On a warm Wednesday night on the St. Johns River, four men dined on the deck of a luxurious watercraft and hatched a plan to change the course of a franchise.
In keeping with the surreal times, the quartet most responsible for the fortunes of the Jacksonville Jaguars -- owner Shad Khan; his son and executive vice president, Tony; general manager Dave Caldwell; and coach Doug Marrone -- sat at least six feet apart. Yet by the time they'd polished off their tuna tartare, filet mignon, cheesecake and sublime red wine, the Jags' powerbrokers had come together and embraced a strategy for attacking the 2020 NFL Draft, which would begin in fewer than 24 hours.
With the Jaguars holding 12 picks, including the ninth and 20th overall selections, this was a chance to inject some juice into a franchise in the midst of a radical roster overhaul. Only two seasons removed from a narrow AFC Championship Game defeat to the New England Patriots, amid rampant skepticism, the Jags are on an ambitious mission to claw their way back into contention with a younger, more cohesive and less decorated cast.
The clear, almost compulsory mandate was to land some impact rookies, beginning with Thursday night's first round. As the four men discussed their draft prep atop Kismet, Khan's 312-foot mega-yacht, which was docked about a mile down the river from the team's headquarters at TIAA Bank Field, they focused on four players they believed might be available when it was time to make their first selection: cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and CJ Henderson, defensive tackle Derrick Brown and edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson.
The hope was that the Jags could land one of them. By 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, when Caldwell excitedly selected Chaisson with the 20th pick -- 11 selections after having taken Henderson -- the embattled GM felt as though the outcome was twice as nice.
"I love it when a plan comes together," Caldwell exclaimed four minutes later as he paced across his home-theater-turned-makeshift-draft-room in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, to which NFL Media gained exclusive virtual access via the Houseparty social-networking app. "Rush and cover -- we need to be able to do that, right? And to get a guy that was No. 4 on our list in that (20th) spot, that's more than you can expect."
Caldwell was speaking to a cyber-gathering of nearly four-dozen coaches, talent evaluators, medical staffers and other team officials who had logged into a video conference via the Microsoft Team platform, as the Jags, like the NFL's other 31 franchises, adjusted to the challenges posed by the various shelter-in-place orders issued as a response to a global pandemic.
While the COVID-19 virus has created an uncertain present and future, the draft offered promise as a harbinger of hope -- at least on a diversionary level -- in living rooms and basements and home offices across the land, and Caldwell's enthusiasm was palpable.
As his 13-year-old son, David Jr., sat and surveyed the various computer, tablet and television screens in his midst, Caldwell, dressed casually and wearing a white baseball cap, spent most of his time walking around the home theater. And by the time the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys passed on Chaisson, a former LSU star, with the 16th and 17th overall picks, respectively, Caldwell had a distinct bounce in his step.
This was Caldwell's eighth draft since becoming the team's general manager, but it was the first time in four years that he'd been firmly in charge of the process. In January of 2017, Khan hired Tom Coughlin -- the first coach in franchise history, and a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants -- as the Jags' executive vice president of football operations. Though Caldwell and Marrone (who'd taken over as interim coach after the firing of Gus Bradley late in the 2016 season) were retained, Coughlin immediately began putting his stamp on the franchise, beginning with the selection of ex-LSU running back Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft.
After the Jags, who had loaded up on defensive talent via free agency, rolled to their first-ever AFC South title, Khan publicly lauded Coughlin for the turnaround, telling ESPN.com, "And really the credit is to him."
Following its AFC title game defeat to the Patriots -- a game in which the Jaguars held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter -- Jacksonville looked like a potential hotspot for years to come. Then the chill set in, with Coughlin ultimately receiving the bulk of the "credit" from ownership -- and not in a good way. The Jags sputtered to a 5-11 record in 2018 and, after signing former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and Super Bowl LII hero Nick Foles to a lucrative free-agent contract, remained equally dismal during a 6-10 campaign last season, when they became the first team since the 1986 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lose five consecutive games by three-possession margins.
As the losses mounted, the locker-room culture began to erode, with numerous players chafing under Coughlin's heavy-handed leadership style and seemingly acting out in rebellion. Most glaringly, star cornerback Jalen Ramsey -- the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft -- got into a physical sideline altercation with Marrone during a Week 2 defeat to the Houston Texans last September.
The following day, according to team sources, Coughlin told Khan he wanted to trade Ramsey immediately, a move that likely would have netted little more than a second-round draft pick. Shad and Tony Khan resisted, saying they would wait until they were offered market value for the two-time Pro Bowl selection -- and, in essence, taking back their team in the process.
