Jacksonville Jaguars 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A 3-13 team in 2016, the Jaguars made one of the biggest leaps in win total last season, winning 10 games and the AFC South and coming within a blown 4th quarter lead in the AFC Championship of going to the Super Bowl. Their big leap forward should have not been seen as a huge surprise though, as they were much better than their record suggested in 2016 and made several key off-season additions.

Despite just winning 3 games, the Jaguars finished the 2016 season 15th in first down rate differential. They could have easily gone about 8-8, but they went 2-8 games in decided by 7 points or fewer and they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -16. Record in close games and turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year, so a significant uptick in wins for the Jaguars made sense last season.

Turnover wise, the Jaguars swung the complete opposite way, finishing with a +10 turnover margin that was 5th best in the NFL. Many thought the Jaguars would always be a terrible turnover margin team because of Blake Bortles, but Bortles only threw 3 fewer interceptions (mostly because he threw less frequently) and the Jaguars still frequently won the turnover margin. In fact, the offense only had 6 fewer turnovers. The big difference was on defense, where they had 20 more takeaways than they had in 2016. In 2016, they were a good defense that didn’t take the ball away. In 2017, they were a great defense that had the 2nd most takeaways in the league.

The Jaguars could see their turnover margin swing more to the middle in 2018, but they also finished 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.95%, so the they weren’t just dominating the turnover margin. Not only did their defense take the ball away often, but they also had the lowest first down rate allowed. They ranked 6th in 2016, but they were on another level in 2017, as opponents only picked up first downs at a 28.50% rate against them, over a percent lower than any other team. They also only finished 2-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a +149 point differential that was 3rd best in the NFL, so they were statistically a lot better than most 10 win teams.

There are a couple reasons to be a little skeptical about this team making another jump up in wins though. They were healthier than most teams last season, with just the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury, including the fewest on defense. They also will face a much tougher schedule this season, after facing arguably the easiest in 2017. Not only do they trade a last place schedule for a first place schedule, but the Colts and Texans get their starting quarterbacks back from injury, while the Titans figure to be good again, so their division is as tough as it’s been in years.

If the Jaguars want to make it back to the post-season, they’ll need Blake Bortles to continue at least being a passable starting quarterback. Bortles was the 3rd overall pick in 2014, but completed just 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.59 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 51 interceptions in his first 3 seasons in the league. Even in 2015, when he threw for 4400 yards and 35 touchdowns, he threw league leading 18 interceptions and accumulated a lot of his yardage and touchdowns in garbage time.

The Jaguars stuck with him in 2017 largely for lack of a better option and spent most of the season hiding him behind the run game and their defense, but Bortles wasn’t bad. He completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.05 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and led an offense that ranked 14th in the NFL in first down rate, a big jump from 23rd in 2016. His numbers weren’t flashy and he threw just 523 attempts after averaging 616 attempts per season in the previous 2 seasons, but it was still the best season of his career. After finishing below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, Bortles was their 18th ranked quarterback in 2017.

That was enough for the Jaguars to not just commit to him as their starter in 2018, but also likely 2019. The Jaguars could have kept Bortles on the roster at a 19.053 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal, but instead they gave him a 3-year, 54 million dollar contract that guarantees him 26.5 million, including 6.5 million of his 16 million dollar salary in 2019. It’s a risky move, but, if he keeps being a solid starter, it could prove to be a good value, as he likely would have cost most annually on a long-term extension next off-season if he had another solid season. Perhaps the Jaguars figure they will be picking late in the draft for the next few years and, as a result, they will be unable to find an immediate upgrade.

The Jaguars did take a quarterback in the 6th round, taking Nebraska’s Tanner Lee, but he’s not an immediate threat to Bortles’ job, even if Bortles does struggle again. Lee will likely compete for the backup job with ex-Brown Cody Kessler, also added this off-season. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Kessler made 8 starts with the Browns and completed 63.8% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, but he took too many sacks, got injured often, and only finished 4 of his 8 starts. Last season, he could barely get on the field for the worst offense in the league, with just 23 attempts all year. The Jaguars only gave up a conditional 7th round pick for him and will not owe anything if he doesn’t make the final roster, which is not a lock if Lee has a good off-season or if they add another quarterback. This is Bortles’ job for the foreseeable future, for better or worse.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Even more surprising about Bortles’ solid 2017 season is the fact that he was able to do it without top receiver Allen Robinson, who tore his ACL week 1 and went down for the season. In fact, the Jaguars were so impressed at how their passing game was able to perform without Robinson that they let him walk as a free agent this off-season, when most expected they’d franchise tag him. He signed with the Bears on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal that makes him the 11th highest paid wide receiver in the league in average annual salary.

