It’s hard to believe, but the Jaguars were in the AFC Championship during the 2017 season, a season in which they finished 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.95%. Just two seasons later in 2019, the Jaguars fell to 6-10 and were even worse than that suggests, finishing dead last in first down rate differential at -6.64%. How did it fall apart so quickly? Well, that 2017 team was built around a defense that ranked 1st in first down rate allowed and that defense got too expensive to keep together, while their offense was only able to have a middling season in 2017 (14th in first down rate) because they got a surprisingly competent season out of quarterback Blake Bortles against a very easy schedule.
In 2018, with a much tougher schedule, Bortles struggled and eventually lost his job at the end of the season, leading to the Jaguars starting Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew at quarterback in 2019. With the Foles/Minshew duo under center, the Jaguars ranked 29th in first down rate, while their hollowed out defense ranked 28th in first down rate allowed. The Jaguars’ defense, which I’ll get into later, lost even more this off-season, leaving them with just 3 of their top-14 in terms of snaps played from their 2017 defense, but this offense looks equally concerning.
The Jaguars traded Foles to the Bears this off-season, getting out of his 15.6 million dollar salary, as the Jaguars go into full cost cutting rebuild mode. On both sides of the ball, this season looks like it will be more about getting a high draft pick, letting young players play, and rebuilding cap space for the future after years of cap hell, which they’ve already done in a big way, with the third most projected available cap space in the league for 2021.
With Foles gone and only career backup Mike Glennon behind Minshew on the depth chart, this is officially Minshew’s job going into his second season in the league. Minshew might never develop into a long-term starter, but in many ways he’s a perfect quarterback for this team right now, because he’s inexpensive, he has upside, and if he struggles it will only help this team’s draft position.
After falling to the sixth round, Minshew had his moments as a rookie and finished with 60.6% completion, 6.96 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, but he got worse as the season went on, ranking 26th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus from week 6 on, and he may still project best as a backup long-term, as the history of late round picks becoming long-term starters is very limited. Minshew will get an extended tryout for a team that figures to not win many games either way and he comes with some upside, but I wouldn’t expect much from him or this offense in 2020.
Minshew didn’t really have much help around him last season, but he did show a good rapport with second year wide receiver DJ Chark. Chark finished the season with a 73/1008/8 slash line on 118 targets, while averaging 1.69 yards per route run and earning Pro Football Focus’ 27th highest wide receiver grade. Chark is a total one-year wonder who barely made an impact on 291 snaps as a rookie in 2018, but he came into the league with a high ceiling and, while there’s some chance of regression from him this season, there’s also a chance he keeps getting better, only in his age 24 season.
The rest of this receiving corps was pretty underwhelming though, as Chris Conley and Dede Westbrook both earned middling grades as the other two wide receivers in 3 wide receiver sets, averaging 1.33 yards per route run and 1.20 yards per route run respectively, while their tight end production was among the worst in the league, with just 53 tight end completions. In order to try to improve this group, the Jaguars used a 2nd round pick on Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault and signed veteran tight end Tyler Eifert to a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal in free agency, who could both play significant roles.
At wide receiver, Shenault is expected to compete for playing time with Conley and Westbrook right away. A 4th round pick in 2017, Westbrook has been a solid, but unspectacular player across 38 career games, averaging a 67/723/4 slash line per 16 games, and earning average or better grades from PFF in all 3 seasons, while Conley’s underwhelming 2019 season was actually his career best, as the 2015 3rd round pick has earned middling at best grades across 5 seasons with the Chiefs and Jaguars. Conley is the more likely one to lose playing time to Shenault, especially since Westbrook is the Jaguars best option to play the slot. The Jaguars also have Keelan Cole, who has some starting experience, as a valuable reserve and he could see some situational snaps as well.
At tight end, the Jaguars are hoping Eifert can form a solid duo with 2019 3rd round pick Josh Oliver. Oliver’s rookie year was ruined by injuries, as he was limited to just 117 mediocre snaps in 4 games, but the Jaguars are still high on his future and he could easily take a big step forward in his second season if he’s healthy. Health has been a problem for Eifert throughout his career, as he’s missed 53 of 112 games in 7 seasons in the league. The former first round pick showed high end ability when healthy, posting a 52/615/13 slash line in 13 games in 2015 and finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked tight end, but then he was limited to just 14 games over the next three seasons combined.
