Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
It is my honor and privilege to join you today and talk about the state of your franchise. It's much different than it was a year ago. For last offseason, the Jaguars were coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. A few plays from reaching the Super Bowl. And we can all agree Myles Jack wasn't down, right? The Jags went into last season thinking it was going to be their year.
In fact, last year might have been the most disappointing in franchise history, given the weight of expectations. But this is a new year. And I'm here to tell you the Jaguars are going to be back.
How the Jaguars got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.
-- The Derrick Henry posterization. The Titans back bulldozed and swatted away Jaguars defenders -- like prime-age Shaquille O'Neal playing against junior high kids -- on his way to a 99-yard touchdown against Jacksonville on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 14. It was the kind of play that, had they put it in a movie, I would have said, "Nope, this is too much make-believe." But it actually happened. Not only did it eliminate the Jaguars' faint playoff hopes, but it also might have been the defining moment in a disappointing season.
Head coach: Doug Marrone. I've always found Marrone to be an interesting person. I mean, he led the Bills to a 9-7 record in 2014 and then bounced when an ownership change provided an out clause in his contract. He figured he was going to get a bigger and better gig someplace else. Like when Tom DeLonge left Blink 182 to start Angels & Airwaves and study UFOs.
OK, it has eventually worked out for DeLonge -- and ultimately, Marrone, who initially accepted a position as a Jaguars assistant before becoming head coach a couple years later in the wake of Gus Bradley's firing. And then he got within a game of the Super Bowl. But then last year happened. And as things flew off the rails, he probably wished he had some type of out clause on the season. But he's back, presumably given one more chance to right the ship again in Jacksonville. His current head-coaching record is a few games under .500, so this is a make-or-break season.
Quarterback: Nick Foles. The Khan family made two of the biggest free-agent acquisitions of the year. First, getting Foles down to Duval. And second, getting Chris Jericho to sign with All Elite Wrestling. That's a pretty amazing offseason.
Some people (haters, really) will contend that Foles was just a system quarterback for the Eagles the past two seasons. Which is hilarious to me. You don't win Super Bowl MVP as a system quarterback. With the Lombardi Trophy on the line, Foles put up 41 points on Bill Belichick's Patriots -- you know, the team that didn't allow Sean McVay and Jared Goff to score a single touchdown in this past February's Super Bowl -- so I don't want to hear any of that noise. And it's not like Foles was just a two-year wonder. He tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in a game in 2013, the same year when he had the second-best TD-to-INT rate in NFL history (27:2). Last December, he tied the NFL record for most consecutive completions (25) in NFL history. I know a lot of people point out that he was nearly out of football before Eagles coach Doug Pederson rescued him. But I guess that's what playing quarterback for Jeff Fisher will do to a man.
Projected 2019 MVP: Foles. I know I kind of took a cheap shot at Bortles earlier, but let me explain myself a bit more. The reason the Bortles-quarterbacked Jaguars found success in 2017 was because Jacksonville had this formula of getting out to an early lead, letting the defense put the screws to the opposing team and then salting games away with Fournette. It worked. The Jaguars were 10-2 (including the playoffs) in games where they scored first in 2017. They went just 2-5 when they fell behind early. Last year was even worse, as the team was 1-8 when the other team scored first. The point isn't to have a quarterback who is going to pass for 5,000 yards. Just having a guy who can generate enough offense to get you out of a hole is a huge boost.
2019 breakout star: Ronnie Harrison, safety. The third-rounder played quite well as a rookie, starting eight games and making veteran Barry Church -- a 16-game starter in 2017 -- expendable by December. Harrison's a big-time playmaker with the right combination of size and speed for this secondary. He's a perfect fit for a defensive backfield that includes a pair of shutdown corners in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
Needs to return healthy: Cam Robinson, left tackle. Robinson looked like a franchise left tackle in his sophomore campaign before he went down with a torn ACL in Week 2. If the Jaguars can just get healthy on the offensive line, not only do you protect the investment in the quarterback, but you also get back to what the coaching staff wants to do: run the football.
BTW, how good is this guy? Calais Campbell, defensive end. I'll never forget people clowning Campbell in the 2017 offseason for turning down free-agent money from the Broncos to go to Jacksonville and play with that Duval defense. Folks thought it was a straight cash grab, but he was shown to be right with the Jags' run to the AFC title game. With everything that happened last year, Campbell will be the steadying force to help get this team back on track.