In Robinson’s absence, Jaguar wide receivers were led in snaps and receiving yards by undrafted rookie Keelan Cole, who earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus on 749 snaps and had a 42/748/3 slash line on 81 targets. Cole was especially good down the stretch once he got more consistent playing time, totaling 36 catches for 701 yards and 3 touchdowns in his final 10 games of the season, which extrapolates to a 58/1122/5 slash line over 16 games. The Kentucky Wesleyan product is still unproven and his rookie year may prove to be a fluke, but he could also continue developing into an above average starting receiver.

The Jaguars also had a 4th round rookie, Dede Westbrook, but he wasn’t as good as Cole. Westbrook missed the first 9 games of the season with injury and, though he played 77.7% of the snaps in the final 7 games of the season, 380 snaps in total, he had just a 27/339/1 slash line on 51 targets and earned a negative overall grade from PFF. Westbrook is more talented than his draft slot suggests, as he fell because of off-the-field issues, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Veteran Marqise Lee was their 2nd leading receiver last year, earning a positive grade on 737 snaps and posting a 56/702/3 slash line on 96 targets. He was also a free agent like Robinson, but the Jaguars opted to bring him back on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Lee struggled in his first 2 seasons and missed 9 games with injury, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in back-to-back seasons, topping 700 yards in both seasons and missing just two total games between the two seasons. Still only in his age 27 season, he should be a capable starter for the Jaguars for at least a couple more seasons as long as he continues to stay healthy.

Fellow veteran receiver Allen Hurns was not brought back. Hurns came into the league in the same year as Robinson and Lee and was given a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension after a breakout 2015 season that gave him 16 million over the past 2 seasons in almost entirely new money, but he never lived up to his 2015 season and was subsequently let go this off-season, owed 7 million non-guaranteed in 2018. Limited to 21 games combined between the two seasons, Hurns did not even total 1000 yards between 2016 and 2017.

He was more or less replaced by ex-Colt Donte Moncrief, who signed a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. It was one of the more head scratching deals of the off-season. Not only is a 9.5 million salary a lot to pay for a player who has not proven himself, but, even if he does have a breakout season, this deal has no upside, as the Jaguars will need to pay him even more on a long-term extension to keep him beyond this season. A 3-year deal worth 9.5 million in the first year with some option years for 2019 and 2020 would have at least had upside for the Jaguars.

Moncrief was a 3rd round pick in 2014 and is still only going into his age 25 season, but he hasn’t done much over the past 2 seasons, after a respectable 64/733/6 slash line in 2015. Moncrief looked poised for a 3rd year breakout year in 2016, after Luck missed half of the season with injury in 2015, but instead he was limited to a 30/307/7 slash line in 9 games by injuries of his own. In 2017, with Luck out for the entire season, he could not get on the same page with new quarterback Jacoby Brissett. He had just a 26/391/2 slash line in 12 games and averaged just 1.02 yards per route run on 384 routes, while finishing 105th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF. The talent is there, but he’s far from a guarantee to perform and the Jaguars are betting a lot of money with no upside beyond 2018.

Moncrief also joins a very crowded receiving corps, with Lee, Westbrook, and Cole. It’s unclear how they plan to break up the reps, but they may have close to an open competition for wide receiver roles. They also used a 2nd round pick on LSU’s DJ Chark. He may develop into a starter long-term, but he’s considered very raw coming into the league and likely won’t have much of a rookie year role in a deep wide receiver group.

The Jaguars also added a tight end in free agency, signing ex-Jet Austin Seferian-Jenkins to a deal worth 10.5 million over 2 years. He’ll replace veteran Marcedes Lewis, who was released this off-season rather than being paid 3.75 million non-guaranteed in his age 34 season in 2018. Seferian-Jenkins should be an upgrade as a receiver, as Lewis was not much of a contributor in that aspect late in his career, but Lewis was consistently one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, basically serving as a 6th offensive lineman at 6-6 275, so Seferian-Jenkins figures to be a significant downgrade in that aspect.