On Dec. 18, Khan fired Coughlin, two days after the NFL Players Association informed players that an arbitrator had ruled in the union's favor against the organization over mandating injured players to rehab and visit with doctors at the team facility during the offseason.
It was widely believed around the league that a larger purge involving Caldwell and Marrone would ensue at season's end, and it likely would have played out that way had the Jags not closed out the season with two impressive victories in their final three games, over the Raiders (in their final game in Oakland) and Colts.
Those efforts, with rookie sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew at quarterback, convinced the Khans that they could build around a core of young players that included wide receiver D.J. Chark, right tackle Jawaan Taylor, defensive end Josh Allen (a first-round pick in 2019) and linebacker Myles Jack, and supplement the roster with a stellar draft, with the 2012 Seattle Seahawks serving as a model.
Caldwell bought in and proceeded, to put it in terms to which a yacht proprietor can relate, to clear the deck. He created salary-cap room by unloading high-priced veterans like defensive end Calais Campbell (traded to the Ravens for a 2020 fifth-round pick), cornerback A.J. Bouye (dealt to the Denver Broncos for a 2020 fourth-rounder) and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (option declined, making him a free agent).
Caldwell also traded Foles, who'd signed a four-year, $88-million deal a year earlier, to the Chicago Bears for a 2020 fourth-round selection, ending any potential quarterback drama. Sources say Foles, who missed more than half the season after breaking his clavicle in the opener and went 0-4 as a starter, was often critical of the organization's culture and became increasingly distant toward Marrone after losing his job to Minshew late in the year.
The GM has also shopped Fournette, who is coming off a good statistical season but has been perceived by his bosses as a negative locker-room presence, most recently ruffling feathers by campaigning for the team to sign free-agent quarterback Cam Newton. There had been no takers as of Thursday night, but Fournette could be unloaded for a middle-round pick (or picks) on Friday or Saturday.
Then there is edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, a 2016 third-round pick who has 37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in his career and has openly asked for a trade. He escalated things on Monday, initiating a Twitter feud during which he called Tony Khan "spoiled" and used a clown emoji. Suffice it to say that the odds of him signing a long-term deal with Jacksonville are prohibitively long.
The Jaguars, who placed the franchise tag on Ngakoue, are seeking a first-round pick in a potential trade. On Wednesday, Caldwell had discussions with Raiders GM Mike Mayock, but Mayock never made an actual offer, and no deal was consummated. For now, a staredown appears imminent, with the Jags willing to let Ngakoue choose between signing his franchise-tag tender (which would guarantee him his 2020 salary of $17.88 million) and spending another season in Jacksonville or sitting out the year.
When the Khans hosted Caldwell and Marrone on their mega-yacht Wednesday night, there were whimsical discussions of the Ngakoue drama -- but, mostly, the quartet looked ahead to what they hoped would be a pivotal draft. Caldwell certainly didn't seem stressed the following morning as he sat on his couch drinking coffee and watching one of his favorite Food Network shows, Beat Bobby Flay.
"(The contestant) cooked a pork schnitzel and she won unanimously -- which you don't see often," Caldwell said afterward. "I'd love to go on that show and take a crack at him someday; I'd stay away from the things that are in his wheelhouse, like southwestern flair, and maybe change it up with an Italian dish."
In reality, Caldwell admitted, his "dream scenario" involved trading down -- possibly from 9 to 11, with the New York Jets holding the latter pick -- and ending up with an impact defender (Okudah, Henderson, Brown or Chaisson). After spending days laying the groundwork with Jets GM Joe Douglas, Atlanta Falcons counterpart (and former boss) Thomas Dimitroff and others, Caldwell had a decent sense of his options as the draft approached.
After a two-mile jog, followed by a bike ride along First Ave. near Jacksonville Beach, Caldwell returned home Thursday afternoon, showered and began working the phones. When the draft began at 8 p.m. ET, he believed he had a pretty good sense of what other teams in the first round would do, and things would play out largely the way he expected them to.
As the New York Giants prepared to make the fourth overall selection, Caldwell received a call from Dimitroff, who proposed a potential trade that would send Atlanta's pick (16th overall), along with third- and fourth-round choices, to Jacksonville for the No. 9 overall selection. Shortly thereafter, he spoke to Douglas, who was poised to include a fourth-round pick to move from 11 to 9.
After hanging up, Caldwell told the Khans, Marrone and others in the Jags' video conference, "If we trade back to 11, I think the Jets will take a tackle, but we have to worry about Atlanta going to 10 and taking one of the guys (we're targeting). If we go to 11, we have to be comfortable with CJ Henderson, Chaisson or (Alabama receiver) Jerry Jeudy. The value with the Jets' trade is good, according to the analytics. With Atlanta, the analytics say we lose the trade. We can say yes to the Jets, just as long as you're OK with (possibly) taking a receiver -- which is fine."
