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2017 AFC South Season Preview: Jacksonville Jaguars

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Matt Weston begins his AFC South preview with the Jacksonville Jaguars. ME-OW.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

I don’t know how Jaguars’ fans do it. Nobody loves football as much as they do. Look at this.

Imagine getting excited down there, every summer, only to see the same thing since 2007. They’ve won 22 football games since 2011. 22. And even when good things are supposed to happen, seasons like last year occur. Fresh off winning five games, the most wins they’ve had in a season since 2011, it was the year for Jacksonville to go from grotesque to competitive. Blake Bortles had just thrown for 4,428 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns became the new hottest couple. And they threw their resources around to bring in defenders to play for this downtrodden football team: Malik Jackson, Prince Amukamara, and Tashaun Gipson were signed, and Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, and Yannick Ngakoue were selected to play for Jackonville against their own free will.

Of course it all went to hell. Winning more than six games is just too difficult. They fell right back to where they belong. Bortles regressed to somewhere between his first and second season. Robinson and Hurns had a case of the dropsies. Surprise! 28 year old Chris Ivory couldn’t overcome interior blocking issues or run the outside zone. They started the season by losing their first three games, won one, and then proceeded to lose nine more after that. They are the pit of despair, a rotting heart, a terminal illness.

In 2017 they are trying to savor the moment, lower their LDL, and eat only organic by snagging the two best defensive free agents, and drafting Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall selection, in an effort to finally compete in what’s going to be a wild and crazy division.

That Great Mystical Jungle Cat

If the Jags are good this year it will be because of their defense. If the Jags are bad this year it won’t be because of their defense. Last year all the high draft picks, and free agent investments paid off. Jacksonville gave up 48 less points in 2017 than in 2016. Their DVOA increased from 9.7% (26th) to -3.1% (12th). They went from this

to this

which morphed Jacksonville from a crappy wanna-be Seattle defense to an actually talented unit. Why stop there? Thanks to all of their terrible drafts and never having to extend their team controlled talent, Jacksonville once again had cap space. They used it to sign the two best defensive free agents on the market, A.J. Bouye, and Calais Campbell.

Bouye was the Texans’ best defensive player last season. He was a top ten cornerback. He had a success rate of 53% (6th in the NFL) while being targeted 73 times. He gave up 6.4 adjusted yards an attempt, which is 13th, deflected 16 passes, and tipped enough passes in the air to make Quintin Demps an AFC Defensive Player of the Month award winner. The signing isn’t without risk. Bouye has had only one great season. But he was completely worth it for Jacksonville because of his spry age of 26, the amount of cap space they had, and how good he was last year. Houston should have franchise tagged A.J. Bouye, and the Jags reaped the benefits.

Calais Campbell has been one of the best interior and exterior defensive linemen since 2010. During his reign of bloody desert dominance he had 49.5 sacks, 322 tackles, 66 quarterback hits, 133 hurries, 279 stops, and 84 defeats. Whether it’s rushing the passer from the inside or outside, stopping the run, taking on double teams, it doesn’t matter, Campbell can do whatever the defense needs him to do from every defensive line position.

With the signings of these two, and Barry Church, Jacksonville’s fringe top ten defense is going to become this:

And this is absolutely horrifying.

Even though Todd Walsh is staying as the defensive coordinator, and possible scheme changes have been alluded to, it doesn’t really matter. 4-3 under. 4-3 over. 4-3 under and over. It really doesn’t matter. This team has talent. Whatever they run is going to work. On the majority of plays their seven is going to be better than the opponent’s seven.

The biggest hole Jacksonville had on defense in 2016 was against deep passes. They had a DVOA of 45.5% (30th) against these lobs. Part of this was their lifestyle. They loved 4x4x3 sets where Jonathan Cyprien played low while Gipson played high. This strengthened the run defense and allowed Cyprien to sniff around and make plays, something he did a lot of. The problem was that Gipson isn’t Earl Thomas. He can’t cover the entire middle of the field on his own. He stood back there and did nothing. Last season he played 1,040 snaps. He was targeted 19 times, or 4.6%, the league’s lowest lowest rate. On these plays he had a success rate of 28%, and batted down just two passes. Gipson was the fat kid in right field in this Jags’ defense.

This year they will probably do away with this. They signed Barry Church to play strong safety. He’s not great at anything. He’s pretty good against the run and the pass. With the front seven Jacksonville has they don’t need a safety constantly scrounging around the box though. They’re fine. This should lead to them playing with two safeties back more consistently. Allowing Gipson to cover less ground, and actually make an impact on the game.

Their cornerback duo will help this flaw from last year too. Ramsey and Bouye are going to the one of the league’s best, and more importantly, they are already the favorite in my heart. Bouye can play man and zone. Ramsey is a powerful press man corner who is going to become a top five corner. Both are physical players that can mash against the run. The safeties in Jacksonville don’t have to be very good, just average, and the same goes for whoever plays the third and fourth corner spot with these two on the outside.

