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2019 AFC South Preview: Jacksonville Jaguars

Bust out your Jag rag. It’s time to Jag off the 2019 AFC South season preview.

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

The 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars look like an errant sore, an aberration, a random glitch in the simulation. The Jags finally broke the cycle after years of three to five win football. They squeaked out a home win against Buffalo in the Wild Card Round and beat down Pittsburgh once again in the Divisional Round. Jacksonville should have, could have, would have, beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and gone to the first Super Bowl in franchise history, but they were so afraid of Blake Bortles bortling it that they didn’t even allow him to bortle it. After going up 14-3, Jacksonville’s risk averse and conservative offensive game plan allowed the Patriots to blast their way back.

Last season, the Jaguars took their glass slippers off and became their typical selves once again. They fell from 10-6 to 5-11. This was after going all in on the formula they discovered in 2017. They signed Andrew Norwell to bolster their power run offense and complement a spread passing game that consisted mainly of short crossing routes and Blake Bortles scrambling for first downs when receivers weren’t immediately open. While the defense finished sixth in defensive DVOA, suffering slightly because of all-time great pass defense and turnover regression, the offense fell apart. The Jags’ offense dropped from an offensive DVOA of -0.3% (16th) to -22% (30th).

With Bortles at quarterback, the Jags were a string bikini. One loose thread immediately stripped their concise and compact offense. They weren’t a sweater that could deal with numerous issues and counter potential problems. Jacksonville was unraveling before the season even started after Marqise Lee’s preseason’s ACL tear, and they were soon naked when Cam Robinson tore his ACL in Week Two. Without Lee, they lost their best short middle receiver, the core focus of their passing offense. Without Robinson, their offensive line was never able to shuffle their way into a competent starting five ever again.

Jacksonville used eight different offensive line combinations, had twelve different offensive linemen play a snap, and did things like play Patrick Omameh at right tackle. Players like Josh Wells, Ereck Flowers, Chris Reed, and Josh Walker all played substantial snaps for the Jags last year. Robinson’s replacements allowed six sacks and had 29 blown pass blocks. As an entire unit, they dropped from 13th to 21st in adjusted line yards and allowed 29 more sacks than they did the previous year.

In addition to the offensive line injuries, Leonard Fournette only had 133 carries in 2018. He dealt with ankle and foot injuries. He punched a guy. On the few carries he did have, Fournette averaged only 3.3 yards and had a DVOA of -9.3%. His replacements didn’t fare much better. T.J. Yeldon and Carlos Hyde averaged 4.0 and 3.3 yards a carry and had a rushing DVOA of -12.5% and -19.7% respectively.

Fournette’s 2018 season looked entirely different than his 2017 season. He was the focal point of the offense in his rookie year. He had 268 carries, was still efficient despite the high number of carries with a DVOA of 2.1%, picked up 3.9 yards an attempt, and scored nine touchdowns. Last season the Jags ranked 29th and 32nd in second level and open field adjusted line yards. Fournette didn’t get the chance to make people miss. He broke only 17 tackles compared to 55 in his rookie season. That’s a heartbreaking difference for a rhinoceros runner. Jacksonville’s offensive line was disgusting at blocking the second level, and their running game was clogged. There was nowhere to go.

The only player who ran the ball well last season was Bortles. He had a rushing offense DVOA of 26.8%, and was beautiful at running zone reads until defensive backs were able to pursue him.

This was the only thing Bortles was good at last season. The Jaguars extended him after 2017 because it was a cheaper option for the 2018 season than paying his fifth year option. Without adequate pass protection, with a horrendous run game and a receiving group that led the league in drops, Bortles couldn’t carry the offense on his own. Bortles is a below average quarterback who can have success when everything is perfect and concise, when the air is exactly 79 degrees, and when there aren’t any outside influences permeating the offense to ruin his performance. He’s not a quarterback who can overcome conflict and make those around him better.

May you rest easier now, sweet prince.

That’s where Nick Foles comes in. The Jaguars released Bortles and signed Foles to a four-year $88 million contract, including $50 million guaranteed. The contract is manipulated. Foles accounts for only $12.9 million this season and sees his cap hit jump up to a minimum of $22 million in each of the next three seasons. The Jags are all in on 2019 and are betting that last season, not 2017, was the aberration. Foles’ contract from 2020 on is Future Jacksonville’s problem, not 2019 Jacksonville’s.

