The Jacksonville Jaguars are the second unwilling participant in the AFC South’s football experiment. While the Indianapolis Colts are trying to win with a great quarterback and nothing else, the Jaguars are trying to win with a terrible quarterback and everything else.
Despite a tumultuous preseason, the Jaguars named Blake Bortles their starting quarterback for Week 1. It seems unlikely that will last long given how poorly Bortles has played. Last season, he had a 49.2 QBR and ranked 24th among quarterbacks in DVOA. Bortles also threw 33 interceptable passes, per Cian Fahey’s charting, and had an abysmal 69.41 percent accuracy rate. Of course, it’s not as if Jacksonville has a strong replacement in the wings. Chad Henne hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2013 — a year in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. He’s also 32 years old, so there’s not much upside to starting him either. The only reason for doing so would be that Bortles is so terrible the Jaguars can no longer justify starting him. Unfortunately, that scenario is very much in play.
What makes the situation all the more frustrating is that Jacksonville has talent on offense. The Jags spent the fourth overall pick on running back Leonard Fournette, considered to be a potentially generational player. Fournette has awesome burst and acceleration. He can stay up after contact with an array of moves and take it to the house at any time. The LSU product displayed strong vision in a zone scheme at college and won’t have to do much adjusting in the NFL. The Jaguars were a zone-heavy team last year, which is unlikely to change after promoting Nathaniel Hackett to offensive coordinator from within the organization. Fournette isn’t much of a pass catcher, but the Jaguars will be content to go with T.J. Yeldon on third down. Yeldon caught 50-of-68 targets last season, though his yardage per reception could use some improvement. Durability was an issue for Fournette in college, but Yeldon and Chris Ivory — a former 1,000 yard rusher — are behind him on the depth chart.
At receiver, Allen Robinson feels like this generation’s Larry Fitzgerald: an insanely talented receiver without anybody to get him the ball. Robinson went for 883 yards last season on 73 receptions. Though he also had a 49 percent catch rate, that was more a result of Bortles’ accuracy than anything Robinson himself did.
Robinson isn’t the only strong receiver on this team either. Marqise Lee ranked inside the top-20 receivers in both DYAR and DVOA last season, going for 851 yards himself. Allen Hurns’ numbers dropped off last season, as he went for just 477 yards in 11 games. However, Hurns is only 25 and the third option in this offense. We saw him play well in 2015. If he stays healthy, Hurns could conceivably return to that level. Fourth-round pick Dede Westbrook should get some playing time as well.
Tight end is the only place on this receiving corps where the Jaguars may struggle to find production. Mychal Rivera had just 18 catches last season for 192 yards.
The Jaguars didn’t do much to improve an offensive line that ranked 27th in adjusted line yards last season. After the debacle surrounding left tackle Branden Albert’s retirement, it looks like the job belongs to second-round pick Cam Robinson. Robinson was one of the better linemen in a weak class this year. He’s a strong run blocker who can get up to the second level, but consistency is an issue. There are parts of his technique that need work, but the physical ability is very much there. Robinson ranked tenth in pass blocking efficiency last year, per PFF. But when it’s bad, it’s very bad. Whether he’ll be an effective tackle right away is very much unclear. Opposite him, Jermey Parnell had a decent 79.5 PFF grade last year. However, he also blew 20 blocks and allowed 5.5 sacks, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac. The guard positions are where Jacksonville will really struggle. Newly acquired left guard Earl Watford had a horrific 33.6 PFF grade last season. A.J. Cann, the right guard, had a comparatively great 65.8 PFF grade in 2016. However, that’s still a below-average grade. At center, Brandon Linder is the best player on this line. He blew just 10 blocks, per FOA, and ranked fifth among centers in PFF grading last year with an 86.0 mark.