In the box they are going to be even better than they were last year. Campbell is here. Jack is going to play more often than last season. With him and Smith they have a linebacker unit that can cover short passes at Carolinain levels. Last season they were already great against short passes with a DVOA of -11.1%, and this defense is going to be even faster than last year’s.

Additionally, the mediocre pass rush from last season can possibly be great this year. Both Campbell and Jackson can command double teams. Jackson can rush from the one to the five technique, and Campbell can rush anywhere from the one to the nine technique. With these two Jacksonville has plenty of stunt combinations that they can use. They’ll also draw attention away from the young edge rushers. The stretchy, long armed, ripping Ngakoue is going to get a ton of one on one edge matchups. And even if Smith and Jack haven’t shown the ability to blitz, it doesn’t mean they can’t. There are going to be open rush lanes for them this season. The real wildcard here is Fowler. If he can sniff his draft pedigree then this pass rush could become a top ten one.

By signing two players, Jacksonville’s defense is going to morph from a very good cat to a great jungle cat. By signing these players, Jacksonville is able to hide the flaws that affected them last year, and increase their strengths. No matter the scheme. No matter the position the offense puts them in. This defense is going to rake and pounce, and end up as one of the ten best defenses in the NFL in 2017.

Offense

This is the problem. The Jaguars’ offense doesn’t make sense. The majority of the decisions this regime has made since taking over haven’t made sense. This offense has been pulled in several different directions, yanking and stretching itself thin.

To start, let’s talk about the run game. For the past few years the Jaguars have tried to create a run game by investing in the running back position. While other teams have learned that this position can be filled with late round picks, and fungible free agents, the Jaguars have continued to spend money and use draft capital on it.

They signed Toby Gerhardt to a three year $10.5 million contract. He carried the ball 121 times for 370 yards during his time here. They drafted Denard Robinson in the fifth round, who is currently unsigned after finishing his rookie contract with Jacksonville. They drafted T.J. Yeldon in the second round. They signed Chris Ivory last offseason and he ended up last in DVOA (-43.0%) and DYAR (-132). And in this year’s draft, Jacksonville used the fourth overall pick on running back Leonard Fournette.

This season the Jaguars are going to spend $14,089,782 of their cap dollars on this position. Each running back is going to be paid an leverage of $2,348,297, which is the highest average salary in the NFL. Ivory is going to make $5,843,750 this year, the sixth highest contract out of all running backs, Fournette will make $4,936,516, and Yeldon will make $1,1612,848.

During this time the Jaguars’ rushing DVOA has ranked 20th (-8.2%), 28th (-17.4%), and 28th (-22.7%). And during this time they have relatively ignored the offensive line, and when they did invest in it, it didn’t work out. This season Jacksonville is slated to spend $19,848,841 on their offensive line. This is the second least amount spent in the league. The only team to spend less is the Seattle Seahwaks—a team that employs a quarterback who trancsends his offensive line and lives under duress, and a few different running backs who are incredible at breaking tackles. They used the number two overall pick on Luke Joeckel who is gone forever. They spent a lot of money on Zane Beadles who didn’t last. Over the last three seasons fourteen different players have started a game on their offensive line.

So rather than actually learn something, and use some of their cap space to bring in a guard like Ronald Leary, or a tackle like Andrew Whitworth, they decided to do it again. They used the fourth overall pick on Leonard Fournett. Then improved the offensive line by trading for Branden Albert who retired, then didn’t, and was released, and drafted a fallen potential first round pick Cam Robinson in the second round. All while failing to upgrade at the guard position, the primary source of their troubles. Their week one offensive line will probably be composed of Cam Robinson (LT), Patrick Omameh (LG), Brandon Linder (C), A.J. Cann (RG), and Jermey Parnell (RT). This is 4/5 of the same offensive line that finished 27th in adjusted line yards, and blocked to create one of the league’s worst rushing attacks.

The main reason why the Jaguars’ offense hasn’t been able to run the ball in previous years is because of their roster construction. But their scheme hasn’t helped either. Offensively, the Jaguars run a lot of different run plays without putting their backs in the best position to succeed.

Last offseason’s big offensive investment, Chris Ivory, was signed to be first down churning brute who could also help out in the redzone, and minimize the number of throws Bortles would have to make through constricted windows. Of course Ivory had only three touchdowns and was one of the worst backs in the league. However, Jacksonville did nothing to help Marion Barber’s protege. Ivory played in an offense that used him on a lot of outside zone plays, something that Ivory doesn’t know how to run.

Ivory is a get it and go back. Someone who crunches bones like roaches between dorm room toes. He will take the hand off and get everything he can between the tackles. What he can’t do, is read from outside to inside, patiently wait for blockers to open holes, and then go.

On first and seven, in the redzone, Jacksonville used an outside zone play to the weakside of the formation. The blocking here is good. The playside moves the first level and gets to the weakside linebacker. The double team between the guard and center seal the nose tackle and get to the linebacker too. The problem here is Ivory.

Ivory flows right, reading outside in. He has an open hole. He doesn’t trust A.J. Cann (#60) though. Rather than put his faith in his guard, and turn from horizontal to vertical, he continues to fade to the right.

