The Update: Jacksonville Jaguars 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update” which will focus on 1) where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint, 2) where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts, 3) who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were and 4) where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season. Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

This is the year that the Jacksonville Jaguars improve. Don’t laugh. We’re serious this time.

Editor’s Note: Justis is serious, not Charles. Blake Bortles.

Treating close games as ties is one of the best ways to project a team forward. In previous previews, we’ve mentioned how there are amazing trends in regards to close wins. Teams that lose many close games tend to win about four more games the next year, while teams that win many close games tend to lose about four more games the next year.

Last year, Jacksonville went 2-8 in single-score games, three wins under .500. Of the 15 teams which finished more than two games under .500 between 2006-2015, all 15 improved the next season in overall record.

  • 2006 Detroit Lions (1-8 in close games, 3-13 record to 7-9 record in 2007)
  • 2006 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 10-6 in 2007)
  • 2007 Miami Dolphins (1-6 in close games, 1-15 record to 11-5 record in 2008)
  • 2008 Green Bay Packers (1-7 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 record in 2009)
  • 2008 San Diego Chargers (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 13-3 record in 2009)
  • 2009 Washington Redskins (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 6-10 record in 2010)
  • 2010 Dallas Cowboys (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 8-8 record in 2011)
  • 2010 Cincinnati Bengals (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 9-7 record in 2011)
  • 2011 Minnesota Vikings (2-9 in close games, 3-13 record to 10-6 record in 2012)
  • 2012 Carolina Panthers (1-7 in close games, 7-9 record to 12-4 record in 2013)
  • 2012 Detroit Lions (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 7-9 record in 2013)
  • 2013 Houston Texans (2-9 in close games, 2-14 record to 10-6 record in 2014)
  • 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8 in close games, 2-14 record to 6-10 record in 2015)
  • 2015 New York Giants (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 record in 2016)
  • 2015 San Diego Chargers (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 5-11 record in 2016)

You might say that the media always claims that it’s the Jaguars’ season, but they haven’t ever been an unlucky team. For example, if you treat close games as coin flips (you should!), their 4-12 team in 2013 was actually overrated. Yikes.

They’ve won just 6 of their last 96 games by multiple scores, a mark eight teams were able to beat or match in just 2016 alone. No one is disputing that they haven’t had a rough stretch, but this is the first time that you can claim that they significantly under performed relative to the situations the team put themselves in during a season.

Almost across the board, the Jaguars are being treated like a 5.5-win team in the eyes of Las Vegas. There might be some ugly money to be made on the team’s over-under this year. No team in the last decade with their background has regressed in record, and they were a 6-10 team in a vacuum last season. Unless you believe strongly in their offseason having an immediate, negative effect on the team, then the right side to lean on this over-under would be taking the Jaguars’ over. 11 of those 15 “unlucky” teams won at least three more games the following season. Think about it.

Disclaimer: I once lost a lot of money on a Blake Bortles 10-point swing to end the first half of a game against Atlanta in 2015

Offense:

Backs: Bortles is the starting quarterback heading into the season, and the team threw themselves at the passer by taking on his fifth-year option. That means that if the quarterback gets injured to end the season, he could lock himself into a guaranteed contract through 2018. In recent years, we’ve seen the Buffalo Bills sit Tyrod Taylor to avoid that issue, and we’ve seen the Washington Redskins straight up move former second overall pick Robert Griffin III to a practice safety.

That means that backup quarterback Chad Henne, who Bortles replaced in 2014, could reappear more than three years later and possibly retake the starting job at the end of the 2017 season, simply due to the structure of NFL contracts. What a time to be alive.

While it’s easy to make jokes about Bortles, he has outperformed Henne in terms of efficiency throughout their individual careers. As Setting the Edge noted earlier this summer, Bortles had more interceptions in his first 32 starts than any other quarterback drafted in the first or second round of the NFL draft since 2005. While early-career interception numbers do have a strong correlation with long-term success with a quarterback, Bortles’ league-low number ties Eli Manning’s number, the biggest outlier for the statistic.

Who worked with Manning in New York? Jaguars football czar and former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. That’s how you get yourself into a position where you take on his fifth-year option. How can you tell Coughlin that Bortles isn’t efficient enough when he had the same numbers as a quarterback that won him two Super Bowl rings? I don’t think a 70-year-old wants to hear about decade-plus trends and sample sizes.

