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2020 AFC South Season Preview: The Jacksonville Jaguars

A look at the Jacksonville Jaguars as the 2020 NFL season trudges closer to fruition.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2018 Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense saw their turnover totals regress and the hairless crater roosting upon Blake Bortles’s head become a halo, the 2019 Jacksonville Jaguars had a plan, a grand and luxurious plan, to resurrect the franchise from the dripping malodorous underworld, and that plan was simple, sign former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to play quarterback.

Back in the summer of 2019, that faraway time when you could sit in green chlorinated water with other strangers, and eat cheese dogs with the cars surrounding you, this idea had some grounding in reality. Foles would operate in a spread short passing offense after Leonard Fournette bludgeoned front sevens with their power run game. The ‘J’ in Jacksonville would once again be replaced with a ‘S’. And even if Jacksonville’s pass defense couldn’t rise back up to all-time great heights, the offense could make up the rest, even if it remained a fringe top five one.

Entropy obliterated Jacksonville’s bawling universe immediately. This plan lasted for exactly 9 minutes and 29 seconds. In week one against Kansas City the Jaguars couldn’t tackle, allowing Sammy Watkins to turn a hook route into an ocean. The rush couldn’t get to the transcendent Patrick Mahomes. They missed Tashaun Gipson and Telvin Smith more than most expected they would. And, of course, Chris Jones bullrushed through A.J. Cann and squished Foles, a resounding thump, smashing his collarbone like the dry husk of a granola bar, after he unfurled a slot fade touchdown to D.J. Chark.

None of the things envisioned in August occurred. Even when returning from injury Foles was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. He ended the season with a DVOA of -21.3% and was once again replaced by Gardner Minshew, this time because of performance, not because of injury. Foles is already gone. Somehow, the Jaguars were able to bully a 2019 fourth round pick out of the Chicago Bears to take on this contract, when previous quarterback disasters required a draft pick to be attached along with the failed experiment.

Fournette ran the ball a lot, but was unable to get much out of it. Most of his rush attempts were waddles through a brush of arms and torsos. He had 265 carries for 1,152 yards, and had a rushing DVOA of -8.6%. The same problems continued to plague Fournette. When he sticks his foot in the ground and gets vertical he can be a great back in flashes who breaks backs and mauls tacklers. The problem is he rarely has the space to work with. Big personnel sets on first down, and interior blocking struggles, made running the ball drowning on dry land for him.

Runs like this one against Denver were rare for Fournette. Only occasionally he could find some space to cutback and maneuver in, and most importantly, stick his foot and accelerate.

This season Jacksonville is projected to return the same starting five offensive linemen. Getting a full season, if there is a season, from Cam Robinson will help things. Jawaan Taylor proved he should have been a first round pick after falling because of injury concerns that never came to fruition. He was able to match the strength of physical rushers like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, and played admirably against Von Miller. Another season to work on punch timing and hand placement to decrease the fifteen penalties he had his rookie season will prove wonders for him. And Brandon Linder is one of the best zone blocking centers in the league.

The issues arise at the guard position. Cann is below average. He doesn’t move the line of scrimmage vertically, a vital requirement of inside zone and power run plays, and bullrushes devour him. The biggest problem is at the other guard position. Since arriving from Carolina, Andrew Norwell (#68) has morphed into a walrus. He’s wide, and slow, and sloppy.

When used as a puller on power run plays he rarely hit his mark. This was especially surprising since pulling up on the second level was one of his strengths in Carolina. On this power run, he’s slow out of his stance, he doesn’t gain ground with his first step, and he’s sloppy and leaping at the point of attack. Rather than come tight and create an alley for Fournette, he flails himself at the safety, missing entirely.

The mistakes in pass protection were even more egregious. These mistakes led to manslaughter. And these mistakes are also surprising since Norwell found notoriety in the Pro Football Focus era for not giving up a pressure in 2017.

Against Gerald McCoy (#93), he lurches out of his stance. His pad level is high and he’s showing off the entirety of his chest. Spring Break! His punch was even worse. Wide, and exposing his chest further, he’s tries to grapple. McCoy swats his punch away easily, rips under, and forces the incompletion.

