Jaguars turn to Gardner Minshew, young supporting cast in high-stakes rebuilding year

It does not take much reading between the lines to understand the vibe in Jacksonville this season.

"The biggest thing I like about our team right now is how together we are," quarterback Gardner Minshew told me last month. "We do have a lot of young guys, but it's a young core that's kind of banding together. I don't think we have a lot of selfish ambitions. I don't think we have a lot of personal agendas."

Which is to say there are no reports of disputes about voluntary workouts, no Brink's trucks, no heated meetings with team executives, no outrageous fines, no grievances, no tardy players, no zipped-lip emojis. No angst.

There are, of course, also many fewer star players -- especially after the last few days, when Yannick Ngakoue was traded and Leonard Fournette released -- and, as a result, prognostications for the team hover somewhere between rebuilding and outright tanking.

The Jaguars could start as many as seven rookies this season and had the fourth-youngest roster in the league as of the middle of this week, according to NFL Research, with an average age of 25 years and 121 days. Only the Rams, Dolphins and Vikings are younger, and that is just by a matter of a few days or months.

It is a dramatic change of direction from the philosophy that constructed the Jaguars over the last few years. Jacksonville had its dalliance with big-ticket free agents and big personalities and it rode them -- mostly on defense -- to a surprising appearance in the AFC Championship Game at the end of the 2017 season. That the Jaguars came so close to defeating the New England Patriots and going to the Super Bowl feels now like a mirage -- beautiful but fleeting -- considering how rapidly that team was disassembled and this new, quieter one put in its place.

On Sunday, another talented and prominent piece of that team was shed, albeit unsurprisingly, when the aforementioned Ngakoue was traded to the Minnesota Vikings for a second-round pick and another conditional pick. Ngakoue had declined to sign his franchise-tag tender, said publicly he would not play for Jacksonville again, and got into a Twitter beef with the owner's son. The team signaled it knew Ngakoue was all but gone when it used a first-round pick this spring on K'Lavon Chaisson, a pass-rushing linebacker. Still, what stood out most about the Ngakoue deal was that, when his contract was redone as part of the trade, he accepted nearly $6 million less from the Vikings than he would have made had he played on the tag in Jacksonville. What does that say about just how badly Ngakoue wanted to be the next Jaguar out the door?

And on Monday, Fournette -- whom the Jaguars had dangled on the trade block for months with no takers despite his status as the team's bell-cow back -- was released, severing ties with the first and most prominent draft pick of Tom Coughlin's three-year run as executive vice president of football operations. Even then, using such a high pick on a running back was questioned, especially because it meant the Jaguars were all in on then-quarterback Blake Bortles in a draft that included (cover your eyes, Jaguars fans) Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Coach Doug Marrone said the team had exhausted all trade opportunities for the former fourth overall pick and could get nothing in return.

It is hard not to view this, on one hand, as the Jaguars cleaning up their locker room and going forward with players who want to be there. Fournette had a history of tardiness and even sleeping in meetings, according to reports by NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, although Marrone said the move was more about the team liking its young running backs. On the other hand, the Jaguars are going forward with a roster jammed with unproven players, as the direction of the franchise hangs in the balance along with, almost certainly, the jobs of the decision-makers.

General manager David Caldwell, who has overseen a rebuild, the peak, the dismantling and now whatever this moment is called, is at pains to explain that this point in the NFL's opening-and-closing-of-windows cycle was actually all on the Jaguars' long-range calendar. The Jags certainly didn't know when doing long-range planning a few years ago that the breakup of the team would be accompanied by acrimony and bitter departures -- the star cornerback Jalen Ramsey was traded last season, the star front office executive Coughlin was fired two months later, the two outcomes somewhat related -- but, as Caldwell offered, when a team spends a lot of money on free agents like Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, you hope to get three or four years out of them before the bills come due. The Jaguars got three and that one moment in the postseason sun before the denuding began.

The process was only accelerated when Nick Foles, who had signed a four-year, $88 million contract with the Jaguars last offseason after they finally decided to move on from Blake Bortles -- one of Caldwell's more unfortunate picks -- broke his collarbone on the very first touchdown pass he threw for Jacksonville. Foles was supposed to be the quarterback who would finally put the Jaguars and their defense over the top. Instead, Jacksonville dropped to 6-10, a season that even Caldwell admits was an underachiever. It was the second straight season the Jaguars finished last in the AFC South and a cold-eyed assessment indicated there wasn't much point in tinkering around the edges trying to make one last push with the big-ticket (and big-headline) players.

"We knew we'd have to take our foot off the pedal and reconfigure the salary cap," Caldwell said.

If the Cinderella story aligns, Minshew would be the reward for all of this suffering. The 2019 sixth-round draft pick played well when he was thrown on in relief of Foles, starting all six of the Jaguars' wins and throwing 21 touchdown passes. Minshew has had a strong training camp, in this, the first time he has entered camp as the designated starter since his senior year of high school. Minshew became something of a long-haired, jorts-wearing, broken-play sensation last season, and the knowledge that the Jaguars would have him on a rookie deal for another three years convinced Caldwell and Marrone, who kept their jobs in an indication that owner Shad Khan blamed Coughlin alone for the bad decisions and bile that had engulfed the organization, it was time to move on with younger, largely unknown players.

Intellectually, that might have been the correct decision. Realistically, fans on Florida's First Coast and plenty of NFL observers are keeping one eye on the stripping down of the Jaguars and the other on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who's widely regarded as one of the top prospects for the 2021 draft.