A 2nd round pick in 2014 by the Buccaneers, ASJ lasted just over 2 seasons with the Bucs, catching just 45 passes in 19 games before getting released after a DUI and signing with the Jets in September of 2016. He did not do much on the field in 2016, but won the starting job in 2017 after getting sober and played 652 snaps in 13 games, after serving a 2 game suspension to start the season. He caught 50 passes, though he averaged just 7.14 yards per catch, 2.24 yards per catch after the catch, and 4.82 yards per target.

Still only 26, the Jaguars are betting he can continue improving now that he’s cleaned up his act off-the-field and that he will post better numbers in a better passing offense, after underwhelming statistically with the Jets. Considering the lack of available talent at tight end this off-season, he’s a worthwhile flyer. A capable blocker at 6-5 262, he’d be a solid all-around tight end if he improved in the passing game. Their only other option is blocking specialist Ben Koyack, a 2015 7th round pick who played 413 snaps last season and caught just 5 passes on 112 routes. They’re deeper at wide receiver than tight end, but lack a true #1 option without Allen Robinson.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Along with their wide receiver depth, another reason letting Robinson walk made sense is because the Jaguars are a run heavy team and may not have wanted to commit a significant chunk of their cap to a wide receiver. Instead, they used the money they could have given to Robinson and used it to upgrade their offensive line in a big way, signing ex-Panther Andrew Norwell to a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal to replace free agent left guard Patrick Omameh. It’s a massive upgrade, especially in the run game, and fits the style of football this team wants to play.

Omameh is a journeyman who finished 45th among 80 eligible guards last season, while Norwell is one of the top interior offensive linemen in the league, hence why he is now the top paid guard in the league. Despite going undrafted in 2014, Norwell flashed on 696 snaps as a rookie and has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons, finishing in the top-12 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. In the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Norwell is coming off of his best season, finishing as PFF’s #4 ranked guard, and should remain one of the top guards in the league for at least a few more seasons.

They still have issues on the offensive line, as both left tackle Cam Robinson and right guard AJ Cann were also among the worst in the league at their position. Robinson at least was only a rookie and could be better in his 2nd season in the league, although the one-time projected top-15 pick fell to the Jaguars in the 2nd round because of concerns he wasn’t quick enough to play left tackle and he didn’t dispel those concerns at all as a rookie. He finished 82nd among 83 eligible offensive tackles, allowing a league leading 12 quarterback hits, committing 12 penalties, and even struggling in the run game. The Jaguars didn’t add any competition for him this off-season, so they’re hoping for a 2nd year leap, but he may need to move to right tackle or guard long-term.

Cann, on the other hand, is already going into his 4th season in the league and the 2015 3rd round pick has not shown much promise through 3 seasons. He’s made 44 of 48 starts in his career, but he’s earned negative grades from PFF for all 3 seasons and is coming off of arguably his worst season in 2017, finishing 69th among 80 eligible guards. He’s going into the final year of his rookie deal, so it’s possible the Jaguars let him walk next off-season, find a new left tackle, and move Robinson inside to right guard.

The Jaguars could also find a new left tackle, move Robinson to right tackle, and then move right tackle Jermey Parnell inside to right guard, but Parnell is actually coming off of a solid season, finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked offensive tackle. That may not be the case in a year, as Parnell turns 32 this year and is getting up there in age. A late bloomer, Parnell has made 49 starts in the past 4 seasons, after making just 2 in his first 5 seasons, and he has earned positive grades in all 4 of them, but he could start to decline soon, possibly this season. Moving to guard in a year or two could prolong his career.

Center Brandon Linder was probably their best offensive lineman last season, finishing 7th among centers on PFF. A 3rd round selection in 2014, the Jaguars wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 51.7 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal. Linder has the ability to play both guard and center and likely would have commanded a similar deal to Norwell on the open market.

Linder finished 11th among guards as a rookie, 5th among centers in 2016, and then 7th among centers last season, with an injury shortened season in 2015 in between. Also in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, he should continue playing well. He and Norwell could be one of the better interior offensive line duos in the NFL. The addition of Norwell makes this a much better offensive line, but they still have some obvious problems and need second year left tackle Cam Robinson to step up in a big way.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Even without good run blocking, the Jaguars still averaged 4.29 yards per carry last season, 9th in the NFL, and could have been even better, if lead back Leonard Fournette had not suffered an ankle injury 6 weeks into the season. After averaging 4.58 yards per carry on 130 carries in the first 6 games of the season, Fournette averaged just 3.22 yards per carry on 138 carries the rest of the way and finished with an underwhelming 3.88 yards per carry average on the season. He also missed a game with a quad injury and overall seemed to hit a rookie wall as injuries piled up over the course of the season.