At 9:06 p.m., with the Cardinals (who picked eighth overall) on the clock, Caldwell got another call from Douglas. "You're gonna stay put?" Caldwell asked. "Alright, sounds good."
Then, turning to the computer screen, Caldwell said, "Alright, so that's the Jets. They're out. So we've just gotta be prepared to take Chaisson here if the Cardinals take Henderson. If they take (Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons) or a lineman, I feel more comfortable just taking the corner than going all the way back to Atlanta (at 16). ... I was really hoping for the Jets."
A minute later, Caldwell asked Marrone, "Doug, you're good with Chaisson at 9, right?"
"Yes," Marrone said emphatically. "I am."
That was the backup plan, however, and it wasn't necessary: The Cardinals selected Simmons, and at 9:12 p.m., the Jags were officially on the clock. Caldwell, who was about to contact Henderson and inform the former Florida cornerback of his impending selection, instead fielded another call -- from Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Jason Licht, who was looking to move up from the 14th pick. After a very quick conversation, Caldwell said to the Khans (who were on their yacht) and Marrone (who was home with his family), "Tampa would give us a third and a fourth, and he wants us to give a 6 back. I don't really want to give the 6 back."
Then Caldwell added, "If we trade out, we risk losing all three (Henderson, Chaisson and Jeudy). You wanna just make the pick? I say we make the pick."
The others agreed, and Caldwell called Licht to turn down the trade offer. Then he got Henderson on the phone for a short conversation. Finally, just before making the pick official, Caldwell said to the Jags' Microsoft Team conference, "It's Henderson. You good with that, everybody?"
"I'm great with it," Marrone said.
"Great!" Caldwell said. "Where's the applause?"
Hearty cheering ensued.
At that point, Caldwell figured the Falcons (at 16) or Cowboys (at 17) would likely take Chaisson, and he pondered his other options. As the Jags' second-rated edge rusher (behind Ohio State's Chase Young, who went second overall to Washington) remained on the board, however, it became plausible that he might be there for the taking at 20.
"So, we get one of our two guys," Caldwell said, referring to Chaisson and one of his LSU teammates, wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
The Raiders were on the clock -- with the pick that, theoretically, could have been used to trade for Ngakoue, had they followed through on Mayock's initial overture. Caldwell reached for his phone, fielding a call from Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman, who held the No. 22 overall selection. It was a short conversation, which ended before Spielman indicated what he'd offer to go from 22 to 20.
"I'll bet they'd come up for Chaisson, or a corner," Caldwell said. "They did trade (Stefon) Diggs, though, so it may be a wide receiver. But they didn't make an offer, so who the f--- knows?" Caldwell surmised that the Eagles, who picked 21st, could have interest in Chaisson or Jefferson, as well, further complicating the equation. Once the Raiders made their pick, he would have more clarity.
"Come on, Mayock, make the pick!" Caldwell yelled at the large television screen.
"We gotta take him!" Caldwell said.
When the pick became official, Caldwell finally exhaled. He hugged his wife, Joelle, and began looking ahead to Friday, with a chance to land at least one specific player (whose identity he did not want to be revealed, for obvious reasons) whom he would have been comfortable selecting at 20.
Shortly before midnight, Marrone spoke enthusiastically about the way the draft's first day had played out, with the Jags having landed a pair of first-rounders slated to replace Ramsey and (eventually) Ngakoue.
"I'm fired up," he said. "There were a few guys we had graded high at positions of need, but I didn't know going in we'd get both of them. There's a group that I like, and as long as I get one of them, I'm good. To get both -- you don't expect that."
Asked what he expected of the 2020 Jags, Marrone said, "I think we're gonna be young and hungry and tough -- and I think they're gonna come together. For me, it's exciting."
With two first-round picks in 2021, and the possibility of adding another in exchange for Ngakoue, the Jaguars' Powers That Be believe their future is bright. If this is indeed a "functional retool" -- as one organizational source described it -- rather than a complete overhaul, it will have to be proven on the field.
Much will depend on Minshew's development, and one of Caldwell's current challenges -- beginning Friday, with the 42nd and 73rd overall selections, and continuing Saturday with eight additional picks, including a trio of fourth-rounders -- is to surround his young quarterback with as many talented rookies as possible.
"We've got 10 more picks to go, and we've got some guys targeted -- so, let's load it up," Caldwell said late Thursday night. "Look, I know what's being said. I hear the noise. But despite what people think, I feel good about our chances."