The Jaguars finished 10th in sack percentage, 21st in interception percentage, 24th in completion percentage and 26th in yards per completion in 2016. Other than jumps in progression from players who have plenty of experience under their belt, there isn’t a real to think this passing offense takes a significant step in 2017.

Last year, five players recorded more than 30 rushing attempts for the team: T.J. Yeldon (130 carries, 3.6 yards per carry), Chris Ivory (117 carries, 3.8 yards per carry), Bortles (58 carries, 6.2 yards per carry), Denard Robinson (41 carries, 3.5 yards per carry) and Corey Grant (32 carries, 5.1 yards per carry). Yeldon was a second-round pick in 2015. Ivory signed on as a free agent last year and has the sixth-largest cap hit of any running back in the league this year. If you take Grant’s 57 yard run against the Indianapolis Colts out of his 2016 numbers, he averaged 3.3 yards per carry. That’s not the kind of production, relative to investment, that can win football games when someone puts up the numbers that Bortles did.

Finishing 17th in yards per carry, 20th in TFL percentage, 26th in run percentage and 28th in fumble percentage just isn’t going to cut it. The team drafted Leonard Fournette of LSU in the first round to hopefully give them a bell cow running back, but the fit isn’t great there. The team finished 20th in TFL percentage last year, a reflection of their first-level run blocking, and Fournette isn’t the type of back who can make something from nothing. Against quality competition, Fournette was tackled in the backfield more than twice as frequently as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and significantly more than the likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry.

There’s no doubt that Fournette can hit that home run ball, but every offensive lineman has to grade out well for him to make those plays. Having a really successful running game with Fournette in the backfield isn’t a one-man effort, it’s a six- or seven-man effort.

Pass-Catchers: The fact that Jacksonville finished just 26th in yards per completion was a reflection of their depth at receiver, not their talent at receiver. Allen Robinson (73 receptions, 12.1 yards per reception) and Marqise Lee (63 receptions, 13.5 yards per reception) and Allen Hurns (35 receptions, 13.6 yards per reception) all did more than fine for themselves last year. Per ESPN, only 32 receivers recorded at least 35 receptions and posted a yards per reception average of 13.5 yards per reception last season. Two of them were Lee and Hurns. It was obviously a down year by Robinson’s standards, after a 17.5 yards per reception average in his sophomore season of 2015, but there’s no reason to think of this as a “need” for the team.

The issue is that no other receiver on the team recorded more than five receptions and cracked a 10.0 yards per reception threshold on the team. That receiver trio, which returns this season, only made up of 46.47% of the team’s receptions. There’s the issue. Depth.

At receiver, the team added Heisman-finalist Dede Westbrook of Oklahoma in the fourth round of the draft. At tight end, the team signed Mychal Rivera on a low-level two-year contract after playing out his rookie deal in Oakland. There’s a chance that those numbers get better with those additions, but Robinson could do a whole lot of good for the team with a bounce-back season.

Linemen: On paper, the team lost two key offensive lineman this offseason in Kelvin Beachum and Luke Joeckel. Beachum signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the New York Jets this offseason, while Joeckel signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks. With that being said, Beachum had his option turned down by Jacksonville, and I’m not going to insult your intelligence by claiming that Joeckel was a quality player for the Jaguars.

Three other linemen, tackle Jeremy Parnell, center Brandon Linder and guard A.J. Cann, played at least 50% of the team’s offensive snaps last season. They all return for a squad that finished 10th in sack percentage and 20th in TFL percentage. An offseason trade for Branden Albert, formerly a Miami Dolphin, and the drafting of second-round pick Cam Robinson of Alabama, could easily lead to an improvement for the team’s bookend spots. Parnell, Linder, Cann, Albert and Robinson are likely the team’s “best five”, but figuring out how to shuffle one to guard will probably be an experiment that will run through the season. Offensive line depth is not a strength of this team.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: Jacksonville has poured assets into their defensive line over the years. The team didn’t shy away from giving Jared Odrick, who is now cut, a $42.5 million contract. The team didn’t shy away from drafting Dante Fowler, who has four sacks in two years, with the third overall pick. The team didn’t shy away from strongly pursuing Olivier Vernon, who signed an $85 million deal with the New York Giants. The team didn’t shy away from giving Malik Jackson an $85 million contract. The team didn’t shy away from giving Calais Campbell a $60 million contract. The team didn’t shy away from drafting two third-round pass-rushers in Yannick Ngakoue and Dawuane Smoot in the last two seasons.

Their cards are on the table. They think that the defensive line is the most important unit on the field. It took some time before they starting hitting on the “right” guys, but they clearly made a consistent effort to try to add talent there.

