JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The 2018 season has been a disaster for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Injuries hampered the offense, quarterback Blake Bortles regressed, the defense has been good but not the elite unit many expected despite returning all but one starter, and they failed to win a game in October and November.
The Jaguars are still mathematically alive in the playoff race despite entering Thursday’s game (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) in Tennessee with a 4-8 record, but they will be eliminated with their next loss. A team that won the AFC South and was 10 minutes away from the Super Bowl last season is now facing a critical offseason.
Significant changes are needed if the Jaguars are going to contend again in 2019. Here are five things the franchise must do in the offseason:
Find a quarterback(s)
The Jaguars have decided to move on from Bortles as their long-term starter, so quarterback should be their No. 1 priority in the draft, but they also should sign a veteran in free agency as long as they can do so at a reasonable price.
That’s assuming the Jaguars release Bortles, though there might be some hesitancy to do so because of the $16.5 million in dead money that would count against the salary cap. That would be the most any team has ever paid in dead money for a single player in NFL history, so the Jaguars might decide keeping Bortles and his $21 million cap figure makes more sense. They would essentially be paying him $4.5 million to be a backup since they’re going to have to pay $16.5 million regardless.
It’s not a great group of free-agent quarterbacks, though. Tyrod Taylor, Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick top the list. Bridgewater will likely be in high demand and that will drive the price up, so he’s not a quarterback the Jaguars will pursue unless they believe he can be their long-term starter.
There might be some high-profile starters available if they’re cut by their teams, such as Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston, Eli Manning and Nick Foles. Economics might rule those players out because of the Jaguars’ cap situation, so their best option likely will be to draft one in the first round.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert is generally regarded as the best quarterback in the class — provided he decides to forgo his senior season. The Jaguars might have to trade up in order to get him, as well, because the Giants and possibly Oakland — both of whom are currently ahead of the Jaguars in the draft order — could be drafting quarterbacks.
Missouri’s Drew Lock, Duke’s Daniel Jones, NC State’s Ryan Finley, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, and West Virginia’s Will Grier are some of the other top quarterback prospects who could be taken in the first few rounds. If the Jaguars opt to bypass quarterback with their first pick, one of these players should be available in the second round.
Whether it’s a free agent, a yet-to-be-released high-profile starter, or a rookie, the Jaguars must have a new starting quarterback in 2019.
Purge bigger salaries to get cap relief
Per ESPN’s Roster Management system, the Jaguars are $19 million over the projected salary cap in 2019 (Philadelphia is the only team also over the projected cap, by $33.5 million), so that means the franchise will have to cut some big-money players loose. Also looming over the team is a potential $16.5 million dead cap hit if they cut Bortles (that drops to $11.5 million after June 1).
Six of the Jaguars’ eight biggest cap figures in 2019 belong to defensive players, including defensive tackle Malik Jackson ($15 million cap figure/$4 million dead money), defensive end Calais Campbell ($14.5 million/$3 million), and nose tackle Marcell Dareus ($10.6 million/no dead money).
Campbell (seven sacks) is still very productive at 32 years old and he’s the high-priced player the Jaguars are most likely to retain, but they might ask him to renegotiate his contract to make it more cap-friendly. Same goes for Dareus, who has been the Jaguars’ best interior lineman all season. Jackson, however, has lost his starting job, so he’s pretty much gone.
The Jaguars also are likely to release safety Barry Church ($6.25 million) and right tackle Jermey Parnell ($6 million) because they have no dead money and the team already has their replacements on the roster (Ronnie Harrison and Ereck Flowers/Will Richardson). Safety Tashaun Gipson ($9.05 million/$1.6 million) and running back Carlos Hyde ($4.75 million/no dead money) also could be gone.
The Jaguars had planned ahead with the 2018 draft for some of these moves by taking defensive tackle Taven Bryan, Harrison and Richardson in the first four rounds.
Cutting Jackson, Campbell, Dareus, Church, Parnell, Gipson and Hyde would save the Jaguars $57.55 million in cap space after the $8.6 million in dead money is factored in. They likely won’t all be cut — keeping Campbell and Dareus would be WISe if the Jaguars can re-work their deals — but the Jaguars have to make some tough decisions in the offseason.
Find a couple of playmakers
After quarterback, the most glaring weakness on offense is the lack of playmakers other than Leonard Fournette. Poor quarterback play certainly contributed to the inefficiency, but the fact that defenses sold out to stop the run and didn’t worry about giving up big plays was a factor as well.
Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant are likely leaving in free agency (and Hyde could be cut), so the Jaguars should prioritize adding several players there. They don’t need to invest high draft picks to do it, either. The league is full of impact running backs taken in the fourth round or later: Jay Ajayi (fifth), James White (fourth), Latavius Murray (sixth), Frank Gore (third) and Darren Sproles (fourth). Denver’s Phillip Lindsay is fourth in the NFL in rushing and the Broncos signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent.
The situation at receiver is a little better. Marqise Lee comes back from a severe knee injury and Dede Westbrook has shown flashes of big-play ability. Rookie DJ Chark has had issues with ball security, but he’s also shown he has potential as a downfield threat. Keelan Cole was benched after dropping five passes and fumbling twice in October and his future with the team is shaky, but he still can be a third or fourth receiver.
Tight end is a problem. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has missed most of the season with a sports hernia, is their best blocker and pass-catcher, but he has averaged only 10 yards per catch in his five-year career. It appears to be a very good draft for tight ends, led by Iowa’s Noah Fant and Alabama’s Irv Smith, Jr. The Jaguars failed to draft a tight end in 2018 and cannot make the same mistake in 2019.
Draft an offensive lineman in first three rounds
The Jaguars’ offensive line was ravaged by injuries this season and left tackle Cam Robinson, left guard Andrew Norwell, and center Brandon Linder will be returning from season-ending knee and foot injuries. The team will have to replace right guard A.J. Cann and Parnell, though Flowers or Richardson will have the inside track to be the right tackle.
NFL teams generally don’t have good depth along the offensive line, so a talented rookie would help significantly. Especially an interior player, because Linder, who started his career at guard, has never played a full season and will have missed 26 out of a possible 80 games by the time this season ends.
The Jaguars missed on addressing this area, too, bypassing guard Will Hernandez to add Bryan to a position group that was already the team’s strength. If they’re going to continue to emphasize the power-run game to open up the pass game, then they must not repeat that mistake.
Seriously listen to trade offers regarding Ramsey
Although the team said in a statement that it has zero intention of trading Jalen Ramsey, there’s no harm in listening.
The roster’s biggest holes can’t be fixed in one offseason and the best way to re-stock is through the draft. Ramsey is the most valuable commodity the Jaguars have, and though he likely wouldn’t command what Chicago gave up for Khalil Mack (two firsts, a third-, and a sixth-round pick) the Jaguars might be able to get two first-round picks. That’s two additional impact players (if they make the right picks) — or they could be used as part of a package to move up to be in position to get their choice at quarterback.
An elite cornerback — even one as great as Ramsey is and will become — isn’t necessary to win a Super Bowl. It surely helps, but teams have done it without one. For example, New England’s starting corners in Super Bowl LI were Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Good players, but not elite. Philadelphia’s corners in Super Bowl LII were Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills. Same thing. Quarterbacks and pass-rushers are more important and the Jaguars could use additional picks to acquire one or more.
It’s unlikely the Jaguars will trade Ramsey, but it would be irresponsible not to listen. They might get an offer they can’t refuse.