This is the same pass set used against Mario Addison (#97). Except Addison decides to go through Norwell. He pins his left arm above his head, and plummets him back into Minshew’s wind up, making a full hand empty, and creating a Brian Burns scoop and score.

And here, he had the ‘B’ gap in a slide left protection scheme, but he didn’t take the correct pass set to deal with the wide blitzing Brennan Scarlett (#57).

If Norwell returns to some semblance of the form and tenacity he played with in 2017 it would provide an enormous jolt to a Jaguars’ offense that wants to force feed Fournette 250+ times a season. And, not only that, it will solidify a pocket Minshew can feel comfortable enough to step forward in. If neither of these things occur Jacksonville can, and probably will, get out of this contract after this season, and save $9 million for the 2021 offseason.

The pass rush still didn’t get back to the production levels they had in 2017. That season Jacksonville created 55 sacks, had an adjusted sack rate of 9.1% (2nd) and a pressure rate of 34.3% (3rd). Last season the sack numbers rebounded, they finished with 47 sacks and an adjusted sack rate of 8.1% (6th), but saw their pressure rate fall from 33.2% (5th) down to 31.8% (10th).

This has more to say about how incredible Jacksonville’s rush was in 2017 than anything else. Last season their cornerstones continued to produce. Calais Campbell still bodies offensive tackles with his strength, and scraps past guards with hands and feet, all while opening up other rushers on stunts. Yannick Ngakoue’s chop-rip, that sends him bounding backwards and dodging punches, is one of the best pass rush moves in the league.

Campbell has since been traded to Baltimore for a fifth round pick, giving him the chance to compete for a contender, and Jacksonville to continue to build draft capital. Ngakoue wants a long-term contract and is waiting for someone to trade for him so he can sign one somewhere else. As of now, it doesn’t look like Ngakoue is going to play another snap in Jacksonville.

This opens the door for the kids. Josh Allen is a legitimate pass rush star. The 10.5 sacks weren’t a fluke, but were an end result to consistent disruption. He ended 2019 with 13 quarterback hits and 29 pressures. He’s one of the rare players who had both inside and outside pass rushing moves already as a rookie.

On the opposite side of him is rookie K’Lavon Chaisson from LSU, who Jacksonville selected with one of the first round picks they received in the Jalen Ramsey trade. He can do it all. His chop-rip and bend on the outside is gummy. Plus he can counter it with some nice long arms after stabbing the inside chest.

Defensive ends shouldn’t drop back in coverage, but he’s one of the rare ones who can. Chaisson does absurd things like chase down Ceedee Lamb and extinguish scampers after the catch.

Both Allen and Chaisson have the talent to be cornerstones, foundations of a great pass rush. If everything breaks right, and the potential becomes reality, they could be a lite beer version of Denver’s edge rush. A switch to a 3-4 defense could be in Jacksonville’s near future.

The pass defense was unable to maintain fringe top five status after three excellent seasons. Last year they fell from 6th to 22nd in pass defense DVOA, and from 5th to 23rd in net yards an attempt against. Ramsey gave up on the team and his wishes were made. Tre Herndon wasn’t ready for the starting lineup, missed oodles of tackles, and consistently gave up touchdowns and first downs. Ronnie Harrison played well in his first foray as a starter, but Jarrod Wilson didn’t. Both are expected to start at safety again this season.

Bouye was part of the exodus that sent Campbell to Baltimore. He was traded to Denver for a fourth round pick. Their corner rotation should be Henderson, DJ Hayden, who once again was one of the best nickle corners in the league, and Herndon will compete with veteran free agent signings Rashaan Melvin and Darqueze Dennard at the other outside corner position.

Henderson (#1) is a fun player. Rarely do you see cornerbacks at his age who control the route even when trailing, and display the ball skills he has. This pass break up against a ‘9’ route, after taking a zone turn and purposely trailing, is a perfect example of this.

He stays in front of routes well, but has issues with inside breaking patterns, and can get lost in zone coverage. These things should be corrected in time. This shouldn’t be too much of an issue as long as Jacksonville doesn’t play a lot of man-match coverages—something they rarely do. Just like Herndon, he can’t tackle either.