Eifert then played all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, but all of the injuries seemed to have taken their toll, as Eifert earned a middling grade from PFF and had just a 43/436/3 slash line. Now going into his age 30 season, it’s likely his best days are behind him and he’s hardly a guarantee to make it through all 16 games again. If both are healthy, Eifert and Josh Oliver are, by default, an upgrade over what the Jaguars had at tight end last season, but they come with a lot of uncertainty, so the Jaguars will need someone to step up at wide receiver if they’re going to have a consistent 2nd option behind DJ Chark.
Without much passing game production from the tight ends last season, running back Leonard Fournette finished 4th on the team in receiving yards with a 76/522/0, but that was more the product of opportunity than anything, as Fournette managed just 5.22 yards per target on 100 targets. Fournette’s passing game struggles are nothing new, as he’s averaged just 5.80 yards per target in 3 seasons in the league, which is why he was barely used in the passing game in his first two seasons in the league, but last season he was used frequently for lack of a better option.
The Jaguars don’t seem to want to do that again, bringing in ex-Redskins pass catching specialist Chris Thompson, who has averaged a 55/465/2 slash line per 16 games over the past 5 seasons. Thompson is highly unreliable when it comes to staying on the field though, missing 20 games over the past 5 seasons combined, including at least 5 games in 3 straight seasons, and he’s unlikely to suddenly become more durable now in his age 30 season, so it’s very likely Fournette will have to be an every down back again at some point in 2020.
Fournette has been better as a runner in his career than he’s been as a receiver, but he’s hardly been what the Jaguars were hoping for when they used the 4th overall pick on him in 2017, rushing for 2,631 yards and 17 touchdowns on 666 carries (3.95 YPC) and posting middling rushing grades on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league. This off-season Jaguars declined Fournette’s 5th year option for 2021, which would have guaranteed him 8.483 million for injury, and unsuccessfully tried to trade him on draft day, so his time with the team seems to be coming to a close, but in the meantime he should continue being the clear lead back on a team without another good rushing option.
Chris Thompson could see some action as a change of pace back and the speedster has an impressive 4.78 YPC average in 7 seasons in the league, but the diminutive 5-8 195 pounder has never topped 68 carries in a season and lacks the size and durability to carry a load. Given that, 2019 5th round pick Ryquell Armstead could be the Jaguars’ #2 back this season in terms of carries, but he showed very little as a rookie (3.09 YPC on 35 carries) to suggest he deserves a larger role, even with Fournette being an underwhelming starter. The addition of Chris Thompson helps this backfield, but this is still a questionable group, especially given Thompson’s inability to stay healthy in his career.
The Jaguars also had underwhelming play on their offensive line last season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked run blocking team and their 24th ranked pass blocking team. The Jaguars didn’t really do much to upgrade this group this off-season though, so it should look largely the same in 2020. The one position which could potentially be different is right guard, where the Jaguars actually rotated a couple players last season, AJ Cann and Will Richardson.
Both players struggled mightily last season, especially Richardson who also saw some action at tackle and is expected to move to tackle full-time in 2020. Richardson, a 4th round pick in 2018, could still get better after face planting in his first career action last season, but Cann, while he’s more proven with 75 career starts, has never received more than a middling grade from PFF and is unlikely to get better, now in his 6th season in the league. With Richardson moving to tackle, he will be replaced at guard by 4th round rookie Ben Bratch, who will compete with and may rotate with AJ Cann at right guard, despite being raw. Regardless of who plays at right guard, it figures to be a position of weakness.
Richardson is likely to be a reserve at tackle, even though left tackle was a position of weakness with left tackle Cam Robinson finishing 75th out of 89 qualifying tackles on PFF. Robinson came into the league with high expectations with the 34th overall pick and he took over as the starting left tackle as a rookie, but hasn’t lived up to those expectations, struggling as a rookie in addition, finishing 81st out of 92nd qualifying tackles on PFF, and missing almost all of 2018 with a torn ACL before last year’s poor performance.