Every coach loathes the suggestion that a team has given up on a season, particularly while trying to get ready for that season. On Monday, with Fournette's release just one hour old, Marrone acknowledged the obvious about tanking.

"If that happens, I'm not going to be here," he said.

Earlier in camp, in a quieter moment, Marrone considered how he could twist the brutal narrative to his advantage.

"I'm not naïve, I'm not going to tell you there is not a point in time where I won't use that," he said. "But if I have to use that to motivate us right now, we're in trouble."

Caldwell and Marrone position this season as more of a reset than a rebuild, an opportunity for them and Minshew to make a long-term change in Jacksonville. Minshew said early in camp that he and other young players had talked about being the ones to build a winning culture for the Jaguars, which, of course, is an indictment of whatever culture they think was there before. It is hard to ignore a troubling trend: While the Jaguars have made some poor draft picks (Bortles among them), they have also selected some gems (Ramsey, Ngakoue and Allen Robinson) but have failed to sign them to second contracts. The Jaguars picked inside the top five for six straight drafts from 2012 to 2017. None of the players selected with those picks (receiver Justin Blackmon, tackle Luke Joeckel, Bortles, edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr., Ramsey and Fournette) spent more than five seasons with the team. That would seem to be an indictment of roster construction, salary-cap management or team culture, or some combination of all of them. If the Jaguars are finally to have the consistent winning culture Minshew hopes for, the constant churn, particularly of their own draft picks, has to stop.

"I just have to try to prove it every day, that I'm the right guy for this team. And that's going to take winning games. I think that solves everything. If I do my part and we win games, then everybody's happy." -- Gardner Minshew

When Caldwell offered an assessment of what new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden could do for Minshew, it sounded like something the rest of the franchise needs, too. He would, Caldwell told me, "calm his world."

"If people aren't really talking about you, they probably think you're not going to be that good of a football team," Marrone said. "If people are hyping you up, you've got to worry about other things. One advantage, there's not a lot of distraction. Personally, I'm not being pulled in a lot of different directions."

As easy as it might be to consign the Jaguars to the bottom of the AFC South -- particularly after Tennessee's surprise run to the AFC Championship Game last season and the Colts' addition of quarterback Philip Rivers this offseason -- they have a nucleus of young talent on offense, and an especially good well of weapons for Minshew, including receiver D.J. Chark, who had a breakout season last year, Dede Westbrook, Chris Conley and rookie Laviska Shenault Jr. What bedeviled the offense last year, in part, was that it could not convert yardage into points -- the Jaguars ranked 20th in total offense, but 26th in scoring and 31st in the red zone. Tight end Tyler Eifert, who was signed during free agency and to whom Caldwell points to rebut the idea that the team is tanking, should help. Fournette was a workhorse -- he had 1,674 yards from scrimmage in 2019 -- but it is damning that the Jaguars rushed for just three touchdowns last season. Marrone said he made the Fournette decision after approaching this camp determined to rely only on what he is seeing now, not what a player's history was. The Jaguars will instead go with running back by committee and certainly plan to spread the ball around.

Gruden's job is to help Minshew disperse the ball and rely less on broken plays, and to make the offense more productive in general.

"Gardner is going to have answers to any problems that come to him on the field," Caldwell said.

There will be considerable pressure on the offense to score much more, because the defense is thin. In addition to the departures of Ngakoue, Campbell (traded to Baltimore) and Bouye (traded to Denver), defensive tackle Rodney Gunter and linebacker Aaron Lynch, who both signed with the team this offseason, suddenly retired. Meanwhile, corner Rashaan Melvin, defensive end Lerentee McCray and defensive tackle Al Woods opted out.

The Jaguars used both of their first-round picks this year -- the payoff for shedding so much name-brand talent is the deep well of draft capital -- on defense, with cornerback CJ Henderson coming off the board at No. 9 and Chaisson going 20th. Along with second-year defensive end Josh Allen, Chaisson should help ease some the loss of Ngakoue with the pass rush. But even Caldwell concedes there are some unknowns in the secondary.

The jobs of Caldwell, Marrone and Minshew may all ride on the outcome of this drastic retooling. Right now, the Jaguars have seven picks in the first four rounds of the 2021 draft, including two picks in the first round. If the Jaguars sink to the bottom of the league, will Khan allow Caldwell and Marrone to use all those picks -- with one perhaps on Lawrence -- again? Marrone, for one, rejects the idea that such a young team might buy more time to develop.

"Everyone always feels like we've got to do it now, we've got to get it done with the players we have, we're in the right direction," Marrone said. "It's so volatile of a league, coaches and players, it's all about the results. If it's not good enough at the end of the day, and the people above don't like the direction you're headed, they're going to make a move no matter what. That's their right."

Minshew is well aware that he has an opportunity to save himself and the Jaguars from that fate. He thinks the young players on the team are already taking steps in that direction -- "leaving egos and selfishness at the door, just focusing on getting better."

Minshew also said that he knows from his own experience -- he was not a five-star recruit coming out of high school and was the 178th overall pick in last year's draft -- that chances do not come along often for players like him. He does not, he said, have as long of a runway as top draft picks do. For Minshew to quiet what will likely be growing chatter surrounding struggling teams about Lawrence and other top QB prospects as the season wears on, Minshew has to make sure the Jaguars don't struggle.

"I just have to try to prove it every day, that I'm the right guy for this team," Minshew said. "And that's going to take winning games. I think that solves everything. If I do my part and we win games, then everybody's happy."

And that, it seems, would be a change for the Jaguars, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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