8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Jaguars -3, Over/Under: 48
A pair of denizens of the sunshine state who are early in their respective rebuilds meet tonight in Northern Florida, as the Miami Dolphins battle the Jacksonville Jaguars to kick off Week Three from TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida. Rebuilding can be a tricky process, as some teams manage to breeze through it relatively quickly, while others get bogged down in the formative stages, and in the second year of their own renovation, it’s currently unclear as to which path the Dolphins (0-2, T-4th in AFC East) will travel. With just five winning seasons and only two postseason appearances to their credit since 2002, Miami made a bold statement last year, admitting their mediocrity and starting from scratch, cleaning out their roster with many significant figures sold for a myriad of draft picks, which they have since used to revitalize and replenish their roster. After all, what’s the point of approaching salary cap hell when you’re only 7-9? With that said, their Owner, Stephen Ross, opted to completely redecorate, hiring both a new General Manager, Chris Grier, and Head Coach, Brian Flores, to oversee the roster reconstruction; while it was indeed a disappointing start to the 2019 campaign (0-7), the ‘Fins gradually began to play with more pride, winning five of their final nine contests, capped by a 27-24 upset of division rival, the New England Patriots. Of course, Flores, who arrived following fourteen seasons in various roles in Foxborough, has attempted to instill the culture that made his former employers the proverbial belle of the ball for the better part of the last two decades, and in turn establish an identity that has long been absent in South Florida: that of a winner.
So after his first season largely spent clearing deadwood and cultivating a culture, where are the Dolphins in the course of their rebuild? Armed with six picks on the first two days of the 2020 NFL Draft (including three in the First Round), Grier and Flores went to work, addressing their litany of needs, starting off with whom they hope will eventually become their Franchise Quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa (5th Overall), who starred at Alabama over the last two seasons. Few Quarterbacks have come into the league in recent years with more accolades than the young lefthander; Tua threw for 7,442 yards and eighty-seven touchdowns in Tuscaloosa, while leading the Crimson Tide to a National Championship in 2017. However, there were and continue to be major injury concerns with the Hawaiian gunslinger, with surgeries to both ankles and most recently a serious hip malady that ended his collegiate career prematurely. Fortunately, Miami has the luxury of waiting for him to return to full health, with veteran journeyman, Ryan Fitzpatrick (more on him in a bit), still proving capable of keeping a team competitive. They would go on to plug further holes throughout the roster, bolstering a poor Offensive Line with Tackle, Austin Jackson (18th Overall), alongside Guards, Robert Hunt (39th Overall) and Solomon Kindley (111th Overall), replenishing the Secondary with Cornerback, Noah Igbonoghene (30th Overall), and Safety, Brandon Jones (70th Overall), and adding some muscle to the Defensive Line with Tackle, Raekwon Davis (56th Overall). However, the Draft wasn’t the only way that the Dolphins managed to acquire new faces, for they were one of the more active teams in Free Agency, adding top Cornerback, Byron Jones (4 TKL), along with a slew of other defenders that have worked with Flores in the past, including ex-Patriots, Kyle Van Noy (9 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD), Elandon Roberts (4 TKL, 1 TFL), and Eric Rowe (7 TKL, 1 PD), along with Edge-Rushers, Emmanuel Ogbah (4 TKL, 1 QBH, 0.5 SK) and Shaq Lawson (4 TKL, 2 QBH). Furthermore, Tailbacks, Jordan Howard (13 CAR, 11 YDS, 0.8 Y/C, 2 TD) and Matt Brieda (12 CAR, 59 YDS, 4.9 Y/C, 0 TD), were added to bolster the Backfield, with all of these incoming pieces acquired with one thing in mind: making Miami tougher and more imposing, particularly in the trenches.
“We didn’t do enough to win the game… We couldn’t finish. You’ve got to finish in this league if you want to win.”Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins Head Coach
So we have a new regime, with new faces, with a new culture and identity all in place, but has that managed to translate into victories yet? That there, folks, is where the Dolphins find themselves, for while they’ve certainly been competitive through their first two outings of the campaign, they’ve yet to make any headway in the win column, losing their Season Opener at the New England Patriots (21-11), before falling to the Buffalo Bills last Sunday (31-28). Make no mistake, Miami was very much in both affairs, particularly the latter of the two, even taking a brief 20-17 lead early in the Fourth Quarter against Buffalo. After conceding touchdowns on back-to-back drives, the hosts drove down the field, with Fitzpatrick (66.2%, 519 YDS, 6.09 NY/A, 2 TD, 3 INT, 67.8 QBR) finding his Tight End, Mike Gesicki (11 REC, 160 YDS, 14.5 Y/R, 1 TD), for an 8-yard score followed by a successful two-point conversion, cutting the lead to three with 0:54 left to play. However, they couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick, effectively sending them to their second straight defeat. By and large, the Offense was stellar, accounting for 410 total yards on twenty-eight first downs, with Fitzpatrick completing 31-of-47 passes for 328 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with Gesicki hauling in eight receptions on eleven targets for 130 yards and that aforementioned score. The Defense on the other hand, had problems throughout the day, yielding 524 total yards to the Bills, including 413 through the air, with their Quarterback, Josh Allen, plowing through multiple defenders on one particular drive. And though they came close, they unfortunately left the affair with a number of injuries, most notably the aforementioned Jones, who departed in the First Quarter with a pulled groin, with the likes of Lawson (hip), Roberts (concussion), DeVante Parker (hamstring), and Xavien Howard (knee), all listed as Questionable for tonight’s short trip north with various ailments.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins aren’t the only team in the state of Florida that is undergoing a rebuild, with their neighbors to the north, the Jaguars (1-1, T-2nd in AFC South), hitting the proverbial reset button this past offseason. It seems like it’s been ages since Jacksonville came within one quarter of advancing to Super Bowl LII, but in reality it was only three years ago, which just goes to show how quickly this once promising team has utterly fallen apart. And the Front Office has been to blame for it, taking a page from Miami’s playbook and auctioning off many of the figures that had once made them so formidable; Pro Bowl Cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, alongside Defensive Linemen, Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue have departed for greener pastures, while Tailback, Leonard Fournette was offloaded shortly before the Regular Season began. Remarkably, there are only FIVE starters remaining from the team that nearly unseated the New England Patriots in that AFC Championship Game, with Offensive Linemen, Cam Robinson, AJ Cann, and Brandon Linder, alongside Defensive Lineman, Abry Jones, and Linebacker, Myles Jack, serving as the lone remnants from that group. Curiously, there are two figures that haven’t been shipped out of Jacksonville, and that is General Manager, David Caldwell, and Head Coach, Doug Marrone, who have presided over a team that has gone a miserable 11-21 (.343) since that fateful evening in Foxborough. Caldwell, who was responsible for drafting/signing many of those aforementioned players over the years, is especially a curious choice to stay given that he ultimately chose to cut bait with them, recouping a treasure chest of draft picks in return. It’s rare that a General Manager keeps his job long enough to rebuild more than once, but it appears that the Jags’ Owner, Shahid Khan, trusts his lead executive to at the very least replenish the cupboard (for likely one more year).
