ryan, who earned an average or better run stopping grade from PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2015-2017 on an average of 422 snaps, before missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL. Ryan and Jacobs will likely start alongside Myles Jack in base packages, with Williams coming in along with a 5th defensive back in sub packages.
Jack remains as an every down player and is clearly their best linebacker now without Telvin Smith. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jack has started all 32 games the past 2 seasons. He hasn’t been a dominant player, but there isn’t an obvious weakness in his game, as he’s earned an above average grade from PFF for his run stopping, pass coverage, and blitzing (4.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 17.4% pressure rate on 132 blitzes) in each of the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, Jack’s best days could still be ahead of him, but this isn’t nearly as good of a linebacking corps as 2017, with Paul Posluszny (PFF’s 6th ranked off ball linebacker in 2017) leaving last off-season and Telvin Smith (14th ranked off ball linebacker in 2017) leaving this off-season.
The Jaguars also lost both of their starting safeties this off-season, cutting Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church ahead of non-guaranteed salaries of 8.25 million and 6.25 million respectively, in order to free up money to sign Nick Foles. They also didn’t do anything to replace either of them this off-season and will be replacing them internally with a couple of young players. Barry Church won’t really be missed because he struggled last season and 2018 3rd round pick Ronnie Harrison, who was seeing snaps at Church’s absence down the stretch last season, could easily be an upgrade.
Gipson will be tougher to replace though, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked safety in 2018 and is being replaced with inexperienced 2016 undrafted free agent Jarrod Wilson. Wilson flashed in 3 games as the starter down the stretch last season, but he’s played just 305 snaps in his career total. The Jaguars seem sold on him though, giving him a 3-year extension worth 7.25 million dollars this off-season. If Wilson breaks out as a starter, that will look like a steal, but that’s far from a guarantee considering he went undrafted and is very unproven.
Last off-season, the Jaguars lost slot cornerback Aaron Colvin, who was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017, and replaced him with veteran journeyman DJ Hayden. Hayden missed 6 games with injury, but was a pleasant surprise when on the field, finishing 25th among cornerbacks on PFF on 456 snaps. Injuries have always been a problem for him, as he’s missed 25 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league, and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the kind of player he was last season, but the former first round pick could prove to be a bit of a late bloomer.
Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye remain from their 2017 team as the starting outside cornerbacks. They were better in 2017 though, finishing 2nd and 7th among cornerbacks respectively on PFF, which fell to 31st and 22nd respectively in 2018, still impressive, but not what they were the year before. Both have bounce back potential though. Last season was Ramsey’s lowest ranked season in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted 5th overall in 2016, and he still has as much upside as any cornerback in the league, still only in his age 25 season. Bouye, meanwhile, is very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and last season was also his worst season in 3 seasons. This secondary definitely has some questions, including a lack of depth if injuries strike, but they still have one of the best cornerback duos in the league.
The Jaguars will likely have better quarterback play, a more even turnover margin, and a better record in close games this season than last season, but their defense has lost some luster the past couple off-seasons, as it’s been impossible to keep all of this talent together, especially now with Foles taking up a big part of their salary cap for the next few years. They’re also in a much tougher division now than they were in 2017, when Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, and JJ Watt all missed significant time with injury. They could be in the mix for a playoff spot, but I think it’s more likely they end up on the outside looking in. They do have a high upside if both Nick Foles and Leonard Fournette can play up to their potential on offense, but that’s a big if.
Prediction: 6-10, 4th in AFC South