Robinson still has upside, only in his age 25 season, another year removed from his ACL tear, but it’s possible he never develops into an even an average starter. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor is also a former 2nd round pick, going 35th overall in 2019, and his development has gone better, as he was about an average starter in 16 rookie year starts at right tackle and could take a step forward in his second season in the league. It’s possible the Jaguars could flip their offensive tackles at some point if Robinson continues to struggle, but it’s unclear if Taylor would be as good at left tackle and Robinson wouldn’t necessarily be better at right tackle.
Center Brandon Linder was the best player on this unit last season, finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked center while playing all but 7 snaps on the season. Playing at a high level is nothing new for him, as he’s finished in the top-7 among centers on PFF in 4 straight seasons (52 starts) since moving there from right guard, where he also had some success. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Linder should continue being one of the better centers in the league in 2020 and is probably the Jaguars’ best offensive player.
Left guard Andrew Norwell also has a history of success, finishing in the top-25 among guards on PFF in all 6 seasons in the league, including a pair of top-10 finishes in 2015 and 2017. Norwell hasn’t been quite as good since joining the Jaguars from the Panthers two off-seasons ago on a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and he should continue being at least an above average starter going forward. Linder and Norwell elevate this offensive line, but this should remain an underwhelming group in 2020, having made few changes this off-season.
As I mentioned, the Jaguars struggled mightily on defense last season, finishing 28th in first down rate allowed at 38.50%, a drastic change from their #1 ranked defense of 2017. Even in 2018 in a disappointing season the Jaguars still finished 5th in first down rate allowed. In 2019, they actually got off to a pretty decent start, ranking 13th in first down rate allowed at 35.71% through the first 6 games of the season, but the wheels fell off when the Jaguars traded cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Rams ahead of week 7, as the Jaguars had the NFL’s 3rd worst first down rate allowed at 40.19% from that point on.
This off-season, the Jaguars continued to shed talent as part of their rebuilding strategy. AJ Bouye, traded to the Broncos for a 4th round pick ahead of a 13.5 million non-guaranteed owed, and Marcell Dareus, released ahead of 20 million non-guaranteed owed, aren’t huge losses as both were middling players last season, but the Jaguars also sent Calais Campbell to the Ravens, even though he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked interior defender last season, and got just a 5th round pick for him, moving him purely to avoid paying him 15 million for his age 34 season. He’s obviously a significant loss for this defense. All in all, the Jaguars are left with just 3 defenders from their top-14 in terms of snaps played from that dominant 2017 unit and they could easily be one of the worst defenses in the league in 2020.
One of those three who remains is edge defender Yannick Ngakoue, although it remains to be seen how long that will be in the case for, as Ngakoue has yet to sign his franchise tag tender and has demanded to be traded, with the Jaguars seemingly unwilling to pay him what he wants long-term. Ngakoue apparently wants to be paid in the Khalil Mack/Aaron Donald range (22+ million annually) as one of the highest paid defensive players in the league, so it’s understandable the Jaguars wouldn’t want to pay him at that level, as he struggles against the run and has only once finished higher than 33rd among edge defenders on PFF in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and he has 37.5 sacks, 56 hits, and a 12.0% pressure rate for his career, so Ngakoue would likely get that kind of money from someone if he were available on the open market, given how young pass rushers are valued in this league.
Finding a team willing to give Ngakoue that kind of deal and give up a premium pick for him is the tricky part and the Jaguars unsurprisingly had no takers at their first round asking price on draft day and have yet to move him. It’s possible they still will move him for a future draft pick before the season starts, rather than losing him for nothing next off-season, especially since the Jaguars don’t seem to be trying to be competitive in 2020 anyway, but if the Jaguars don’t move him Ngakoue’s only option would be to holdout, which is possible, but his 17,788 million dollar guaranteed salary on the franchise tag may ultimately be tough to turn down. Even if he isn’t Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald, he would still have a big impact on this pass rush if he remains on the roster in 2020.
Possibly seeing the writing on the wall with Ngakoue long-term, the Jaguars used the 20th overall pick, one of the two first rounders they received for Jalen Ramsey, on LSU edge defender K’Lavon Chaisson, their second straight season using a first round pick on an edge defender, with Kentucky’s Josh Allen going 7th overall in 2019. Allen didn’t reach the same heights as fellow rookie edge defender Nick Bosa, with whom Allen was frequently compared before the draft, but Allen had a solid rookie year in his own right, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF, particularly playing well as a pass rusher, with 10.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate.
