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Exit Interview: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags went from AFC runners-up to back to the dregs of their division in less than a year. What can Jacksonville do to right this ship? (Hint: It starts at QB.)

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were eliminated from playoff contention on Thursday with a 30-9 drubbing at the hands of the Titans.

What Went Wrong

The Short Version:

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Long Version:

Bortles was the main ingredient, but a lot of other things also went wrong. A season after nearly beating the Patriots in the AFC championship game, Jacksonville entered 2018 with Super Bowl ambitions. Instead, the (Bortles-less) Jaguars were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs after the Titans crushed them 30-9 on Thursday night, ending their season and sending the cap-strapped team looking to 2019. Running back Leonard Fournette missed six weeks with a hamstring injury (and missed a seventh game with a suspension after leaving the bench to throw a punch), center Brandon Linder and guard Andrew Norwell are on IR, and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was fired. Firing Hackett seemed harsh considering how much magic he created during Jacksonville’s playoff run last year, but the decline in Jacksonville’s offense in 2018 was startling. Here’s Jacksonville’s 2017 ranking in various offensive categories compared to their standing in 2018 (2018 stats are through Week 13).

Jacksonville Offensive Rankings, 2017 vs. 2018

Year Points per Game Yards per Game Rushing Yards Turnovers Starting Field Position
Year Points per Game Yards per Game Rushing Yards Turnovers Starting Field Position
2017 5th (26.1) 6th (366) 1st (141) 21st (23) 12th (29.2)
2018 30th (16.9) 24th (335) 18th (111) 28th (23) 27 (26.9)

Jacksonville significantly regressed in every offensive area. Their defense also regressed, but not nearly to the same degree as the offense.

Jaguars Defense, 2017 vs. 2018

Year Points Allowed Per Game Yards Allowed per Game Defensive DVOA Pass Defense DVOA Third-Down Conversions Allowed Turnovers Sacks
Year Points Allowed Per Game Yards Allowed per Game Defensive DVOA Pass Defense DVOA Third-Down Conversions Allowed Turnovers Sacks
2017 2nd (16.8) 2nd (286.1) 1st 1st 4th (33.6%) 2nd (33) 2nd (55)
2018 5th (20.3) 3rd (315.6) 5th 6th 6th (36.3%) 21st (13) 27th (24)

To explain why Jacksonville’s 2018 unraveled, we have to first shed some light on why their 2017 was such a stunning success. As Andrew Potter pointed out in the Football Outsiders Almanac, Jacksonville led the NFL in offensive DVOA in the first quarter of games in 2017, but was 21st for the other three quarters. The Jaguars often started with points on the board and that created a domino effect that played perfectly into their roster construction. By getting the lead early, Jacksonville created the following of chain of events:

  1. The Jaguars forced opposing offenses to throw the ball to catch up, which ...
  2. Allowed pass rushers Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue to wreak havoc, which ...
  3. Made quarterbacks chuck the ball downfield into the teeth of the Jaguars’ talented secondary, which ...
  4. Allowed Leonard Fournette to kill the clock, which ...
  5. Meant Blake Bortles didn’t have to do anything.

That strategy is why the Jaguars went 10-2 in the 12 games they scored first in 2017 and 2-5 in the seven games they didn’t. The Jags are built to protect leads, but struggle to come from behind (largely because of Bortles).

This year, the Jaguars didn’t have the same luck grabbing the lead in the first quarter; they have scored first in six of their 13 games. That transformed them from a team that hid Bortles into a team that needed him to win games. Unsurprisingly, their season fell apart. They are 4-2 in games they scored first and 0-7 in games their opponent scored first.

What Went Right

The positive spin to put on this year is that their players are still just as good. The defense stayed relatively healthy in 2018 after a near-sterling health record in 2017, and despite some brutal performances on the box score, the unit is largely the same as last season. (Yes, they were gashed by Derrick Henry on Thursday night, but last year’s unit was 27th in rushing defense DVOA.) Benching Bortles was too little too late for this season, but late is still better than never. The Jags proved this year that their defense is still legit enough that a competent quarterback would make them an instant Super Bowl contender.

Free Agency

Some teams have a lot of cap space in 2019 (the division rival Colts have more than $123 million), some teams have barely any (the Vikings have just $8 million), and some have less than nothing. The Eagles and the Jaguars each have roughly negative $12 million in available cap space in 2019, according to Spotrac. The Eagles screwed up their cap to win a Super Bowl, which is the best excuse, but the Jaguars screwed up their cap while building around Bortles and one of the most expensive position groups ever constructed. Now the team’s offseason will revolve around salvaging that win-now roster.

Ideally the Jaguars could add a veteran quarterback who gets released from their current team (Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston, and Derek Carr are all candidates). But if any of those players become available, paying them is going to be a huge problem. The easiest option to create some money is to release defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, whom the team traded a fifth-round pick for leading up to last year’s trade deadline. Dareus is owed more than $30 million over the next three seasons, but none of that money is guaranteed, so releasing the run-stopper after a pass-heavy 2018 season to save $10.6 million in cap next year looks like a no-brainer. Safety Barry Church is also a candidate to get released with no guaranteed money left and a $6.25 million cap hit in 2019. (Jacksonville can also shuffle around enough cap money with contract restructuring, possibly with defensive end Calais Campbell.)

The more interesting choice is what the team does with Bortles. If they release him, the team would save $4.5 million and eat $16.5 million in dead cap space, which would be the biggest dead-money figure paid to a player in NFL history. But if the team trades Bortles before June, Jacksonville has a better option: eating $10 million in dead cap and saving $11 million. I know what you’re thinking: What team would trade for Blake Bortles? The answer is nobody, which is why Jacksonville would have to include a draft pick for another team to take him off of their hands. It would be similar to when the Texans traded second- and sixth-round picks plus Brock Osweiler to the Browns for a fourth-round pick. The move would be an addition by subtraction and could give them some cap flexibility to sign a handful of contributors, such as replacements for running backs T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant and wide receiver Donte Moncrief, all of whom are likely to leave in free agency.

Still, Jacksonville can only do so much with their finances outside of hiring Andy Dufresne. If they want to add a Manning or a Flacco, it would likely require that player taking a pay cut to get a guaranteed starting gig.

Draft Targets

Jacksonville is set for a top-10 pick, and using it on any position except quarterback would be continuing to ignore the elephant in the room. They don’t have a starting-caliber QB on the roster and likely won’t have enough free agency money to sign a decent quarterback (the decision to pass on trading for Tyrod Taylor or signing Teddy Bridgewater last year looms large). Jacksonville’s only competition for a quarterback is the Giants and the Raiders, so the team could easily end up with West Virginia’s Will Grier, Oregon’s Justin Herbert (if he declares for the draft), or Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (ditto). All of them would be a better win-now option than Bortles or Cody Kessler, and each could offer the team a piece to build around for the next decade. It’s rare for a team’s short-term priorities to align with its long-term needs, and even rarer for that solution to be cheap enough to fit into the league’s worst cap situation. Now they just need not to screw it up.