Fournette lost weight this off-season in an effort to be more durable in his 2nd season in the league. The 4th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Fournette obviously has a huge upside and, even with all the injuries he suffered, he still finished 7th in the NFL with 268 carries and 5th in the NFL with 20.6 carries per game. If he stays healthy all season, he could easily push for 300 carries and a top-5 rushing season in his 2nd season in the league. He’s also a capable all-around player, adding 302 yards and another touchdown on 36 catches and holding up surprisingly well in pass protection for a rookie.

#2 back Chris Ivory also had an underwhelming 3.41 YPC average (112 carries). An unexplosive plodder, Ivory was a no brainer cap casualty this off-season, owed 6 million non-guaranteed. TJ Yeldon will be the #2 back instead. Yeldon was actually a 2nd round choice back in 2015, but his career high is 218 touches in a season and he had just 79 last season as the 3rd back. He averages just 4.04 yards per carry for his career, but he averaged 5.16 yards per carry on 49 carries last season, he has 116 career catches in 37 games despite being a part-time player, and he’s earned a positive overall grade from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league.

Fournette will be the workhorse, but this is going to be a run heavy team, so Yeldon will have a role on the ground too and will also see passing down snaps. The Jaguars also have Corey Grant, a 4th year undrafted free agent who has a career 6.09 YPC average on 68 carries and averaged 8.27 yards per carry on 30 carries last season. He’s unproven, but could be in the mix for a role as the #3 back. This is a talented group of backs.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Jaguars’ defense was already good in 2016, but a couple free agent signings last off-season pushed them to great in 2017. One of those signings was defensive lineman Calais Campbell, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. The Jaguars gave him a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal that makes him the 9th highest paid defensive lineman in the league in average annual salary, but he was well worth it, as he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 4-3 defensive end. He also finished 2nd in the league in sacks with 14.5 and added 14 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback hurries on 492 pass rush snaps.

Making those pass rush snaps even more impressive is the fact that about half of his pass rush snaps (257 of 492) came as an interior pass rusher, as the 6-8 300 pounder frequently lined up inside in sub packages. Campbell’s background is primarily as a 3-4 defensive end, finishing in the top-7 at his position in 6 straight seasons on PFF prior to signing with the Jaguars last off-season, so he has plenty of experience as an interior pass rusher, but he was also a strong edge rusher as well. Going into his age 32 season, he may begin to decline soon, but he’s about as consistent as they come and has missed just 6 games in 10 seasons in the league. He was an excellent signing.

The Jaguars also made a big signing on the defensive line the previous off-season, signing ex-Bronco Malik Jackson to a 6-year, 85.5 million dollar deal. He isn’t quite as good as Campbell, but he’s been equally consistent, finishing in the top-11 at his position in 4 straight seasons on PFF, dating back to his final 2 seasons in Denver. Jackson has experience in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense and has played both defensive end and defensive tackle in a 4-3, but he’s purely an every down defensive tackle with the Jaguars. He was a big part of the reason why the Jaguars were so good defensively in 2016 and now he and Campbell form a fierce interior pass rush duo in sub packages.

Marcell Dareus is also a highly paid defensive tackle, although he was added via trade. Re-signed to a 6-year, 96.6 million dollar deal with a whopping 25 million dollar signing bonus by the Bills after the 2014 season, Dareus lasted just 2.5 seasons on the deal before being sent to the Jaguars for a 6th round pick in a complete salary dump at last year’s trade deadline. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus finished 7th among defensive tackles on PFF in his 3rd season in the league in 2013 and then finished 3rd in 2014, leading to the Bills extending him. He played well in the first season of the extension, finishing 9th among defensive tackles, but he was limited to 8 games by a suspension and injury in 2016 and was not the same player in 2017 before getting sent to Jacksonville.