Foles is better than Bortles ever was or will be. He has a higher floor and a higher ceiling, but he’s not the type of quarterback who can scrub a bad situation clean and lead an offense on his own. But Foles shouldn’t have to do this. By default, the Jags’ offense should be better. The Jaguars’ offense had 88.4 adjusted games lost last season, the third most since 2011.

Most importantly, the offensive line will be healthy again. Andrew Norwell played in only eleven games last season after an ankle injury landed him on Injured Reserve, but he dealt with a calf injury throughout the season. Brandon Linder played only eight games after a knee injury. Robinson is healthy and fully recovered. The offensive line combination of Robinson (LT)-Norwell (LG)-Brandon Linder (C)-A.J. Cann (RG)-Jawaan Taylor (RT) won’t be as good as what Foles played behind in Philadelphia, but it should be a spectacular one as long as it stays healthy. It’s the type of offensive line that can control the line of scrimmage, dominate, and win games on their own. Additionally, new offensive coordinator John DeFillippo, Foles’ Super Bowl quarterback coach with the Eagles, should focus more on a power run scheme, something that better aligns with what Fournette is great at doing.

In the passing game, the biggest difference between Bortles and Foles is their ability to throw with accuracy to the short part of the field. On throws less than fifteen yards through the air, Bortles completed 65.2% of his passes, threw nine touchdowns, five interceptions, and averaged only 5.7 yards an attempt last season. This was 0.7 yards less an attempt than he had in 2017, when he threw 18 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Losing Lee was devastating for Bortles. He averaged 7.6 yards an attempt and converted 32 first downs when throwing to him. On short throws, Foles averaged 5.9 yards an attempt, had a completion percentage of 74.25%, and threw 11 touchdowns to 3 interceptions during his time in Philadelphia.

The big question for Jacksonville’s passing offense is the skill players. Their receivers, Dede Westbrook, Lee, Keelan Cole, and Chris Conley, are all redundant. They’re slant, drag, and out runners who mainly attack the center of the field in a spread passing attack and then run free with plenty of space after the catch. This group of receivers cluttering the middle of the field is a real issue. The only receiver who has sideline vertical possession ability is second year receiver D.J. Chark. It’s up to DeFillipo to craft an offense that can use these similar receivers in a wide variety of ways, and it’s up to the receivers to make plays when they stretch the middle of the field vertically.

This is vital because Foles isn’t the deep passer you’d think he would be. That touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor over Tyrann Mathieu weighs too heavily and sinks my brain into my shoes. In Philadelphia, Foles had a completion percentage of only 36.2%, threw one touchdown, three interceptions, and averaged 11 yards an attempt on these throws. This was even including receivers like Alshon Jeffery and Agholor who can stretch the field. Foles won’t have the same level of receiving talent in Jacksonville.

Their ability to sift through their similar receivers and create downfield throws is the key to their offense. If they can create open downfield throws for Foles to hit on, it will open up the run game. Fournette faced 8+ defenders in the box on 35.14% of his runs—the third most in football. If they can use him against lighter boxes, carry him in the arms of cheerleaders to the second level cleanly, and if he can hold up and carry the ball 25 times a game without a problem, the Jaguars’ offense should be at least mediocre.

This is also a positive feedback loop. From there Foles should be able to do what he does best—attack the short part of the field and manage an offense that only needs to be effective enough. If this happens, Jacksonville can drop the confetti, bust out the cheese whiz, and party like it’s 2017 again.

Being effective enough is the key. The defense is going to be spectacular once again. Since 2016, the Jaguars have finished 12th, 1st, and 6th in defensive DVOA. Last season they dropped from a pass defense DVOA of -27.6% (1st) to -5.2% (6th) and a net yards per pass of 4.8 (1st) to 5.8 (5th). Some of this is simple regression and was expected. The defense forced only 17 turnovers, a drop off from 33 the year before. But part of it was the result of A.J. Bouye getting injured. He was apprehensive when making tackles and wasn’t his usual physical self. He ranked 53rd in success rate and defended only eight passes.

The good news is the run defense sustained the slight improvement they had after they traded for Marcell Dareus. Jacksonville’s run defense DVOA jumped from -2.8% (27th) to -14.3% (7th). Run defense performance is more sustainable. It’s reasonable to expect something similar from the run defense and the pass defense bouncing upwards after an already great 2018.

