Our 2018 Regular Season Preview rolls on as we travel to Jacksonville where the Jaguars are planning their follow-up after advancing all the way the AFC Championship Game last season. Indeed, 2018 was a surprising campaign for the Jaguars, who in finishing 10-6 earned their first Division Title since 1999 and their first trip to the Playoffs since 2007. In his first full season as Head Coach, Doug Marrone did a masterful job of putting his own stamp on this football team, all the while making the most of an Offense which featured glaring weaknesses. No. 4 Overall Pick Leonard Fournette emerged as the workhorse for a Running Game that ended up leading the league, while former No. 3 Overall Pick Blake Bortles finally took steps towards shedding that dreaded bust label in a much more conservative scheme that emphasized his strengths. Oh, and the Defense was absolutely hellacious, ranking near the summit of the league in a slew of categories, while creating a host of game-changing plays. Heading into 2018, Jacksonville returns just about everyone from last year’s group, with the hope that another year in Marrone’s system will further cultivate a developing Offense. And it’s with that said that we take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide as to whether or not the Jaguars are in the midst of a multi-year reign of success, or if last season was simply an outlier for this formerly downtrodden franchise.
At this point, it’s impossible to talk about the Jaguars without referencing their dominant Defense, which in 2017 was the primary reason that they managed to end their dismal 10-Year Postseason Drought. Years of drafting highly-rated blue-chip talents coupled with some inspired additions in Free Agency led to the creation of arguably the staunchest unit in the league, and given their youth, it’s likely to stay that way for several years to come. So let’s take a moment to run down the gaudy list of numbers, shall we? Last year, Jacksonville ranked second in the NFL in Points Allowed (16.8 P/G), Total Defense (286.1 Y/G), Sacks (55), and Takeaways (33), while sitting atop the league in First Downs Allowed (257), Pass Defense (169.9 Y/G), and Net Yards per Pass (4.8). Furthermore, they ranked Fourth Overall in Third Down Defense (33.6%) and Second in Red Zone Defense (39.3%). And if that wasn’t enough, these guys even assisted their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball when it came to putting points on the scoreboard; the Jags’ Offense took advantage of their teammates’ tenacity scoring a league-best 137 Points off Turnovers, with the Defense scoring Seven Touchdowns themselves. Ten Starters return from a unit that sported Six Pro Bowlers, including a pair of First-Team All-Pros with Defensive Linemen Calais Campbell (67 TKL, 14.5 SK, 3 PD, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD in 2017) and Yannick Ngakoue (30 TKL, 12.0 SK, 6 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD in 2017) accounting for 26.5 Sacks, Linebackers Telvin Smith (201 TKL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 5 PD, 1 FF, 2 FR, 2 TD in 2017) and Myles Jack (90 TKL, 3 PD, 2 FR, 1 TD in 2017) tackling everything in sight, and Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey (63 TKL, 4 INT, 17 PD in 2017) and A.J. Bouye (56 TKL, 6 INT, 18 PD in 2017) forming easily the finest tandem in the game today. Their only real weakness was stopping the run, though that improved dramatically once former Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Marcell Dareus (20 TKL, 1.0 SK in 9 Games in 2017 ) was acquired at the Trade Deadline; Jacksonville ranked dead-last in the league against the Run before acquiring Dareus yielding a disappointing 138.6 Rushing Yards per Game, only to improve to Twenty-First by the end of the campaign, allowing 98.9 the rest of the way. Young, athletic, fast, versatile, and above all else aggressive, this group alone should make the Jaguars a tough out come Postseason.
At this point, it is also virtually impossible to talk about the Jaguars without referencing their beleaguered young Quarterback, Blake Bortles (60.2%, 3,687 YDS, 6.52 NY/A, 21 TD, 13 INT, 55.5 QBR in 2017), who in his fourth season as the Starter showed the necessary improvement for the Franchise to further invest in him. 2017 was very much a make-or-break, Contract Year for the former Third Overall Pick, who had largely struggled throughout his career in Jacksonville, exhibiting poor accuracy, mechanics, and decision-making despite possessing rare physical traits (size and athleticism) for the position. Credit must go to Marrone for crafting a unique gameplan that really streamlined his charge’s performance; last year, Bortles posted career-highs in Completion Percentage (60.2%), Interception Percentage (2.5%), and Quarterback Rating (55.5). He certainly benefitted from better Pass-Protection behind a vastly improved Offensive Line, which permitted just Twenty-Four Sacks (4.4%). To give you an idea as to how important that was for this guy consider the fact that last season he dropped for a loss on Thirty-Four Occasions (5.2%), which was seventeen fewer than in 2016 when he led the league (51, 7.8%). All Quarterbacks benefit greatly from better protection, and Bortles has been no different. However, the Offense was at times OVERLY conservative, with Marrone appearing to be doing everything he could to keep Bortles from making a costly mistake. After all, the Jaguars manufactured the league’s most prolific Rushing Attack (141.4 Y/G), with five different players racking up at least 200 Rushing Yards, one of which Bortles (57 CAR, 322 YDS, 2 TD in 2017). Furthermore, Jacksonville ran the ball on a whopping 48.9% of the time, which was by far and away the highest percentage in the NFL. Also, one must take into account the oftentimes advantageous field position he was granted thanks to the Defense’s proclivity for Takeaways, and a rather vivid picture is being painted of a Quarterback who essentially didn’t have to do a whole helluva lot. So is it any wonder that the Franchise’s Football Czar Tom Coughlin ultimately decided to ink Bortles to a relatively modest Three-Year Contract Extension worth $31 Million, rather than making a more lucrative, long-term investment? Even the language of the deal screams “We need to see more from you!!!”, for it’s essentially a Two-Year Deal with the option of being able to cut him loose without any major dead money hindering the Salary Cap. Bortles clearly did enough in 2017 to earn a longer look, though that is far from a vote of confidence for this guy, particularly on a team that appears to be in the midst of a Super Bowl Window.