It was a strange acquisition for the Jaguars, given that his contract paid him a prorated 5.735 million for the remainder of the season and a guaranteed 10.175 million in 2018 and yet he didn’t really play all that much, totaling just 278 snaps in 9 games, primarily as a base package run stuffer. He didn’t play badly and could have a bigger role in his 2nd season in Jacksonville, but there aren’t a ton of snaps available in sub packages behind Jackson and Campbell. He’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he’ll likely need a big season to stay on the roster in 2019 at a non-guaranteed 10.585 million dollar salary. This defense is going to get expensive to keep together long-term and Dareus hasn’t been the same player since 2015.

Perhaps anticipating Dareus’ departure following the 2018 season, the Jaguars used their first round selection on Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan. Bryan won’t have a huge role as a rookie, but could develop into a starter long-term. His main competition for snaps will be veteran Abry Jones, who played 488 snaps last season. An undrafted free agent in 2013, Jones has been a capable rotational player over the past 4 seasons, but lacks a clear role on this defensive line with the addition of Bryan. He is locked into a roster spot though, owed a 3 million dollar guaranteed salary, to go along with a 500K workout bonus.

The Jaguars are also deep at defensive end. Third year defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is an every down player, playing opposite Campbell in base packages. The 6-2 246 pounder is not much of a run stuffer, but he broke out as a pass rusher in his second season in the league, with 12 sacks, 14 hits, and 43 hurries on 469 pass rush snaps. He finished as PFF’s 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end in pass rush grade and, despite a negative run stopping grade, he finished as PFF’s 15th ranked 4-3 defensive end overall. The 2016 3rd round pick was not as good as a rookie, but he’s only in his age 23 season and could easily continue developing into one of the top edge rushers in the game.

In sub packages, Ngakoue typically plays opposite Dante Fowler, a sub package pass rush specialist who comes in when Campbell moves inside. Of his 464 snaps last season, 367 came on pass plays. He had 8 sacks, 2 hits, and 26 hurries on 354 pass rush snaps and earned a positive pass rush grade, but he struggled mightily against the run at 6-3 255 and also committed 9 penalties. As a result, he was PFF’s 60th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 64 eligible.

Fowler was the 3rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but he missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL and has not developed into the player the Jaguars expected he would be. He played just 569 snaps in his first season back from injury in 2016 and also struggled, finishing 42nd among 53 4-3 defensive ends. Fowler is still only going into his age 24 season and has upside, but he’s also had multiple off-the-field incidents and the Jaguars opted to decline his 5th year option for 2019, which would have guaranteed him 14.2 million for injury.

That was a wise decision, as he’s highly unlikely to be worth that salary in a year. Fowler could be better in his 4th season in the league, now the final year of his rookie deal, but Ngakoue has taken over the role he was supposed to have and he could be pushed for playing time by 2017 3rd round pick Dawuane Smoot. Smoot played 252 snaps as a rookie as could be ready for a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league, but he might not be able get much more playing time on this deep defensive line. The Jaguars could also use Taven Bryan at defensive end in base packages, moving the versatile 6-5 291 pounder around in an attempt to get him on the field as a rookie. This is arguably the best defensive line in the league.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Jaguars return everyone of note on the defensive line, but they did lose a couple significant contributors this off-season on defense. They’ll also likely have more injuries, after having the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2017, and they’ll face a tougher schedule. That being said, they should still be a clear top-5 defense, barring any seriously bad injury luck. Along with a strong defensive line, they also bring back their two every down linebackers, Telvin Smith and Myles Jack.

Smith was the better of the two, finishing 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, while Jack finished 17th at the position. In addition to playing outside linebacker, Jack also moves inside to middle linebacker in passing situations. Jack fell to the 2nd round in 2016 because of injury concerns, but he hasn’t missed a game in 2 seasons in the league and was considered by many to be a possible top-5 pick if teams were not concerned about his health. Only going into his age 23 season, Jack could easily have the best season of his career in 2018 if he can continue staying healthy.

Smith is more proven than Jack, making 53 starts in 4 seasons in the league, despite going in the 5th round in 2014. Smith’s lack of size at 6-3 215 was a major concern for teams coming out of college, but he’s improved in every season in the league and he’s earned a positive grade in every season in the league. Still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Smith should continue to play well as an every down outside linebacker in Jacksonville’s 4-3 defense.