The Jags’ are going to miss a lot of tackles on the outside, and this is coming from a team who missed 158 of them, and had a missed tackle rate of 14.2% last season. This can be a death spell against the AFC South. The Titans broke the second most tackles in the league last year. Philip Rivers loves throwing screen passes. And Houston, in theory, should have a good screen game, even though they’ve never been able to get much out of his facet of a passing offense.

The biggest trouble they had on pass defense, wasn’t from the typical culprits. It was at the linebacker position. Jacksonville had a pass defense DVOA of 23% against tight ends, which was ranked 30th, and it was 25.8% against running backs, which was 28th.

Telvin Smith sat out the 2019 season to get his world in order, and was subsequently arrested this past offseason. It led to a domino effect at linebacker; pushing Myles Jack to ‘Mike’ linebacker in their base defense and to their ‘Sam’ linebacker when they played nickle. The options surrounding him was a game reserved for children’s birthday parties. Quincy Williams, Donald Payne, Leon Jacobs, Najee Goode, and Austin Calitro all started games at linebacker, and there’s nothing nice that can be said about any of them.

Smith’s departure pushed Jack to a position he couldn’t play. At the middle linebacker position his run fits were wonky. Consistently, he failed to switch gaps with the defensive lineman in front of him against zone runs, and any bit of motion threw him out of whack.

Most of the time these miscues lead to easy seven yard runs. Like this play against New Orleans. Jack (#44) is the strong side linebacker in 4-3 defense with the safety in the box playing weak side linebacker. With nose tackle Marcell Dareus (#99) playing the flow of the run, Jack has the ‘A’ gap. He tries to slip under Larry Warford (#67) and gives up a clear lane for seven yards.

Other times disaster ensues. Here Jack is the weak side linebacker after motion changes the strength of the defense. When Greg Olsen (#88) pulls, Jack follows the pull, reading power. It isn’t. It’s split outside zone. Olsen is sealing the backside in case of a cutback. Christian McCaffrey does exactly this. He hasn’t had a touchdown this easy since middle school.

Jacksonville made one major plunge in free agency this offseason after signing a slew of competent veterans like Rodney Gunter, Al Woods, Cassius Marsh, and Tyler Eifert, by signing Cleveland linebacker Joe Schobert (#53). The contract was bizarre for a player whose best traits is dependable. But Schobert offers stability and pushes Jack back to the weakside linebacker role where he can chase and tackle, instead of play the ‘A’ gap, mirror running backs, and deal with blockers head on.

This pair is interesting because of the amount Jacksonville has invested into the position, and also, because Schobert was better after Cleveland switched him and Christian Kirksey from strong to weak. Schobert, like Jack, struggles dealing with blocks, and is better reading the flow of the play to make unblocked tackles on the ball.

Like Jack, he’s blockable. He takes on too many blocks head on. The Jaguars’ interior defensive line is decent, but it doesn’t have the talent to keep both Jack and Schobert clean. Learning how to play half a man, and dealing with blockers climbing to the second level, is something both players need to improve on.

Both players also need to work on their tackling. Jack missed 12 tackles last season, and Schobert missed 18. Once again, the Jaguars are going to miss a ton of tackles this season.

Schobert is better in pass coverage than against the run. He’s not someone you want playing man coverage against athletic tight ends, but he does have a great grasp on his roles in zone coverage. He can quickly compute a variety of routes to get himself in the way of the football. On this play, he goes from being the hook defender, to dropping shallow middle with his eyes on the dig route, the same route that Mason Rudolph was locked on throughout this game.

Sure, he’ll struggle going from roboting the seam to defending a deep dig, and doing the things elite linebackers do. But again, he’s perfectly adequate, hasn’t missed one game in his four year career, and most importantly, he isn’t Calitro or Goode. Is this worth a future $10 million a year cap hit? Probably not, but there’s something to be said about going from league worst to acceptable, and a linebacker group of Jack, Schobert, and Jacobs, should be exactly that.