Only going into his age 23 season, Allen has a sky high ceiling and could easily take a step forward in 2020 on his way to becoming one of the better edge defenders in the league a few years down the line. Chaisson isn’t as clean of a prospect as Allen was and will likely have growing pains as a rookie, but he too has a high ceiling, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Chaisson and Allen developed into one of the best edge defender duos in the league at some point in the future.
If Ngakoue is traded or holds out, the Jaguars would likely turn to veteran Cassius Marsh, who they signed in free agency this off-season, or 4th year player Dawuane Smoot, who is going into his 4th year with the Jaguars since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2017. Despite being a relatively high pick, Smoot has shown very little in 3 years in the league, playing just 818 snaps and struggling both against the run and as a pass rusher (7.6% pressure rate). Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s entering a make or break year and is not a guarantee to lock down a role. Marsh, meanwhile, has been mediocre on an average of 455 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons as a reserve with the Seahawks, 49ers, Patriots, and most recently the Cardinals. Both are underwhelming options, but if the Jaguars can get Ngakoue on the field, this is a trio with a lot of upside, at least as pass rushers.
With Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus both gone from this interior of this defensive line, the Jaguars will move forward with holdovers Taven Bryan (481 snaps) and Abry Jones (558 snaps), veteran free agent acquisition Rodney Gutner, and third round rookie Davon Hamilton. Bryan has the highest upside of the bunch, as he was the Jaguars’ first round pick back in 2018, making it three years in a row in which the Jaguars have taken a defensive lineman in the first round. Bryan hasn’t lived up to his draft status yet, playing just 782 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but he’s flashed as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher and has obvious breakout potential in his third year in the league, now likely to get a shot at an every down role.
Jones is the also tenured member of the group, spending his whole 7-year NFL career with the Jaguars, including a 488 snap season on the Jaguars dominant 2017 team, making him one of those three significant players still remaining from that defense. Jones has never been more than a rotational player, as the 558 snaps he played last season were a career high, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he surpassed that total in 2020 as the nominal starter in an underwhelming group. Jones is still only in his age 29 season and he’s consistently proven to be an above average run stuffer, but his 9.5 sacks, 6 hits, and 5.1% pressure rate in 100 career games leave something to be desired in passing situations.
With Davon Hamilton entering the league as a pretty raw prospect, the veteran Rodney Gutner figures to be Jones’ biggest competition for the nominal starting job opposite Bryan. Gutner has played 641 snaps and 602 snaps over the past 2 seasons with the Cardinals, but he’s largely been a snap eater more than anything and that has been the case throughout his career, even when he played a small role back in 2015-2017. He’s not a bad player in any aspect of the game and could be valuable for a team without much depth at the position, but I wouldn’t expect big things from him. Barring a huge breakout year from Bryan, this should be an underwhelming group overall.
Even with the Jaguars rebuilding, they did make one big outside financial investment this off-season, signing ex-Browns linebacker Joe Schobert to a 5-year, 53.75 million dollar deal. Schobert will team up with Myles Jack, the third remaining significant player from their 2017 defense and a player who is also well paid on a 4-year, 57 million dollar deal. In 2017, the Jaguars had Jack and the since retired Telvin Smith as their top-2 linebackers, who both played in nickel packages, and they were a big part of the Jaguars’ defensive success that season. The contract the Jaguars gave Schobert suggests they have sign expectations for him as Smith’s long-term replacement.
If Schobert plays like he did in 2018, when he finished 10th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, he’ll be worth his contract, but that’s not a guarantee, as the 2016 4th round pick has never finished higher than 30th at his position on PFF in any of his other 3 seasons in the league, including a 57th ranked finish in 2019. He’s a good coverage linebacker and was especially dominant in coverage in 2018, allowing a ridiculous 0.42 yards per route run, lowest at his position, but he tends to struggle against the run, especially last season, and his 57 missed tackles over the past 3 seasons definitely stand out as a problem. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was consistently a solid every down player, but it’s likely his 2018 season will end up being his career best when all is said and done.
Jack is also coming off of a disappointing year, finishing 87th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF, but injuries were largely to blame in a season in which he was limited to 613 snaps in 11 games and, prior to last season, Jack had finished above average on PFF in back-to-back season as a starter. Still only his age 25 season, the 2016 2nd round pick has obvious bounce back potential and could benefit from Schobert coming in to take over in the middle, allowing Jack to play in probably a more natural spot outside.