One of the players the Jaguars did lose is middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who retired ahead of his age 34 season this off-season, but was also PFF’s 7th ranked middle linebacker, excelling against the run. He only played 478 snaps though, spending most of the season in a base package role. Aside from the 183 snaps he played in 3 games when Smith was out with injury, Posluszny played just 35.5% of the snaps in 13 games last season, as the Jaguars spent a lot of time in sub packages with 5+ defensive backs. He’ll be missed, but not that much and the Jaguars have an internal replacement for him in 2017 5th round pick Blair Brown. Brown is obviously a projection to a larger role, but he flashed on 48 snaps as a rookie and won’t have to play that many snaps unless either Jack or Smith get hurt.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Jaguars also lost nickel cornerback Aaron Colvin, who earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus on 700 snaps last season, including 565 slot snaps, with the Jaguars frequently in sub packages. Rather than using a draft pick on the position to replace him, with very few pressing needs on draft day, the Jaguars opted to give a 3-year, 19 million dollar deal to veteran journeyman DJ Hayden, who has never earned a positive grade in 5 seasons in the league. He played 422 of his 489 snaps outside last season, but also has some slot experience, so that figures to be where he plays in 2018. With 2.2 million of his 5.75 million dollar salary guaranteed for 2019, Hayden seems locked in as an expensive 3rd cornerback for the next 2 seasons, a bizarre move for a team that is about to get expensive quickly.

Fortunately, the rest of this secondary remains, as they were arguably the best in the NFL in 2017. Outside cornerback duo Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye both had dominant seasons, finishing as PFF’s 3rd and 5th ranked cornerback respectively. Bouye was the other big free agent the Jaguars added last off-season, coming over from the Texans on a 5-year, 67.5 million dollar deal. He was a very risky signing, as, even though he finished 7th among cornerbacks on PFF in his contract year in 2016, he was completely unproven.

Undrafted in 2013, Bouye played just 831 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league combined, earning negative grades from PFF in all 3 seasons. Even in his strong season in 2016, he played just 670 snaps and began the season as the 4th cornerback before injuries struck above him on the depth chart. He easily could have regressed, but instead he continued playing well and could prove to be a steal if he keeps playing like this, as he’s only the 7th highest paid cornerback in the league and will continue to fall down the list as other young cornerbacks get paid in the next few years.

One of those other young cornerbacks that figures to get paid in the next few years is Jalen Ramsey, who is off to a great start to his career and could push to be the highest paid cornerback in the league on his next contract. Like I said, this defense is going to get expensive quickly. For now, he’s still on a reasonable rookie deal, but he has two years left before being highly paid on the 5th year option and will be eligible to sign an extension as soon as next off-season. Ngakoue and Jack will also be eligible for extensions next off-season, ahead of the final year of their rookie deals in 2019.

The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey finished 21st among cornerbacks as a rookie and before taking his game to the next level in his 2nd season in the league. He also hasn’t missed a game with injury thus far in his career and has made 32 of 32 starts. Only going into his age 24 season, he might be the best cornerback in the NFL this season. He and Bouye are the most dominant cornerback duo in the entire league.

The Jaguars also bring back veteran safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, after both earned positive grades in 16 starts in 2017. Signed by the Jaguars to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season, Church has been a solid player throughout his career, flashing as a reserve in his first 3 seasons in the league and then making 73 starts in the past 5 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons. His age is becoming a minor concern, as he goes into his age 30 season, but he could easily remain a solid starter for another couple seasons.

Gipson, on the other hand, should still be in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he hasn’t been nearly as consistent. The 2012 undrafted free agent, Gipson has made 71 starts over the past 5 seasons, the first 3 with the Browns and then the past 2 with the Jaguars, but he only earned positive grades in 2 of those 5 seasons. His best season came in 2014, when he finished 12th among safeties on PFF, but he hasn’t been reliable.

The Jaguars also used a 3rd round pick on Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison, perhaps suggesting that Gipson or Church will be let go next off-season as the Jaguars try to save cap space. Gipson would make the most sense, owed 8.25 million non-guaranteed in the 4th year of a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal. For now, Harrison will be a special teamer and reserve. This will likely remain one of the top, if not the top secondary in the NFL, even after losing Colvin.