Cann ends up making the block. Ivory is wrong. He also bounces the run further outside instead, and his tackled by the unblocked backside defender.

Great outside zone running is spectacular when it works out. You’ll have to rewind play after play to try and figure out where the hole came from, and how the back created what he did. The player is the artist. While the viewer is scrambling to figure it all out. With Ivory it’s different. It’s a lot of hesitation, back tracking, and exposition without action.

Compare this to T.J. Yeldon. Yeldon is a natural outside zone runner. He effortlessly cuts back and continuously makes the right decision. While not being the best athlete, he does have the know how in this scheme to be worth giving carries to.

Yet too often, both these players were stuck running plays that didn’t match what they did well. Instead of leaving purple bruises on inside zones, Ivory was stuck trying to find himself behind an offensive line that couldn’t stick at the second level. And Yeldon wasn’t allowed to be a primary outside zone runner.

For most teams a bad run game isn’t a season killer. Passing the ball is of course more efficient and effective. The issue for Jacksonville is their 25 going on 35 quarterback isn’t accurate or smart enough to run an offense when he needs to be the main driver. Bortles doesn’t see the game well enough, doesn’t throw with anticipation, and isn’t accurate enough to be the 37 throws a game passer that he’s had to be in his career.

Most of Jacksonville’s short to intermediate passing plays involve either Bortles not feeling comfortable enough to make the throw, missing the open throw entirely, or not seeing it in time before tossing it into coverage and hoping the bad guy doesn’t catch it. This play is as simple as it gets. Bortles first read is the wheel route to the flat.

The back gets open. He looks for the ball. It isn’t there. Bortles chooses to look elsewhere because the linebacker is somewhat in the vicinity. Despite it being the first read, despite the throw being open, he still doesn’t attempt it. Instead he scours to the middle of the field where shorter comeback routes are developing. When the sea of sand in the jar becomes individual grains he chunks it inerrantly into coverage for it to be knocked away. Exchanging an easy first for an incompletion in the process.

Or this throw, where Bortles doesn’t see the seam route open against cover three. Rather than complete a first down, Bortles is brought down for a sack.

That doesn’t mean Bortles is worthless. He can do some things well. Bortles is a good one read down field thrower, and has a real knack at throwing at people’s feet. Jacksonville’s quarterback is at his best when he reads the safety, recognizes where single man coverage is, and then pushes the ball to one of his three main receivers. When he makes the right read he only has to get the ball in the vicinity of either Robinson, Hurns, or Marqise Lee, and let them do the spectacular.

Here, Bortles looks at the safety. He recognizes cover one. When he sees the safety enthralled with the two right sideline receivers, he immediately goes the other way and puts a pretty back shoulder fade on Lee, who of course makes an even prettier catch.

Attacking man coverage down the sideline is what Bortles excels at.

Additionally, he’s also strong in the pocket and tough to bring down. He shrugs off hits and takes off down the field to move the sticks. Despite taking 59 quarterback hits, and being knockdown a combined 89 times, he only took 34 sacks, which is down by 17 from the year before. He feels the rush and the pocket alright. Then when he does decide to keep it and run, he’s been one of the most efficient quarterbacks on the ground. He’s had a DVOA of at least 20% every season of his career, and even broke 9 tackles last year.

The problem is he just isn’t consistent enough when doing anything other than throw sideline passes to be a viable quarterback. Things that good quarterbacks constantly do, like this, are strikes of brilliance for Bortles, instead of usual competent play.

This is Bortles’s make or break season. He may not even last through it, and we may end up seeing Chad Henne again. He hasn’t played well, but it isn’t entirely his fault. He has never played behind an offense that can run the ball. He’s always been required to do too much. He does have some real skills though. I’ve said it before, Bortles could be a viable quarterback if he was allowed to make five downfield throws a game and take shots behind a great running attack with a great defense protecting him. It’s a lot to set up though. Nearly all quarterbacks dream of that situation.

This situation is the situation the Jags have attempted to set up. This is where Fournette comes in. They’re going to run the ball a lot out of the I-formation or with multiple tight ends, despite not having viable tertiary, let alone secondary blockers. Fournette and Ivory are going to be mashed between the tackles into throbs of limbs, and will need to run above the blocking they get. From there, Bortles will need to make three to five deep throws a game against creeping single high safety defenses. The defense will need to hold teams to 20 points or less, and Jacksonville will need to win close games. Pretty much, they’re trying to be some strange intersection between Houston and Tennessee.

That’s the plan. Now, I’m all in on the defense working out, I just don’t see it offensively. Last season with Doug Marrone as the head coach, and Nathaniel Hackett as the offensive coordinator, they weren’t able to synchronize their offensive personnel and scheme. There’s nothing pointing to that changing this season. Their offensive line is going to be overwhelmed by the better front sevens in the league. Two things that I don’t think Fournette can overcome in his rookie season. And if they get into any type of defecit they will be forced to lean on Bortles, and he hasn’t proven he can be that quarterback.

The Jags being good is one of those things that I don’t ever see happening until it happens, and although they will be better, this isn’t going to be the year it happens.

Prediction: 6-10