JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It’s hard not to feel optimistic about the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021.
They’ve turned to coach Urban Meyer, who won three national titles in college, and owner Shad Khan has given him near-complete control over the organization. They’re almost certainly taking Trevor Lawrence -- the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, and maybe Peyton Manning -- with the first overall pick.
They’re also playing in the AFC South, which is not exactly a power division. Houston is a mess and may deal quarterback Deshaun Watson; Indianapolis doesn’t yet know who its quarterback will be; Tennessee has made the playoffs the past two seasons and running back Derrick Henry has been a monster, but the Titans’ defense slipped significantly in 2020.
In addition, the Jaguars have the most cap space available in 2021 (approximately $74 million) and there are also some talented players already in place, most notably receiver DJ Chark Jr., running back James Robinson, defensive end Josh Allen, and linebacker Myles Jack. With the right moves -- all of which are plausible -- to comprise a perfect offseason there’s no reason the Jaguars can’t be competitive in the division in 2021.
Here’s the recipe:
Avoid further controversy
Meyer's decision to hire Chris Doyle -- the former strength coach at the University of Iowa who was accused of making racist remarks and belittling and bullying players -- as the team's director of sports performance was a terrible decision and he was rightly criticized for it. The outrage was so intense that Doyle resigned little more than 24 hours after the hiring was announced.
Still, hiring Doyle in the first place is a decision that Meyer is going to have to explain to his players at some point. It's sure to create some tension and distrust and that’s not exactly the kind of atmosphere Meyer should be trying to create in his first month on the job.
Figure out the left tackle position
It's pretty important to protect your quarterback's back side and the Jaguars don’t currently have a left tackle under contract for 2021.
Cam Robinson hasn’t progressed significantly from his rookie season (2017). His best season was 2019 when he ranked 57th among tackles in pass block win rate per ESPN Stats & Info and he ranked 59th in 2020. Is he worth retaining, either by signing him to an extension or using the franchise tag? The latter, which is estimated to be around $13.2 million, may be more economical than paying one in free agency.
Trent Williams is the top tackle available and since good left tackles don’t generally hit free agency there will be a bidding war. To get Williams, the Jaguars may have to go into the $18-$20 million range annually. Williams turns 33 before the season begins, so he’s going to be a short-term solution, but he’s coming off a very good season (he ranked fourth among tackles in pass block win rate).
The bottom line is this: Do the Jaguars trust Robinson? Offensive line coach George Warhop has been here the past two seasons and hasn’t been able to get Robinson to make a big jump, so investing in Williams -- even if it’s just for a couple years -- seems to be the best plan.
Get Lawrence more help on offense
With approximately $74 million in salary cap space, the Jaguars have enough to add Williams and a couple offensive playmakers. Tight end Hunter Henry should be the top target.
The Los Angeles Chargers used the franchise tag on Henry in 2020 and could do so again in 2021, but that would put Henry’s salary at $12.7 million. It’s more likely the team will try to work out a long-term deal, but if that doesn’t happen Henry will hit the market and the Jaguars should be all over him.
Henry will be 26 when the season starts and he has caught 115 passes for 1,265 yards and nine touchdowns in the past two seasons after sitting out 2018 with a torn ACL. Henry averaged 11.9 and 10.2 yards per catch the past two seasons. Meanwhile, the Jaguars haven’t had a tight end catch at least 30 passes and average 10 or more yards per catch since Marcedes Lewis in 2012 (52 catches, 10.4 per catch).
It may take a contract worth $10-12 annually to get Henry, but it would be worth it to give Lawrence a trustworthy young playmaker at what has become a high-value position.
Find more pass rush help
It sure looks like the Jaguars are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under coordinator Joe Cullen and Shaquil Barrett would be a fantastic add to Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson. Barrett led the NFL in sacks in 2019 with 19.5, and while that number dipped to 8.0 in 2020 he had a huge postseason (three sacks in the NFC championship game and another in the Super Bowl).
Barrett played last season on the franchise tag and Tampa Bay will try to re-sign him, but the Bucs have several key free agents (including wide receiver Chris Godwin, linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh) they will want to bring back, as well. And it may not matter what the Bucs do, because Barrett said on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio that he feels like it’s time to break the bank.
The Jaguars are better equipped than any other team to do that.
If the Jaguars are able to land Williams, Henry and Barrett, that opens up more options for the draft. The Jaguars have 11 picks, including two each in the first, second and fourth rounds, which would allow them to address other weaknesses. The capper to the perfect offseason would be Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore still being on the board for the Jaguars to take with the 25th pick. After quarterback, interior defensive line is the team’s biggest weakness and Barmore is the best interior lineman in the draft. It’s not out of the question, either: ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., had Barmore going to the Jaguars in his latest mock draft.