In Search of Balance
And it’s with that said, that it’s no surprise that if there is one place that the Jaguars simply must show improvement, it’s on Offense. It’s not that they weren’t effective, for they ranked Fifth Overall in Points Scored (26.1 P/G) and Sixth in Total Yards (365.9 Y/G), though it’s more so how they performed that is the issue. First and foremost, don’t be fooled by their lofty offensive placement, for the devil is always in the details. Between Defense and Special Teams, Jacksonville scored Eight Non-Offensive Touchdowns last year, which in parlaying to Fifty-Six Points would lead to the Offense accounting for a much more modest 22.6 Points per Contest, which would rank Thirteenth Overall. Furthermore, as we alluded to earlier, no team was better at making their opponents pay for turning the football over, scoring a staggering 137 Points via Takeaways. Subtract that figure from their Season Total (417), and you have a unit that could only muster 17.5 Points per Game on their own. Again, that’s because Marrone & Co. employed a very conservative scheme, which relied immensely on the strength of the Running Game; in addition to leading the NFL in Rushing Offense, they also finished First Overall in Rushing Attempts (32.9 A/G), Second in Rushing Touchdowns (18), and Ninth in Yards per Carry (4.3). Rookie Tailback Leonard Fournette (268 CAR, 1,040 YDS, 9 TD in 2017) spearheaded the attack, averaging 80.0 Yards per Game on 3.9 Yards per Carry, with T.J. Yeldon (49 CAR, 253 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) and the now-departed Chris Ivory (112 CAR, 382 YDS, 1 TD in 2017) in support. There is reason to believe that Fournette could be much better in 2018, for the LSU Product missed three games due to injury, and despite topping the 100-Yard Threshold on five occasions, was also relegated below Sixty Yards six times. He did however, exhibit a surprising ability in catching the football, hauling in Thirty-Six Receptions for 302 Yards and a Touchdown, which is a facet of his skillset that was rarely on display in college. The question though, is who the hell is going to carry the Passing Game? All concerns in regards to Bortles have been discussed at nauseum, but one look at Jacksonville’s Receiving Corps will hardly inspire confidence. Former Pro Bowler Allen Robinson departed in Free Agency after missing virtually all of last season with a Torn ACL, while Marqise Lee (56 REC, 702 YDS, 3 TD in 2017), who emerged as their top target in 2017, just recently tore his own ACL during the Preseason. Coughlin & Marrone acquired former Indianapolis Colt Donte Moncrieff (26 REC 391 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) in the Offseason and drafted speed demon D.J. Chark out of LSU with their Second Round Pick back in the Spring, while also adding Free Agent Tight End Austin Seferian-Jenkins (50 REC, 357 YDS, 3 TD in 2017) as well. Needless to say, either someone in this motely crew steps up, or the Jaguars’ Offense will once again be overly grounded in 2018, which will ultimately hinder them in their quest for the Playoffs.
2018 Outlook: 9-7
Indeed, 2017 served as a coming-out party for the Jaguars, who surprised many around the league in earning their first AFC South Title since 1999. The Defense was hellacious, the Running Game was punishing, and for the first time in his young career, Blake Bortles resembled a competent Starting Quarterback. In upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers in a thrilling 45-42 Division Round Victory, and nearly toppling the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game (20-24), this team certainly had the feel of a contender for years to come. However, now that they’ve announced themselves to rest of the league, where the hell do they go? Yes, the Defense is absolutely special, but is there enough talent offensively for Marrone and his Staff to take them further? It’s going to sound cliché-ish, but if Jacksonville is going to count themselves as one of the few true contenders in the AFC, then Bortles is going to have to take some rather dramatic steps towards improving his play. Based on the last two seasons in which he has shown incremental growth, the fifth-year veteran appears to be on the right track, but at some point he’s going to have to start making plays and winning games rather than remaining secluded in a conservative Offense. The Jags will need him to be the Quarterback he was supposed to be when they drafted him Third Overall, particularly if they’re to overcome a difficult schedule which features fellow division winners along with the always competitive NFC East. Furthermore, with the Houston Texans returning to health and the Indianapolis Colts welcoming back Andrew Luck, the AFC South should be far more difficult than it was a year ago, leaving us to believe that despite wielding a Defense that should keep them in every game, there are just too many concerns on an Offense that relies far too heavily on their Rushing Attack. Simply put, the Jags’ ceiling is as high as Bortles can take them, which if we’re being completely honest, should keep them just outside of the Playoffs.