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The Jaguars Have an Easy Decision to Make. Now Comes the Hard Part.

How can Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer chart a new course in Jacksonville? 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you have at least a passing interest in football and access to cable television or the internet, you’re likely already aware that quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the by-miles favorite to be selected by Jacksonville with the first pick in the NFL draft, which begins Thursday night. In and of itself, this tells you something about Lawrence and his status: Like Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck, Lawrence is so obviously the top-rated quarterback in this year’s class that no one in the football universe has lifted a finger or dialed a friendly reporter in an attempt to create a sense of intrigue before the start of one of football’s annual entertainment jubilees. If the pick isn’t in by 8:01 p.m. ET on Thursday night, the Jaguars are just dragging things out.

Jacksonville, though, likely won’t want to wait an extra second to submit the card for Lawrence. Picking the Clemson quarterback with the no. 1 pick has been the dream scenario since the Jaguars cemented their status as last season’s worst-performing team. The opportunity to start anew with a generational prospect helped the Jaguars coax their preferred coach, Urban Meyer, out of retirement, and the tantalizing prospect of football kismet has Jacksonville’s leadership slipping into the language of cosmic destiny while attempting to play coy about their future quarterback.

“Well, the easiest way to answer that is ‘No negatives,’” Jacksonville general manager Trent Baalke said last week when asked about Lawrence. “All the research we’ve done, you’re always looking for the stars to align when you’re looking at prospects, whether that be from a physical, mental, character aspect, whatever the case may be. With his situation, like many others in this draft, the stars all align and that’s what you’re looking for.”

“I knew that this would be arguably the most important decision I’d be making, maybe in my lifetime,” team owner Shad Khan told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer. “How the stars aligned … it’s something that can really secure the future for the Jacksonville Jaguars.”

For their part, Jaguars fans are so preemptively excited they bought Lawrence and his now-wife Marissa a $300 toaster from their wedding registry. (The newlyweds responded with a donation to Jacksonville-area charities.)

In some ways, drafting Lawrence will feel like the end of a long journey. If you’ve seen any number of sports movies, you’re familiar with the basic contours of the anointed-quarterback narrative, but here are the specifics as they relate to Lawrence: He was a top college recruit by the time he was a sophomore at Cartersville High School, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. By the time he graduated in 2017, he’d thrown for a state-record 13,902 yards and 162 touchdowns, the Hurricanes had gone 52-2 with him as their starter, and the world’s first outdoor Coca-Cola sign was no longer the biggest attraction in town. In three seasons at Clemson, Lawrence went 34-2 as a starter, helped the Tigers beat Alabama in the national championship game as a freshman, and grew to 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, his current measurements.

In other ways, drafting the 21-year-old Lawrence is the start of another journey that may not have such a smooth trajectory. The Jaguars are hoping Lawrence solves one of the biggest, most important challenges in sports—finding a franchise quarterback. There are, however, many more challenges to come in the form of filling roster holes, assimilating a new coaching staff, and overturning years of organizational failures. Jacksonville has never had a chance to draft a player like Lawrence before, but its track record of hitting on high-value draft picks is abysmal. Jacksonville is 64-144 since 2008, despite having picked in the top 10 of the draft in all but one of those seasons.

Quarterbacks taken no. 1 have a checkered history, too. In the past half century, only three—John Elway, Troy Aikman, and Peyton Manning—have led the teams that drafted them to Super Bowl wins and made the Hall of Fame. (Eli Manning may become the fourth.) That’s in large part because the circumstances required to get the no. 1 pick are generally not ideal. Without the right infrastructure, even the best quarterback prospects can wind up seeming like, well, a $300 toaster—a shiny and high-quality appliance, but not sufficient to make a meal with. Lawrence will not solve all of the roster and organizational problems that contributed to Jacksonville’s winning one game in 2020; he can be the main ingredient, but the Jaguars will maximize their investment only by finding the right elements to go with him and combining them effectively.

That process began in free agency. The Jaguars entered it with the most salary cap room of any team and signed 27 free agents, including presumptive starters like cornerback Shaquill Griffin, defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris, and wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. It continues once the Lawrence selection is made. The Jaguars have 10 total picks in the draft, including five in the top 100, and the value added with those selections will have a lot to do with how the selection of Lawrence ends up working out.

“We have to add immediate value to our team,” Meyer said last week. “That’s the way Trent, myself, and our coaching staff look at it. That’s how important these picks are, so we’re looking at these picks to make instant impact, especially those first four picks.”

The Jaguars had the youngest roster in the NFL last season and could again this year. They have talented skill-position players like wide receivers Laviska Shenault Jr., DJ Chark, and Jones Jr., and a solid interior offensive line anchored by center Brandon Linder and left guard Andrew Norwell, though both Norwell and right guard A.J. Cann are a year away from free agency. Jacksonville has two young starting tackles with Cam Robinson on the left and Jawaan Taylor on the right, but both struggled last year. They need additional help at tight end even after re-signing James O’Shaughnessy. A true slot receiver would be nice too. Last year’s 31st-ranked defense by DVOA has a couple building blocks like defensive end Josh Allen and linebacker Myles Jack, and Jacksonville added some solid starters like Griffin, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, and safety Rayshawn Jenkins. Still, they need more talent—an interior defensive lineman with pass-rush ability and a slot corner or safety who covers well in short areas are areas of need.

There’s also the matter of Meyer’s adjustment to coaching in the NFL. Meyer has had an exceptional career, including three national championships at Florida and Ohio State, but is known for an obsessive, demanding style that can be grating on players, coworkers, and even himself. How that style will mesh with professional players—and in an NFL environment where coaches share authority with personnel departments and report to ownership—remains to be seen.

The major challenge Lawrence (and Meyer, for that matter) will have to contend with in the NFL is that he’ll likely lose a lot more than he’s accustomed to—Lawrence has been one in several million for a long time, but he’s about to have a new set of peers, and greater expectations than any of the other quarterbacks Jacksonville has cycled through in recent memory, a list that includes Mike Glennon, Jake Luton, Gardner Minshew, Nick Foles, Cody Kessler, Blake Bortles, Chad Henne, Blaine Gabbert, Luke McCown, Trent Edwards, Todd Bouman, and David Garrard, for those keeping score. There’s evidence Lawrence may be, temperamentally, a good fit for this challenge. He is known as an even-keeled person and player who’s driven by the desire to be his best more than an obsessive need to win at all times.

“Cool, calm, collected” is how Trevor’s Clemson teammate running back Travis Etienne described him. “It trickles down to everybody else. When you see a quarterback have everything under control, he’s not in his head space, has a clear mind. It allows everyone else around him to play free.”

Earlier this month, Lawrence got swept up in a mini-controversy when he told Sports Illustrated, essentially, that he’s more internally motivated than externally motivated.

“I don’t have this huge chip on my shoulder that everyone’s out to get me and I’m trying to prove everybody wrong,” he said. “I just don’t have that. I can’t manufacture that. I don’t want to.”

Ignore, for a moment, the manufactured outrage over an exceptionally accomplished athlete’s drive, a controversy of epically silly proportions. Really, how could Lawrence feel any other way? When would he even have had an opportunity to prove everybody wrong? Who was there, trying to take a chip out of his shoulder in the first place? It feels safe, at this point, to say, “Welcome to Jacksonville, Trevor Lawrence. Enjoy the toaster. Now it’s time to prove everybody right.”