Defensively, the Jaguars ranked 12th in DVOA last season and got markedly better during free agency. Defensive end Calais Campbell was probably the highest-profile acquisition they made during that period. Campbell had a 92.9 PFF grade last year, second among edge rushers. He also gives Jacksonville a reliable, veteran pass rusher to depend on as some of their younger players develop. Campbell had 8.0 sacks, 13 hits and 31 hurries last season, per FOA. He also averaged 1.9 rushing yards per tackle, per FOA, and had 45 stops. Across from him, expect Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. to share time. Ngakoue, a third round pick last year, came out of nowhere to be one of the team’s most productive pass rushers. He had 8.0 sacks, eight hits and 21 hurries in 2016, per FOA, in a role that saw him mostly play on passing downs. That role probably won’t change much this year as the Jaguars will want to give Fowler, whom they spent the third overall pick on in 2015, a chance to develop. In his rookie season — Fowler missed 2015 due to injury — Fowler had a solid 82 percent run stop rate. However, he largely fell flat as a pass rusher and had a 55.5 PFF grade. This year will be a real test to see whether Fowler eventually lives up to his potential.
On the interior, it’s pretty tough to beat the duo of Malik Jackson and Abry Jones. Jackson had a 90 percent run stop rate last year, which ranked ninth among defensive linemen, per FOA. He also posted 6.5 sacks, 12 hits and 29 hurries, per FOA, along with an 85.2 PFF grade. Jones will never be an especially well-known player because he isn’t a good pass rusher. But he did finish second among defensive linemen last year with a 93 percent run stop rate. With Sen’Derrick Marks gone, expect those two to get a large bulk of defensive tackle snaps.
At linebacker, Myles Jack is probably the most interesting player on this team. Jack was one of the most talented players in the 2016 draft, but injuries caused him to drop to the second round. He played just 239 snaps last year and put up decent numbers over a small sample. If Jack stays healthy, we could easily be talking about him as a star pretty soon, but that’s far from a guarantee. On either side of him, Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith were two of the best coverage linebackers in football last year. The two had success rates of 63 and 66 percent last season, per FOA, both ranking in the top-10. Posluszny also had an 87.8 PFF grade, which ranked fourth among linebackers, while Smith gave up just 5.2 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. Fifth rounder Blair Brown will probably get rotational snaps, but both Posluszny and Smith played over 1,000 snaps last year. If Jack stays healthy, this isn’t a position where Jacksonville is going to be shuttling guys in and out.
In the secondary, the Jaguars spent big money to bring in cornerback A.J. Bouye and strong safety Barry Church. Bouye was a breakout star last year, ranking second among corners with a 90.7 PFF grade. He also had an absurd 59 percent success rate and gave up just 6.4 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. As for Church, he was just outside the top-20 safeties in adjusted yards per target last year, allowing just 7.5 according to FOA. He’s also strong in run defense, with 6.0 average rushing yards per tackle, according to FOA, which ranked 23rd among safeties.
Across from Bouye on the outside, Jalen Ramsey looked like an absolute stud in his rookie year. He ranked 10th among corners with a 57 percent success rate and gave up just 6.4 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. For a rookie especially, that’s pretty amazing. Ramsey had strong pedigree coming out of Florida State — after all, he was the fifth overall pick in the draft — but he didn’t just live up to the expectation, he smashed it.
Nickel back Aaron Colvin had a 54 percent success rate last year, per FOA, along with a 77.1 PFF grade. Next to Church at safety, Tashaun Gipson struggled last season. He had a 68.8 PFF grade along with a terrible 28 percent success rate, per FOA. It’s also worth noting that there isn’t much depth in the secondary after Prince Amulamara, Jonathan Cyprien and Davon House all left. Seventh-round pick Jalen Myrick might be the next man up, which is a little alarming. But if everyone stays healthy, it’s going to be really hard to throw on the Jaguars.
Jacksonville has a good enough roster to win. It just doesn’t have a good enough quarterback. It’s not as if the Jags need Tom Brady either — insert Alex Smith, or even Colin Kaepernick, into this offense and the Jaguars could easily contend for the AFC South. As long as Bortles is there, however, Jacksonville will be frustratingly bad.
If you would like to learn more about the advanced stats we used, check out FootballOutsiders.com, which is largely free, or ProFootballFocus.com which is not.