The key is that it allows Jack to do what he does best, use his athleticism to close out space, chase, and make tackles, like this one against Denver, where he’s the weak side linebacker scampering all the way to the sideline to make the run stop. If Schobert allows Jack to fly around the field once again then the signing will be worth it.

And, of course, there’s Gardner Minshew. The biggest question Jacksonville has this season, is that same existential question most franchises face, what do we do at the quarterback position?

Last season Minshew performed admirably in the first half of the season. Per the Football Outsiders Alamanac, Minshew had a DVOA of 0.4% from weeks 2-9 and a DVOA of -21.4% from week 13 on. In case you forgot, the Jaguars fell apart against the Texans in London after Minshew was stuck throwing to the flat in a bizarre game plan, that felt like sabotage at the time, and was benched for Foles during the bye week. The Jaguars finished the season 2-6 after starting 4-4.

There’s a lot to like about Minshew. First and foremost, his accuracy and willingness to push the ball downfield. Because of the wide variety of coverages defenses use, and the speed of the game that shrinks the field, the downfield throwing angles and timing are entirely different in the professional game compared to the college game. Typically, downfield throwing accuracy is the last thing that comes to a young quarterback. Mahomes and Deshaun Watson are the exceptions.

On deep passes Minshew completed 35 of his 70 pass attempts for 1,068 yards, and he threw 6 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. His 15.3 yards an attempt was second behind Jimmy Garoppolo out of all starting quarterbacks, and his quarterback rating on deep attempts of 112.5 was fourth behind Drew Brees, Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson.

In week two, right before a hurricane blew through, Minshew hit Chark on a perfect fade route to make the game 14-0, and effectively over for Marcus Mariota playing in an imminent monsoon. Chark gets a clean outside release, and throughout the route, he maintains separation with his off-arm without extending. With the safety shallow in the middle of the field Minshew didn’t have to worry. He placed the ball over Adoree’ Jackson’s (#21) helmet, in a spot where Chark could come over the top of him and get it.

And on this throw, Minshew looks back to hold the safety with his eyes after Chark swats away the jam, gets the corner chasing, and beats him to the pylon.

The other thing to admire about Minshew’s game is his ability to stick in the pocket. His eyes stay up and focused down the field. He doesn’t concern himself with the shrieking arms in front of him. This allows him to stay strong and deliver superb throws, like this one to Chark, who runs a perfect corner route from the slot.

Chark is a complete receiver. Last season, in year two, he was a no doubt wide receiver number one. He was able to win from both the slot, and the wide receiver position, playing 50% of his snaps at each alignment. This allowed him to operate with more room and eat every fruit budding from the tree of life, safety help be damned. His ability to adjust on fade routes from the slot position was perfect.

Minshew not only stands in the face of pressure, but he also surfs through its wake. There’s no point drafting a quarterback who isn’t mobile enough to escape the pocket and make plays on the move. The brain may move faster than the legs, but it takes time to develop the intelligence needed to win from the pocket, and young quarterbacks are quickly flipped if they don’t succeed instantly. The amount of time in the crock pot needed to create a pocket passing quarterback is patience that is rarely sustained anymore.

This trait is part of Minshew’s reckless jean short mustachioed brand, a persona gracing the cover of reeking magazines locked in a derelict mini storage unit from four decades ago. On an infamous touchdown against Denver, in their comeback win against the fighting Joe Flaccos, nothing was open, so Minshew hung in the pocket, and proceeded to dodge, dip, and duck under three tackles before finding Ryquell Armstead in the corner of the endzone.

He had success as a runner last season too. When the banal short hooks were covered, Minshew was able to create positive yards on his own. He had 67 carries for 344 yards and a DVOA of 8.1%.

It’s not perfect. This wildness sometimes pushes him into pressure and unneeded sacks, and the fumbles have to stop. 13 in 11 games started is way too many. On this 3rd and 16 against Denver, his teammates pick up this five man rush well. Minshew gets antsy though. He tries to leek out of the top of the pocket, running himself directly into the blitz, and into an eventual sack.