The biggest reason to expect this bump, aside from Jacksonville having the best cornerback tandem in football, is the pass rush. They had 18 less sacks last season, but saw their pressure rate drop only 1.1%. Most importantly, Josh Allen dropped in the first round in the draft and slid down to them. Allen is one of the rare pass rushing prospects who already has an outside and inside rush. He’s a rip/bend guy, but he understands how to counter it with a quick cut inside and pile-drive into the tackle’s inside shoulder. Mentally, he needs to figure out how to take a more efficient route to the quarterback. Too often he took himself out of rushes by selling out for a long loopy outside edge rush.

His addition is unfair for a rush that already boasts Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. These two combined for 20 sacks, 35 quarterback hits, and 74 quarterback pressures. Campbell is a 6’8” technician who melts off blocks and into the backfield with absurd power and perfect hand use.

Ngakous is a stretchy slippery spider, who uses his long arms to extend tackles, and swings his web to bend around the edge. Speaking of counters, his ability to stop, and sling over extended tackles is wondrous.

Allen fills an enormous hole because the Jaguars didn’t have much of an interior pass rush last season, and they cut Malik Jackson this offseason. Campbell rushed from the outside after the Dante Fowler trade. Abry Jones and Dareus, though great against the run, don’t offer much against passing attacks. Together they had just two sacks, two quarterback hits, and 17 pressures. 2018 first round pick Taven Bryan had only one sack, one quarterback hit, and seven pressures. It was as ineffective of a rookie season as you’ll ever see from a first round selection. Bryan didn’t have any traits that popped off the screen, and he didn’t have an answer for the size of the interior blockers he was matched up against.

By drafting Allen, Jacksonville can kick Campbell inside, keep Ngakoue on the outside, and then pray Bryan sees a bump in production in 2019. Even if Bryan doesn’t improve much this year, Jacksonville should still have a great rush. Especially when you consider the ability Campbell has at running stunts and setting up open rushing lanes for those around him. They could also sub out Bryan for Dareus, or Jones, for the sole purpose of hammering inside and tying up blockers so others can loop back around to the interior.

This is also a nearly identical defense to the one Jacksonville had in 2017 and 2018. There are a few minor changes. Tashaun Gipson was released to create the cap space required to go after Nick Foles. In his place is Jarrod Wilson. There are questions about whether Wilson has the speed to cover the deep middle of the field. If he can’t, the Jags will have to play more aggressive single high man coverage with Bouye, Ramsey, and D.J. Hayden; that would remove the easy throws zone coverage tends to hand out by default.

Barry Church was released at the end of 2018 and still doesn’t have a job. He’s been replaced by Ronnie Harrison. Going from Church to Harrison is an improvement for this defense. Harrison, a third round pick, covered well and was great as a run defender and as a blitzer. He had a success rate of 55% and allowed only 4.1 yards a pass; the Jags were great at covering running backs at tight ends. His average tackle allowed only 3.4 yards. With so much focus on players like Ngakoue and Campbell, Harrison was able to rush from the blind side, unaccounted for and splatter quarterbacks.

Jacksonville lost Telvin Smith for this season. He’s taking a gap year to study abroad. Myles Jack is moving from the weak side to the middle linebacker position. At this spot, Jack won’t be given free range to chase and tackle like he previously had, but playing linebacker isn’t that hard when you have Dareus and Jones right in front of you.

The bigger question comes from those around him. Rookie third round pick, Quincy Williams, brother of Quinnen, and seventh round pick Leon Jacobs, will play the weak and strong side linebacker positions. The Jaguars primarily played nickel with Smith and Jack on the roster. It will be interesting to see if Williams, or Jacobs, can fill Smith’s role and cover even adequately like Smith was able to.

The changes are slight, and from a talent perspective, with Allen and Harrison entering the starting lineup, the defense should be even better. Entering the 2019 season, the Jaguars were projected to have the second best defense in football according to Football Outsiders, and that was before the Texans traded Jadeveon Clowney for a third round pick and spare change. The Jags should have at least a top five defense this season.

That would be the best side of the ball in the AFC South this season. If the offensive line and Fournette stay healthy and DeFillipo can navigate the skill position issues, the Jaguars’ offense should be at least competent and finish around 16th in DVOA, similar to what they did in 2017.

The Jaguars are the the same cat with slightly different spots. With Foles, the ceiling and floors are raised like a beach house on stilts. This is Jacksonville’s chance to make another run before Foles’ cap hit bumps up to a very scary $22+ million, the type of contract that requires your quarterback to be better than a cog in the system. That doesn’t matter this season. In the long run, 2017 and 2019 could be aberrations. For this season, however, the Jaguars should pounce back and win the AFC South.

Prediction: 10-6.