In 2017, the Jaguars also had a talented third linebacker, as veteran Paul Posluzsny was a dominant run stuffer in base packages, but he also has since retired and the Jaguars don’t have anyone like that anymore. The Jaguars used a 3rd round pick on Quincy Williams in 2019, but he was widely regarded as a reach and didn’t prove anyone wrong in a horrendous rookie season in which he finished as PFF’s 98th ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 qualifiers. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in 2020, but it’s tough to trust him in any role.
Leon Jacobs, a 2018 7th round pick, has flashed in limited action thus far in his career, particularly against the run, but he’s played just 471 snaps, so he’s hardly a reliable option either. It’s also possible 4th round rookie Shaquille Quarterman could get into the mix as the third linebacker at some point this season. Schobert and Jack aren’t a bad duo, but depth is a question mark.
The Jaguars’ secondary is the unit that has changed the most since 2017, as they now have a completely new unit. At safety, the starting duo of Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church, who were solid in 2017, were both let go after 2018 for salary reasons and the Jaguars then turned to inexpensive young prospects Ronnie Harrison and Jarrod Wilson to be their starting safeties in 2019 in place of Church and Gipson. Now going into 2020, Harrison and Wilson will remain the starters.
Harrison struggled in his first year as a starter, finishing 76th out of 100 qualifying safeties on Pro Football Focus, after playing 328 underwhelming snaps as a rookie in 2018. A former 3rd round pick, Harrison still has starters’ tools and could take a step forward in his third season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee. Wilson, meanwhile, is a 2016 undrafted free agent who flashed in 305 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league before breaking out as PFF’s 29th ranked safety in 2019. He’s a one-year wonder who might not be quite as good in 2020, but he still profiles as at least a capable starter going forward.
Cornerback was arguably the Jaguars’ best position on that dominant 2017 defense, led by Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, who finished 2nd and 7th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Both are no longer with the team, being traded in the past calendar year, while slot cornerback Aaron Colvin, who also had a solid year in 2017, is long gone, having left the following off-season.
The Jaguars did a pretty good job of replacing Colvin, signing DJ Hayden in free agency and watching him prove to be a late bloomer, as the former first round pick has earned back-to-back above average grades as the third cornerback and primary slot cover cornerback (0.77 yards per route run allowed on the slot), after struggling in the first 5 seasons of his career. With Ramsey and Bouye both gone, however, Hayden will likely have to play a larger role and could be overstretched as an every down player, especially now on the wrong side of 30.
To replace Ramsey and Bouye as the primary outside cornerbacks, the Jaguars did use a first round pick, taking Florida’s CJ Henderson 9th overall, but he’ll likely have growing pains as a rookie and their other outside cornerback options are veteran free agent addition Rashaan Melvin and holdover Tre Herndon, who would both be underwhelming options. Undrafted in 2018, Herndon struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2019, finishing 107th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF across 902 snaps.
Melvin, meanwhile, is going into his 8th season in the league, but he has been underwhelming at best in his career, aside from an impressive half season as a starter with the Colts in 2017, and he’s going into his age 31 season coming off of a 2019 season in which he finished 104th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks with the Lions. Unless CJ Henderson has a huge rookie year, this looks like a very underwhelming secondary.
The Jaguars have the least expensive roster in the NFL by average annual salary and it shows. Their dominant 2017 defense is a thing of the past and should be even worse this season without Calais Campbell and others, as well as possibly Yannick Ngakoue, who wants a trade, while their offense looks to be one of the worst in the league, barring a surprising breakout year from quarterback Gardner Minshew, who has the history of late round quarterbacks in the NFL working against him. Ultimately, this team seems to be building for the future more than trying to compete in the short-term, stockpiling young talent, draft picks, and cap space for the future. The Jaguars might not be the worst team in the league this season but they’ll likely be in the mix for the #1 pick along with teams like the Redskins and Panthers. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: The Jaguars shed even more talent, trading away Yannick Ngakoue and Ronnie Harrison and releasing Leonard Fournette when they couldn’t find a trade partner. They’ll be lucky (or unlucky depending on the goal of their season) to win more than a couple games.
Projection: 2-14 (4th in AFC South)