While we get the sense that Marrone and Caldwell are indeed tied at the hip, many felt that the Jaguars would be the likeliest team to tank their way through the schedule, citing a plethora of reasons ranging from their dearth of talent, depth and experience, to the general lack of preparation afforded to them due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has rocked the world over the last six months. Essentially, these guys were viewed as lame ducks, who would see out another losing season, while setting the table for their eventual replacements. And speaking of setting the table, you’ve got to give Caldwell credit for doing just that, for few teams were more active throughout the Draft than Jacksonville; they made a total of twelve selections on Draft Day, including seven in the first four rounds alone, allowing them to address many of their needs, with the Defense in particular receiving reinforcements. Their first two picks were on this side of the football, with Cornerback, CJ Henderson (9th Overall), and Edge-Rusher, K’Lavon Chaisson (20th Overall), bringing some much needed speed, athleticism, and nastiness to the unit, while Defensive Tackle, Davon Hamilton (73rd Overall), Cornerback, Josiah Scott (137th Overall), and Linebacker, Shaquille Quarterman (140th Overall), were added in later rounds. Furthermore, versatile offensive weapon, Laviska Shenault (42nd Overall), was selected with an injection of dynamism in mind. While the general consensus is that all of these prospects have set them up nicely for the future, there isn’t much expected out of them, or the team as whole, in the present, but fortunately for all parties involved their Quarterback hasn’t subscribed to that notion. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Gardner Minshew’s (75.4%, 512 YDS, 6.55 NY/A, 6 TD, 2 INT, 78.8 QBR) show in 2020, with the eccentric young gunslinger, proving to be the unique personality to keep things interesting for one of the league’s perennial doormats. A sixth Round Pick out of Mike Leach’s pass-happy scheme in Washington State, Minshew quickly asserted himself as the Jags’ starter after Nick Foles broke his collarbone in last year’s Season Opener. Though he was short on experience and had very little to work with, the youngster nevertheless shattered (low) expectations, completing 60.6% of his passes for 3,271 yards on 6.14 net yards per attempt, with twenty-one touchdowns in comparison to only six interceptions, all the while posting a Quarterback Rating of 47.2 en route to earning a 6-6 record. Needless to say, Minshew outplayed his selection in the Draft, ultimately earning the opportunity to make whatever he can out of this season, whether that’s keeping the job moving forward into 2021 and beyond, or taking his talents elsewhere.
“That last one sucks… Ball got tipped up in the air. Just a bad way to lose.”Gardner Minshew, Jacksonville Jaguars Quarterback
With two games in the books, is it possible that we all have underestimated Minshew and the Jaguars? Absolutely, for Jacksonville has been nothing short of competent and competitive thus far, upsetting the Indianapolis Colts (27-20) in the Season Opener, before coming oh so close to doing it again in a 33-30 loss at the Tennessee Titans. Trailing by thirteen or more points on multiple occasions, the visitors showed a lot of resolve as they persistently clawed back into the contest over and over again, with Minshew leading them to back-to-back touchdown drives in the Fourth Quarter to square away the affair at 30-30. However, Tennessee would answer with a 49-yard field goal to reclaim the lead with 1:41 remaining on the clock, setting up one final drive from Minshew and the Offense starting from their own 25-yard line. The sophomore would advance to midfield, only to see his final pass batted into the air at the line of scrimmage by the Titans’ Jeffery Simmons, with his teammate, Harold Landry, reaching up to snag the football and sealing the outcome of the game. Marrone’s charges moved the pigskin with ease last Sunday, amassing 480 total yards and converting a combined 11-of-15 on 3rd and 4th Down, with Minshew completing 30-of-45 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns, though he also was responsible for what would be a pair of costly interceptions. Undrafted Tailback, James Robinson (32 CAR, 164 YDS, 5.1 Y/C, 1 TD), rushed for a career-high 102 yards and a score on sixteen carries, while eight different players caught three passes, led by Wideouts, DJ Chark (7 REC, 109 YDS, 15.6 Y/R, 1 TD), who totaled eighty-four yards on four receptions, and Keelan Cole (11 REC, 105 YDS, 9.5 Y/R, 2 TD), who added six catches for fifty-eight yards and a touchdown. At this point, it’s safe to say that the Jags are indeed a surprise at 1-1, and while they very well may struggle to keep up this level of play, one thing is for certain: with Minshew leading the way, they’ll be far from boring.