New face to know: Josh Allen, defensive end. One of the silver linings of having a solid roster that goes belly up for a season is that you can end up adding another a great player in the draft. And this is what happened when the Jags landed Allen. I mean, really. I saw this sort of start to unfold when the Raiders made the surprise pick of Clelin Ferrell (it was a fine pick, but a surprise nonetheless) and the Giants picked alternate-universe Eli Manning (Daniel Jones). I was like, How are you going to let the Jags come away with the guy some considered to be the best defender in the draft? Our own Daniel Jeremiah had Allen ranked third. (Really, you couldn't back me up here, DJ, with having him at No. 1?)
And another: Josh Oliver, tight end. The Jaguars need a good tight end, and the rookie out of San Jose State could be that player. It's super easy to mention how effectively Foles used tight ends Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert and Trey Burton during his time in Philly, and somehow tie this back to Jacksonville's third-round pick in April. It's easy, and I hate to do it ... but not enough to keep me from doing it.
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Mr. Khan did the right thing in giving Marrone -- along with Tom Coughlin and GM David Caldwell -- one last chance to see this through all together. This club is far too talented to just give up. But you get the sense this is one last stand for this trio, so winning is of the utmost importance.
Will the Jaguars be able to ...
Recapture the magic? And by magic, I mean that swagger. Ramsey is one of my favorite players. I love when he walked into EverBank Field after knocking off the Steelers in the 2017 playoffs in that sweet coat, and telling the crowd that the Jags were going to go to New England and win that, uh, stuff, too. Loved it. And when he called out quarterbacks around the league, I was a fan of that, as well. When I heard him say he was going to be more mature this season and not talk smack on quarterbacks, I got a little worried. You don't want to take that edge off. Thankfully, Ramsey is ready to go:
Run the ball? Foles is great. And the Jaguars are relying him. But Fournette is a huge key to this offense. He regressed from 80 rushing yards per game in 2017 to just 54.9 last season. (And 103.2 scrimmage yards to 78.0.) Additionally, the Jaguars were second in the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2017. That total plummeted to just seven last year -- good for last in the NFL.
Needless to say, the Jaguars need a full and productive season from Fournette for this year to go well. But one name I want you to keep in mind is Ryquell Armstead, a fifth-round pick out of Temple. Even with Alfred Blue and Thomas Rawls on the roster, Armstead could end up being the backup running back and getting significant playing time if something happens to Fournette.
Generate a pass rush? The Jaguars' defense is still good -- more on that in a bit -- and Campbell had a respectable 10.5 sacks last year. Yannick Ngakoue was second with 9.5. But then there was a serious drop-off, with Malik Jackson being third on the team with 3.5. Jacksonville finished with 37 total to rank tied for 22nd in the league. The Jaguars were second in the NFL with 55 sacks in 2017.
Three key dates
One storyline people are overlooking:The Jaguars receivers are better than you think. It's been a while since the days of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, but I really do like this receiving corps in Jacksonville. Marqise Lee will return from injury. Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, D.J. Chark and Chris Conley all have the potential to do some pretty good things. I'm just saying that you shouldn't judge them completely by what you saw last season, because ... well ... you know the reason. All that being said, I wouldn't mind if the Jags made a move to get a receiver. Maybe bring some familiarity to the new QB and swing a deal for Alshon Jeffery. The Eagles drafted J.J. Arcega-Whiteside this year. Perhaps see if you could get him down to Duval. If not, these receivers are still good, even though that last part might make it seem like I'm contradicting myself. Because I'm not. It's like getting a free upgrade. Like, I'm totally content with the fries you delivered to me. But if you're going to throw in some chili cheese on top of that, well, who's going to turn that down?
One more:The Jaguars hired former Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo. I'm curious to see how this works out. DeFilippo was hired as Minnesota's offensive coordinator last year to much fanfare because of what Philly was able to do in the Super Bowl and everyone was raiding that coaching staff. He didn't last the season because he wasn't running the ball enough for Mike Zimmer's liking. This seems awfully familiar, with Marrone being an old-school coach who wants to run. But DeFilippo's familiarity with Foles gives this a fighting chance.
One storyline people are overthinking:The falloff of the Jaguars' defense. Since I am contradicting myself and I did point out that the pass rush could use an upgrade, it's fair to point out the defense was still pretty good last year. Obviously, 2018 was a lost season. But since 2017, The Jaguars are first in points allowed (18.3), yards per game allowed (182.2) and passer rating allowed (76.4). They can become the first team in a decade to allow fewer than 200 passing yards per game in three consecutive seasons. If they can rush the passer and keep their own defense fresh by moving the sticks on offense, the Jags will be just fine.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Jaguars MUST ...
-- Make the playoffs.
The Jaguars aren't going to be messing around and it's one of those things where they have to get back to the playoffs once again. Otherwise, some jobs will be on the line.