Our 2023 NFL Preview closes out our jaunt through the AFC South with its reigning champion, as the Jaguars look to continue their swift evolution under the watchful eye of (Head Coach) Doug Pederson. Indeed, the former Super Bowl champion has made quite an impact on Jacksonville, dispensing with a long festering losing culture and guiding them to the playoffs for just the second time in the last fifteen years. However, with success comes raised expectations, and it will be up to the venerable tactician to raise the Jags to the next level. Can they become contenders in a wildly competitive AFC? Will (young Quarterback) Trevor Lawrence make another sizable leap in his development? Let’s take a stroll through Duval County for a look as these young cats, shall we?
In Pederson We Trust
For anyone that has ever claimed that “coaching is overrated”, we would like to direct your attention to the Jaguars and the job that Doug Pederson did with them in 2022. Indeed, Jacksonville had spent the bulk of fifteen years as one of the NFL’s WORST franchises, posting ELEVEN seasons with double-digit losses between 2008 and 2021. Prior to his arrival, they had selected first overall in each of the 2021 and 2022 NFL Drafts, which should you give you a sound idea as to how poor they were, with the unmitigated disaster that was Urban Meyer’s brief reign of terror serving as rock bottom for the franchise. However, (Owner) Shahid Khan finally got it right with the hiring of Pederson (pictured above), who immediately brought a sense of professionalism and credibility to the organization, taking the talent on hand and cultivating it in rather short order. Of course, when you’re picking in the top-10 of the draft year after year, you’re bound to end up with talented players, with Pederson and his coaching staff proving adept at coaching them up. Remember, this is the guy that built the Eagles into a Super Bowl champion back in 2017 and developed Carson Wentz into an MVP candidate that same year, before eventually pivoting to (journeyman) Nick Foles to lead them to Lombardi glory. He also dealt with a longstanding QB controversy between the two passers and relentless pressure from the fan base and the media, meaning that rebuilding the Jags in sleepy Northern Florida was to be a walk in the proverbial park. With that said, his return to the sidelines started SLOWLY for the 55-year-old, whose charges stumbled into their bye week with a disappointing 3-7 record, only to completely turn things around with six victories in their last seven games, earning them a division title and a home game against the Chargers in the playoffs. The wild 31-30 victory played out much like the regular season had, as Jacksonville rallied back from a 27-0 deficit in the first half to outscore the visitors 24-3 post intermission. When it was all said and done, this young team finished tenth overall in both points scored (23.8) and total offense (368.5), while ranking twelfth in points allowed (20.6) on the strength of twenty-seven takeaways, fifth-most in the league, en route to improving by a whopping SIX games, tied for the biggest improvement in the NFL alongside Detroit. As they embark on year two of their marriage together, Pederson will be looking to take the level of play that they exhibited over the final seven weeks and apply that to the whole of the campaign, while no doubt placing an emphasis on cutting down on their twenty-two turnovers (14th Overall), which oftentimes came in droves. Oh, and he’ll continue to serve as the guiding hand to the franchise’s crown jewel, Trevor Lawrence, who we’re about to touch upon in three, two, one…
The Evolution of Trevor Lawrence
Deemed as a generational talent when he was selected number one overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, Trevor Lawrence was expected to hit the ground running and immediately raise the Jaguars to a playoff-caliber side. Gifted with prototypical size, athleticism, and arm strength for the position, the Clemson product certainly looked the part, creating a buzz in Northern Florida that hadn’t been seen since the days of Mark Brunell, Fred Taylor, and Jimmy Smith. However, the aforementioned Meyer’s appointment to Head Coach served as a MAJOR setback for the franchise, including their Quarterback who looked like a complete train wreck during a very difficult rookie campaign. Simply put, Lawrence (pictured above) was anything but promising in 2021, completing 59.6% of his passes for an average of 214.2 yards per game on 5.37 net yards per attempt, with only twelve touchdowns in comparison to an NFL-worst seventeen interceptions, leading to a miserable QBR of 33.5. And it is with that said that there wasn’t a more appropriate hire to shepherd the growth of the 23-year-old passer than Pederson, a former Quarterback himself, who has routinely earned high marks for his work coaching the position. In his first season under the skipper, Lawrence showed marked improvement across the board, completing 66.3% of his passes for an average of 241.9 yards on 6.43 net yards per attempt, with twenty-five touchdowns opposed to just eight interceptions, equating to a far more palatable QBR of 54.5. Furthermore, his play after the bye week was seriously promising, as he completed 67.8% of his throws for 254.1 yards on 7.21 net yards per attempt, with twelve touchdowns and only two interceptions. Credit the coaching staff for cleaning up his mechanics, evidenced in a sharp decrease in “bad throws” (15.0%, down from 20.5%), while sporting a solid increase in throws on target (76.1%, up from 71.3%). Now, where this kid can REALLY make a leap in this, his third season, which is where most Quarterbacks show serious growth, is in his decision-making; Lawrence cut down his interceptions from seventeen as a rookie to eight as a sophomore, though still offered a few stinkers, including a pair of two-interception performances in losses to the Texans (6-13) and Broncos (17-21), along with four lost fumbles in a 21-29 defeat at the Eagles. Oh, and then there was that aforementioned win over the Chargers in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, in which he was picked off FOUR times in the first half before turning things around with that late rally with four touchdowns. Fortunately for all parties involved, these issues are completely correctable, which means another season of growth for Lawrence could see the Jags enter the realm of contenders in the stacked AFC.