If their current scheme continues, expect Jackson and Campbell to see time inside in nickel looks and the likes of Ngakoue, Fowler and Smoot to compete for the edge positions. Campbell was a 3-4 defensive end, and the team may call him a “big end” at some point, but the fact of the matter is that Campbell played three-technique and nose tackle often in nickel looks in Arizona. That’s where you should expect him to play when the bullets start flying. He’s not going to line up outside of the tight end often. That’s just not his game.

The squad lost Tyson Alualu on a two-year, $6 million contract to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the additions of Campbell and Smooth outweigh the loss of Alualu by an elephant. Last year, the team finished 7th in yards per carry, 9th in TFL percentage, 15th in fumble percentage, 16th in sack percentage and 27th in run percentage. All of those are a reflection of their line talent before adding two more quality bodies to the roster, other than run percentage, which was largely a reflection of the situations the offense put the defense in. If the offense starts to play on schedule, expect teams to run much less on the Jaguars in 2017.

Backs: It appears that Paul Posluszny is moving to the “Sam” linebacker role this season, meaning that he will be a rotation player. In base, expect him to drop around the tight end. In nickel, the team should take him and a defensive tackle off the field to kick Campbell inside and add another pass-rusher and a slot defensive back into the mix. If the team doesn’t play Campbell inside, Posluszny would likely have to be a pass-rusher for the team. You can see now why I believe that Campbell will kick inside.

Replacing Posluszny at “Mike” will be Myles Jack, a 2016 second-round pick who was overcoming a knee injury from his UCLA days last season. Telvin Smith will play the “Will” role, as he has for years. Don’t expect this linebacker unit to miss much of a step from last season’s results.

In 2016, the Jaguars finished 6th in yards per completion, 15th in completion percentage and 32nd in interception percentage. Other than getting after the football, the team was pretty efficient in the air. Rookie fifth overall pick Jalen Ramsey made an immediate impact for the team, and the signing of A.J. Bouye from the Houston Texans gives the team a legitimate cornerback duo. Bouye went from an unknown player to signing a five-year, $67.5 million contract in what seems like overnight, but stealing a division rival’s star player is always a plus.

Prince Amukamara left the team after his one-year deal played out, as he signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Chicago Bears this offseason. Bouye is better than Amukamara, so that shouldn’t be looked at as a negative. The same could be said about the swap at safety with John Cyprien, who signed a four-year, $25 million deal with the Tennessee Titans, and Barry Church, who signed on from the Dallas Cowboys on a four-year, $26 million deal. Church and Tashaun Gipson, who signed a five-year, $36 million contract last offseason, will be the team’s starting safeties.

Ramsey, Bouye, Church and Gipson give the team four clear starters in the secondary, but there is some question about the depth behind them. Still, if the Jaguars’ front seven is as good as it looks like on paper, they should be able to hide a defensive back position if there’s a short-term injury.

2017 Prediction: The numbers say that Jacksonville will probably win more games this year, even if that just means 4-12. Vegas agrees with that. Hovering around a six-win season should be a solid goal for this team.

Other than quarterback, you can make the case that the Jaguars have a better team than say the Baltimore Ravens, who according to Vegas Insider are at least twice as likely to win the AFC championship game and Super Bowl. I don’t think either team will accomplish either of those goals, but people who make money ranking teams is where you should first go when thinking about ranking teams.

Do the Jaguars have more talented backs than the Ravens? Yes. Do the Jaguars have fewer questions on their offensive line than the Ravens? Yes. Do the Jaguars have a more stable pass-catching situation than the Ravens? Yes. Do the Jaguars have more proven experience on the defensive line of scrimmage than the Ravens? Yes. Do the Jaguars have more answers at off the ball linebacker than the Ravens? Yes. Do the Jaguars have more proven talent in the secondary than the Ravens? Yes.

Chuck’s Two Cents: I don’t think the Jaguars have less questions on the offensive line than the Ravens. Marshal Yanda is a Hall of Fame caliber player and Ronnie Stanley played very well as a rookie. Either one would be the best offensive lineman in Jacksonville by far.

The difference between the best and worst quarterbacks to Vegas is about six points in an individual game. Bortles can certainly do that himself with a pick-six. Still, there’s enough non-quarterback talent that you could convince yourself that this team could get to .500 this season. If they don’t, there’s really only one player to blame.

Video Breakdown: Jaguars’ Run Game by Charles McDonald