The Jacksonville Jaguars had been the whipping boys of the NFL for a long time. Between 2011 & 2016 they had gone 22-74. An average of 3.67 wins per year over a six-year stretch will test even the most loyal and optimistic fan bases.
So when they invested heavily in their defense and running game last offseason there was some hesitation to get on board with yet another rebuild, but after a Week 1 demolition of the Houston Texans it was clear this Jaguars team was not like the others.
In the end the Jags had put together one of the best pass defenses in league history and ridden them to a 10-6 record, an AFC South title, and a spot in the AFC championship game. Their loss came at the hands of a remarkable Tom Brady comeback, marking the third time this century that the Patriots had knocked Jacksonville out of the postseason.
Heading into 2018 the expectation is to repeat as division champs and to stand toe-to-toe with New England once again. If they are to do so they can’t stand still, they will have to improve their roster throughout free agency and the draft. What areas do they need to look at? And who could they target?
You might expect this to say wide receiver, but the Jaguars are in a pretty good position there. They cleared some cap space to make room for a potential Allen Robinson deal, and even if he doesn’t come back they found two young studs in Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole last year. What they lack is a strong inside option at tight end.
Marcedes Lewis stunned the London crowd with three touchdowns at Wembley Stadium, but he will be 34 when the 2018 season kicks off and hasn’t topped 30 catches or 500 yards since 2012. Finding a game-breaking option on the inside that can block and catch would open up a world of possibilities for the Jags offense.
But where can they get such a player? Jimmy Graham is available as a free agent but he is likely to expensive for the Jaguars to chase, and at 31 he carries a good deal more risk than he used to. The rest of the free agents are a below-average group. Which leaves the Jags with the draft. There are a number of day two prospects that the Jaguars could be interested in. Mike Gesicki has the ideal size and produced pretty well at Penn State, and Dallas Goedert is a nice option as well. Look for the Jags to invest their #29 draft pick (via a trade down) here unless someone unexpectedly falls into their lap.
It seems odd to suggest they go after even more defensive talent, but the Jaguars were remarkably healthy last season. Not a single member of their core four in the secondary missed a game, Myles Jack and Telvin Smith missed just two games between them, and Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, and Dante Fowler didn’t miss one between them.
There is a lot of luck in that kind of situation, and to go into 2018 without a clear backup plan is not wise. There are plenty of veteran free agents that could play rotational roles and fill in spots should a starter miss a few weeks, but there are also younger players that washed out of their roster but still have something to provide.
The likes of Kyle Fuller could be brought in on a cheap deal, the same goes for Eric Reid. They would undoubtedly like to bring Aaron Colvin back but if not then a player like Brandon Boykin could help fill the role.
Don’t be surprised if Jacksonville end up spending a good portion of their day two and three picks on defense, especially as the bill starts to come due on their free agent spending in 2019 and 2020 when they are going to need to make cuts and have cheap, reliable talent to lean on.
This might seem an odd place to focus on after the Jaguars signed Blake Bortles to an extension, but this all comes down to who is available. Should a Lamar Jackson or Baker Mayfield slide into their laps, the Jaguars would be mad not to consider drafting them.
The Bortles extension gives them cap relief for 2018, but the structure also means they can move on from him in 2019 and, while they would carry a good deal of dead money, save cap space to invest elsewhere. Even if they don’t land one of the top guys this year, signing a developmental quarterback to be a backup for Bortles and potential competition down the line is no bad thing. A mid-round pick on a guy like Mason Rudolph or Kyle Lauletta could give them more long-term security at the position.
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