Making the Leap
As we stated earlier, when you’ve been as bad as the Jaguars have over the last fifteen years, then you’ve been frequently picking early in the NFL Draft, which also means that you should be getting some fairly talented players. (General Manager) Trent Baalke has a long history of doing serious work in the Draft, unearthing a plethora of prospects that have in turn been developed into good (and sometimes great) players. We saw what Pederson, (Offensive Coordinator) Press Taylor, and (Defensive Coordinator) Mike Caldwell were able to do in their first year together in Jacksonville, and now it is time to see what they can do with another offseason of teaching. Of their twenty-two turnovers, the Jags lost the third-most fumbles in the league (13), while routinely struggling in defending the pass, yielding 238.5 yards per game (28th Overall) on 6.4 net yards per attempt (23rd Overall). However, they really struggled on the situational front, permitting success rates of 43.2% on third down (29th Overall) and 59.6% in the red zone (24th Overall). Teaching better ball security shouldn’t be an issue, though it will likely take continued growth from a few particular performers on the defensive side of the football to solve their woes. First and foremost, big things are expected of the second of their consecutive number one overall picks, (Edge-Rusher) Travon Walker, who turned in a rather uneven rookie campaign. Walker (pictured above) made the transition to largely playing with his hands in the dirt to being an Outside Linebacker in Caldwell’s 3-4/4-3 hybrid front, amassing forty-nine tackles (five for loss), ten QB hits, twenty-one pressures and 3.5 sacks, along with an interception and a forced fumble apiece. Checking in at an athletic 6′-5″, 275 pounds, this guy has the chops to become much more of a pass-rushing presence within this scheme, akin to the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul or Shaq Barrett from Caldwell’s time with the Buccaneers, and when that happens, the unit as a whole can reach another level. Meanwhile, (Sophomore Linebacker) Devin Lloyd, (third-year Safety) Andre Cisco, and (third-year Cornerback) Tyson Campbell each logged three interceptions, while combining for thirty-three passes defended. Another year in Caldwell’s system should see these guys thinking less and reacting quicker, which could really push the team forward, particularly as they face an AFC South that features each of their three neighbors blooding rookie Quarterbacks at some point.
Projected Finish: 10-7
After improving by not only six wins, but winning a playoff game to boot and pushing the (eventual Super Bowl Champion) Chiefs in the Division Round, the Jaguars’ success is justifiably translating into raised expectations for this Fall. As many of us expected, Pederson & Co were indeed the right hire for this long floundering franchise, and the fact that he managed to whip them into shape so quickly is hardly surprising. There is a wealth of talent on this team that was simply waiting to be tapped into, and if they can continue to grow moving forward then there is no reason to believe that Jacksonville won’t be retaining their division crown in 2023. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the football, but fortunately for these cats, the rest of their competition in the AFC South appears to be lacking, with the Texans, Colts, and Titans all breaking in rookie Quarterbacks, with the former two starting completely over with new coaching staffs. The question that remains is this: can the Jags improve enough to compete on the level of the AFC’s elite? We’ll have to wait and find out…