The only thing you need to see to understand Blake Bortles’s performance Sunday is this pass:
Sometimes Bortles is in the Good Place. Sometimes he’s in the Bad Place. Against the Chiefs, he completed 33 of 61 passes for 430 yards, one passing touchdown, and a whopping four interceptions, good for a passer rating of 54.7 in a 30-14 loss. There’s no shame in losing to the now-5-0 Chiefs, but performing that poorly against what is arguably the softest defense in football is a massive indictment of Bortles and the Jags offense. If they can’t move the ball against the Chiefs, what will they do against defenses that are actually good?
The Jaguars can beat anyone when Bortles is on his game. The problem is that, like in this game, he usually isn’t. Since he was drafted in 2014, Bortles has the most interceptions of any player, highest interception percentage, lowest passer rating, lowest adjusted net yards per attempt, and second-lowest touchdown percentage (minimum 50 starts).
Bortles’s performance on Sunday highlights a sobering truth for Jags fans: He probably shouldn’t be a starting quarterback. As Jacksonville fields a loaded defense—one that held future-GOAT Patrick Mahomes II to zero passing touchdowns and two interceptions—it’s clear that Bortles is holding a should-be Super Bowl contender back. And that raises a prominent question: Why the hell didn’t the Jags replace this guy this offseason?
The answer to that is somewhat complicated—especially since Bortles’s $19 million fifth-year option would have become guaranteed if he couldn’t pass a physical after wrist surgery that offseason. And there is a certain logic to sticking to a QB on a cheap deal when the Jags clearly want to win through their defense. Yet as Sunday showed, the Jags will need to upgrade at QB to take another step forward; remember, this past offseason presented more quarterback options than virtually any other in history and the Jags didn’t even explore them. The team handed Bortles a three-year, $54 million deal on February 24, well before free agency began on March 14. That deal essentially locked the team into Bortles as the team’s QB for 2019, especially because the Jags didn’t draft a highly touted quarterback and used their cap space to sign wideout Donte Moncrief (one year, $9.6 million) and guard Andrew Norwell (five years, $66.5 million) in free agency.
It didn’t have to be like this. Here are the options the Jaguars passed up to stick with one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL:
The Big Fish: Kirk Cousins
The Vikings dumped three promising QBs in Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and Teddy Bridgewater to sign Cousins to a fully guaranteed deal, which represents how much the Vikings coveted a Pro Bowl–level QB entering his age-30 season. Yet the Jags showed almost no interest. While there were a few quiet rumors that the team was interested in Cousins, they came only in the form of dubious speculation from local radio stations.
It would have been extremely difficult for the Jags to fit Cousins under the salary cap (the team currently has around $10 million in space), but there were ways to get Cousins on the team. In the three weeks between when the Jags extended Bortles and when free agency opened in mid-March, Bortles may have passed a physical (he was already throwing before they signed him to the extension), which would have allowed Jacksonville to cut him, opening up more than enough space to send a competitive offer to Cousins. In signing Bortles so early, the Jags didn’t give that a chance to materialize.
The Surprise Trade Target: Alex Smith
Similar to grabbing Cousins, acquiring Smith would have put a major strain on the Jags’ salary cap. Still, whereas Washington’s trade for Smith seemed baffling, it would have made much more sense for the Jags. Smith has a long history of playing efficient—if a bit conservative—football. He rarely commits turnovers or makes the kind of bone-headed plays Bortles does almost every Sunday. That would make him the perfect fit on a team building around its defense and running game and that was just one throw away from a Super Bowl appearance.
An Efficient Free-Agency Option: Case Keenum
Keenum threw 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year, helping guide a team with an excellent defense and running game to his conference’s championship game. Sound like any other teams? Keenum got a two-year deal with $25 million guaranteed from Denver, making him relatively affordable for the Jags even after they extended Bortles.
Then again, Keenum has been remarkably less efficient this year in Denver, throwing seven interceptions and just five touchdowns. Maybe it’s best for the Jags that they passed here—there’s nothing worse than paying two mediocre QBs.
A Potential First-Round Pick: Lamar Jackson
There is no more valuable asset in the NFL than a quarterback on a rookie contract. The Jags know this firsthand—Bortles’s rookie deal gave the team the space to build their incredibly expensive defense. The Jags picked 29th in April’s draft, and they took defensive tackle Taven Bryan, who has six tackles through five games—they could have taken Jackson, who went three picks later. Jackson hasn’t earned the starting job in Baltimore yet, and Bryan may turn into a great player, but it’s still puzzling that the Jags used their 2018 first-round to bolster a position they were already strong at. Taking Jackson could have given the team a higher ceiling not only in 2018, but allowed the Jags to continue building a high-priced roster around a cheap QB years into the future.
The One Who Got Away Twice: Teddy Bridgewater
The Jets signed Bridgewater to a cheap $6 million deal that would have ballooned to $15 million with incentives. This is a deal the Jags could have afforded.
Once Bridgewater began tearing it up for the Jets in the preseason, the Jags had another chance to nab him, as New York made it clear it was open to trade offers. The Saints ended up getting Bridgewater for just a third-round pick. Based on the way he played in the preseason, this should have been a no-brainer for the Jags. Bridgewater looked like an NFL starter in the preseason, and instead of playing for a contender like the Jags, he’s sitting behind Drew Brees in New Orleans.
Not all of these quarterback options would have been good ones, as we’ve found out in the first few weeks of this season. And even some of the good passers would have required the Jags to jump through hoops just to work out the salary cap dynamics—potentially causing Jacksonville to radically change the team-building principles that have allowed them to build a contender.
Yet virtually any quarterback would have offered a higher ceiling than Bortles. At the very least, a different QB would have given the team another option. The Jaguars’ backup QB is Cody Kessler—who struggled mightily in his time with the Browns. When Bortles is playing poorly, the team doesn’t even have anyone else to turn to.
Bortles isn’t the answer for a Super Bowl contender—eventually, the Jaguars will have to try to upgrade the quarterback position. When they do, it’s highly unlikely they’ll have as many options as they would have this past offseason.