The main concern for Minshew this season is new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden likes to run an offense that is suit and tie professional, a quick and efficient west coast passing game, that creates yards after the catch chances. This works well for Dede Westbook, Chris Conley, and second round pick Laviska Shenault, all of whom rampage through the field once the ball is in their hands. But it doesn’t work well for Minshew. In the short passing game he sees things late sometimes, which leads to him holding and searching, and the occasional bad decision.

His short accuracy also falters. It can be spottier than a truck driver’s underwear. He has Chark open on a long developing comeback route. The pocket is clean. Minshew is stuck holding the ball forever. He misses his receiver wide, and throws an interception that’s entirely his fault.

This is a more traditional curl route after play action. Minshew misses again, but this time it’s outside. Fortunately, Eli Apple (#25) drops the interception this time, one of the four dropped interceptions Minshew threw last season.

Accuracy is one of the traits that tends to be innate and usually doesn’t improve dramatically over time. Some guys have it. Most don’t. Reading defenses. Maneuvering around the pocket. It’s expected for Minshew to improve on these aspects of his game, if his progression is linear, but the short passing problems may not.

The most exciting aspect of Gruden’s offense is the use of play action. Last season the Jaguars, including when Foles was at quarterback, used play action only 14% of the time. On these plays they had a DVOA of 55.7%, a difference of 63.1% than on their non-play action passes, and averaged 8.8 yards a play. The Jaguars were great at play action when they used it, they just lacked the fundamental understanding that, yes, play action is very good. Gruden’s Washington teams used play action less frequently than most of the league, even though they were successful at it. A greater focus on play action is something that will help guide Minshew into becoming a viable quarterback, something more than a meme, or a brand, or an ‘epic bacon you sir won the internet’ online utterance.

At a salary of only $700k a year, even if Minshew is just Ryan Fitzpatrick with a mustache instead of a gas siphoning, rat king, back country hitchhiking beard, a team can still build a possible playoff contending team around this. $30 million that isn’t devoted to the quarterback position can be used to flood the rest of the roster with talent. The problem is what do you do when your confusing and confounding quarterback is no longer paid a discount rate—see the 2018 Jaguars.

In the smouldering ruins of Sacksonville, a pneumatic slogan attached to 2017’s halcyon days, before Blake Bortles lost all his hair, before Jalen Ramey didn’t want to play, deep within the charnel house, an ossuary of feline skulls with enormous oblate orbital bones, crooked claws, and strange little teeth, is another Jacksonville rebuild.

This season the Jaguars have a dead cap penalty of $37 million: $18.75 million to Foles, $5.6 million to Smith, $4 million to Bouye, $3.5 million to Marqise Lee, and $2.5 million to Campbell. One fetid decision, and the rest bygone players from that one glorious season. These hits are only for this season though. Next year the Jaguars have $88.9 million in cap space, they can cut Norwell to clear up $9 million more, don’t face any major free agent decisions, and they’ll have have an extra first round pick, fourth round pick, and a fifth round pick, after the trades of Ramsey, Bouye, and Campbell. After a 6-10 season, and failed resuscitation, the plan is already set in place—see what we have this year, and play for next year. The current age and talent on the roster, and salary cap situation dictates this.

In the NFL rebuilds don’t have to be multi-year undertakings. Teams can improve in the flash of a whimsical pink and purple spring. If enough of these players continue to improve, they knockout their draft once again, they splurge correctly in free agency, and Minshew becomes a competent quarterback or they hit on a first round quarterback next April, there’s enough talent here for Jacksonville to have short rebuild, unlike the previous slogs that took years of flailing for 2017 to occur.

All in all, the Jaguars have enough talent at the moment to not be a scum scraping 3-13 team. With the schedule they play, and the moves they made bringing in enough adequate veteran talent, 6-10 should be in play. Then next season, once the dead cap is spliced off their scalp, and they can put their cap space and horde of draft picks to use, then, maybe then, the Jaguars will be a playoff competitive team again.

But for now, the Jags should be the worst team in the AFC South. In a wide open three team race where no end result would be too surprising, there’s something comforting in knowing what Jacksonville is as they embark upon yet another rebuild.