Grade: A

Conclusion

Statistically, the Jaguars were one of the best teams in the league last season, although they faced an easy schedule and had next to no injuries, two things that likely will not be true again in 2018. Their defense is still arguably the best in the NFL and their offense could be better with the addition of Andrew Norwell and Leonard Fournette going into his 2nd season in the league, but they also still have the inconsistent Blake Bortles under center and he could easily be worse in 2018. They won the AFC South in 2017, but they may have trouble holding off both the improved Tennessee Titans and the healthier Houston Texans this season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots: 2017 AFC Championship Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (12-6) at New England Patriots (14-3)

I made a big play on the Jaguars last week as 7.5 point underdogs in Pittsburgh, but I am much less excited to do the same with the Jaguars here as 7.5 point underdogs in New England. While Pittsburgh had just 5 regular season wins by more than a touchdown, the Patriots had 9 and then had another one last week in a 35-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers were also never the same team after losing Ryan Shazier for the season, while the Patriots enter the playoffs relatively healthy, even if Tom Brady did miss some practice time this week with a cut finger.

The Jaguars could keep this game close because of their incredible defense, especially since they can get pressure on Tom Brady without blitzing, which has always been the formula to beat Tom Brady. Even if the Jaguars don’t have an answer for Rob Gronkowski on defense and even if the Patriots consistently move the chains with runs and passes to running backs, the Jaguars’ defense should be able to keep the Patriots from putting up too high of a number by pressuring him and locking down his outside receivers. However, the Jaguars’ offense is not that complex and could have trouble against a well coached New England defense that has played a lot better in since the first half of the season. I’m taking the Jaguars at 7.5, but if this line moves to 7 by the morning I would take the Patriots. That’s how close this one is for me.

New England Patriots 27 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +7.5

Confidence: None

Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2017 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)

The Steelers finished the regular season 13-3, but are more vulnerable heading into the post-season than that suggests. They finished the regular season with a +91 point differential, 6th out of the 8 remaining playoff teams, as 8 of their 13 wins came by 7 points or fewer, including 5 wins by 3 points or fewer. In their final 9 games of the regular season, they won by more than a touchdown just twice, once against the TJ Yates led Texans and once at home on a short week against the Titans in a game that was still close in the 3rd quarter. Their defense has also been significantly worse since losing Ryan Shazier.

Their lack of blowout wins is especially relevant considering this line is 7.5. That’s way too high, as the Jaguars are more than a capable opponent. They finished the regular season 3rd in point differential at +149 and 2nd in first down rate at +5.95%, both higher than the Steelers. They benefited from a slightly easier schedule than the Steelers, but they blew out most of the teams they beat (average margin of victory of 20.20 points per game in the regular season), while the Steelers had trouble with teams like the Browns, Bears, Colts, and Bengals (one win by more than a touchdown in 6 games against those teams).

The Jaguars also beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Jaguars will win again, as the team that previously won only wins at a 63.1% rate in non-divisional playoff rematches (48.3% rate as underdogs), but the Jaguars don’t have to win straight up to cover this spread, given how much cushion we are getting. I have this line at Pittsburgh -4, so we are getting significant value with the visitors at 7.5. This is a high confidence pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 20 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +7.5

Confidence: High

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (9-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

The Jaguars finished with the easiest schedule in the NFL in 2017, in terms of opponents record. Ordinarily, that would make them a smart team to bet against in the post-season, but they played at a very high level across that easy schedule, finishing 3rd in point differential at +149 and 2nd in first down rate differential at 5.95%. On top of that, they get to face the weakest playoff qualifier in their first game, with the Buffalo Bills coming to town, potentially missing stud running back LeSean McCoy.

Not only were the Bills the last team to clinch a playoff spot, sneaking into the AFC’s 6th seed at 9-7 on a strength of schedule tiebreaker, but they were not as good as their record suggested this season, as they finished with a -57 point differential that is not only the worst among playoff teams, but also worse than 9 other non-playoff teams. Five of their 7 losses came by more than 10 points, as opposed to just 1 win by more than 10 points. The Jaguars, meanwhile, won by more than 10 in all but two of their wins and have a good chance to get another one here this week. I wouldn’t recommend betting on this because the line is pretty steep at -8, but Jacksonville should win this one relatively easily.

Jacksonville Jaguars 20 Buffalo Bills 10

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville -8

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5) at Tennessee Titans (8-7)

The Jaguars are a prime candidate to rest their starters in week 17, as they are locked into the 3rd seed in the AFC. That seemed to be the expectation earlier in the week when they opened as 6-point underdogs in Tennessee, but Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said earlier this week that the Jaguars are going to treat this like a normal game. That caused this line to shift to Tennessee -3. That’s still a big line movement from the early line last week, when Jacksonville was favored by 3.5, but the Jaguars’ big loss in San Francisco last week probably has a lot to do with that.

That’s a big overreaction though, as the 49ers have been a solid opponent in recent weeks and the Jaguars only lost the first down rate battle by -1.40%, despite losing the game by 11. The reason they lost by that many points is because they lost the turnover battle by 2, but turnover margin tends to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. Case in point, prior to last week, the Jaguars had the 2nd best turnover margin in the NFL at +15 and still rank 3rd at +13. Under normal circumstances, I would probably place a bet on the Jaguars at +3 because I have this line calculated at even, but there’s no guarantee they play their starters for the whole game, so this is just a low confidence pick.

Tennessee Titans 20 Jacksonville Jaguars 19

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +3

Confidence: Low

Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (4-9) at Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4)

The Jaguars got arguably their biggest win of the season last week, holding on in a 30-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. However, they easily could have lost that game, as they lost the first down rate battle at -1.24% and needed to win the turnover margin by 2 to pull out a 6-point victory. Despite that, this line has moved from 8.5 last week on the early line to 10.5 this week, as the Jaguars seem to have legitimized themselves in the eyes of the public a little bit. Typically, I bet against line movements that seem unwarranted, but I actually think this line is still a little too low.

The Texans are one of the worst teams in the NFL without all of the players they are missing with injury, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, defensive end JJ Watt, and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus. They are down to 3rd string quarterback TJ Yates, behind arguably the worst offensive line in football, and, without Watt and Mercilus, this once stout defense is average at best. The Jaguars, meanwhile, are a top-10 team and have been for weeks, led by the top defense in the NFL, which is now fully healthy after stud linebacker Telvin Smith missed the last two games with a concussion.

The Texans are also in a terrible spot because they have to turn around and host the Steelers. It’s not that they won’t be focused for the Jaguars this week, but it’s very tough for teams to keep it close against superior teams when they have another tough game on deck. Teams are 33-55 ATS as underdogs of 7+ before being underdogs of 7+ since 2012, including 7-18 ATS before being home underdogs of 7+, which the Texans likely will be next week at home against the Steelers (+8 on the early line). The Jaguars, meanwhile, have only a trip to San Francisco on deck and should be able to take care of business against an inferior opponent. There’s not enough here for me to be confident in the Jaguars, but that would change if this line drops to 10.

Sunday Update: This line has moved to -10 in some places Sunday morning. Leonard Fournette is out for the Jaguars, but they are pretty deep at the running back position and have had success without him this season. Meanwhile, top receiver DeAndre Hopkins is not 100% for the Texans, after not practicing all week. He basically is this whole offense at this point in the season and an injury makes him that much easier for Jacksonville’s loaded secondary to deal with. Jacksonville is worth a small bet at -10.

Jacksonville Jaguars 24 Houston Texans 10

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville -10

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (8-4) at Jacksonville Jaguars (8-4)

The Seahawks won on Sunday Night Football last week at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, who previously had the best record in the NFL. That shouldn’t have been a huge surprise though, considering how much of an advantage west coast teams have against east coast teams in night games. The Seahawks have done especially well in night games, as they are now 18-5 ATS in the Russell Wilson era in regular season primetime games, including 6-2 ATS against east coast teams.

This week, they don’t have that advantage, as they go to Jacksonville for this afternoon matchup. Teams also tend not to cover off of a home upset win, covering the spread at about a 45% rate the following week, as teams tend to be a little overrated and a little overconfident after home upsets. The Seahawks’ win last week shifted this line from -3 on the early line to -2.5 now this week and the public is still all over the Seahawks. That might not seem like a huge shift, but about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so it’s pretty significant.

The Seahawks also are in a tough spot because they have to turn around and play the Rams next week, a game that could decide the division. The Jaguars, meanwhile, only host the lowly Texans. I’m not saying the Seahawks are going to look past the Jaguars, but they might be a little flat this week after a huge home win with another tough home game on deck. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have no upcoming distractions and will likely be viewing this as a statement game. With their defense, they are good enough to be considered one of the top-10 teams in the league. I have this line calculated at -3 even before any situational trends are taken into account, as I have these two teams close to even with Seattle banged up defensively. As long as you can get this line lower than 3, the Jaguars are worth a small bet because of the line value and the good spot.

Jacksonville Jaguars 17 Seattle Seahawks 13

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville -2.5

Confidence: Medium