When news broke Saturday that the Jaguars had signed quarterback Blake Bortles to a three-year extension, ridicule inevitably followed. To many, the default reaction to any Bortles-related developments is mockery and a pithy one-liner. In most scenarios, there’s an appropriate Jason Mendoza GIF.
I took a quick jab of my own after seeing the report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Jacksonville had given Bortles a three-year, $54 million deal. In a vacuum, the notion that Bortles can get a second contract with the team that drafted him borders on absurd. It also seems to fall in step with NFL teams’ maddening tendency to make the safest, least imaginative decisions at every turn.
The problem with this line of thinking, though, is that it ignores the context surrounding Bortles’s contract situation. Bortles came with a $19 million cap hit in 2018 after the Jaguars exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. His new deal contains $26.5 million in guaranteed money and drops his cap hit this season to $10 million. It’s easy to see why such a move would appeal to Jacksonville in the short term. Given the small fortune the franchise has handed out in free agency over the past few years, the Jags don’t have anything close to the amount of wiggle room they’re used to enjoying each offseason. Carrying Bortles at $19 million would have left Jacksonville with about $21 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap. Knocking $9 million off his 2018 price tag gives the front office about $30 million to work with before making any more cuts. The Jags came into this spring prioritizing financial flexibility, and that’s precisely what this extension provides. At a glance, extending Bortles may appear to limit Jacksonville’s precious Super Bowl window (a concept that would’ve seemed ridiculous even 12 months ago). Yet in vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin’s mind, this may be a way to maximize it.
That logic is understandable, although there’s still a ton to unpack. Let’s start with the potential wrench in all of this: the wrist surgery Bortles had in late January. Fifth-year options are fully guaranteed to players only in cases of injury, and if Bortles couldn’t pass a physical before the 2018 league year started on March 14, Jacksonville would have owed him every cent of that $19 million. There are recent reports that Bortles is already throwing in a limited capacity and could be medically cleared by early March, but there’s a chance that the Jags thought they were going to be on the hook for that hefty cap hit regardless of whether they wanted to cut ties with Bortles. Taking that into account, this deal makes more sense. For just $7.5 million more guaranteed, Jacksonville was able to free up resources in the short term in order to help stack its roster.
Coughlin’s most pressing issue in free agency now becomes filling out the Jaguars’ stable of pass catchers. Receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee are both unrestricted free agents. Running back Corey Grant, who lit up the Patriots with three catches for 59 yards in the AFC championship game, is a restricted free agent. Wideout Allen Hurns has no guaranteed money left on the (ill-advised) contract he signed in 2016; if the Jags cut him, they’ll have about $37 million with which to fill out the margins of their roster.
A central lesson of the 2017 NFL season was that lesser quarterbacks can thrive when placed in ideal circumstances. If the Jags believed they were saddled with Bortles’s cap hit in 2018 no matter how they chose to proceed, it follows that they’d want to do all they could to create those circumstances. Freeing up $9 million via this extension makes it more palatable to offer Robinson a one-year deal similar to the Eagles’ play for Alshon Jeffery last offseason. They can tender Grant at a level that ensures he doesn’t slip away, giving the offense a much-needed change of pace to Leonard Fournette and a backfield option who can conjure big plays on low-risk throws. On defense, slot corner Aaron Colvin is a free agent and needs to be replaced. The Jags have seen how far they can go when surrounding Bortles with the right pieces—namely, a flawless pass defense—and they’re doing all they can to stockpile as many of those pieces as possible.
The argument against this extension is that we’ve already seen Bortles in that enviable setting. If the logic rationalizing the deal centers on Bortles coming a game away from reaching the Super Bowl last season, it’s worth remembering that his play in the second half against New England was the primary culprit in Jacksonville blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and losing 24-20. The play of guys like Case Keenum and Nick Foles served as a reminder for teams not to give up on quarterbacks too early in their careers, but banking on improvements from the soon-to-be 26-year-old Bortles feels different. There will be no equivalent to escaping Jeff Fisher’s schematic hellscape. Coughlin, general manager Dave Caldwell, and head coach Doug Marrone were all just extended through 2021. We’ve already seen Bortles in this offense, and we’ve seen his limitations. No drastic changes are coming—only incremental ones based on shifting personnel.
It’s possible that Bortles will make strides in his second season with Marrone by virtue of having a receiver like Robinson (who tore his ACL in Week 1 of last season) at his disposal. That’d make the quarterback’s fairly reasonable price tag over the life of the deal a win for Jacksonville. It’s also possible that Bortles will either stagnate or regress, and that’s where the real cost of this extension could start to creep in.
To drop Bortles’s cap number this season to $10 million, the Jaguars reportedly gave him a $5 million base salary and a $15 million signing bonus ($5 million per year prorated over three years). That amounts to $20 million guaranteed in the first season of this deal, leaving $6.5 milion of guaranteed base salary next season. In the current quarterback climate, that seems like a low-risk move that’s worth the added flexibility it gives Jacksonville in 2018, but it’s not that simple. The guaranteed portion of Bortles’s base salary and $10 million of remaining bonus money mean that he would be owed $16.5 million in 2019 if he were to be cut next offseason. Jacksonville is all but locked into Bortles for next year, and without a renegotiation he’ll carry a cap hit of $21 million.
That price has consequences. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and linebacker Myles Jack both enter the final year of their rookie deals in 2019; the Jags will want to extend them. Right guard A.J. Cann will become a free agent next spring, and if the Jags choose to let him walk they’ll need to locate a replacement at that spot. As the salary cap continues to rise, it’s possible that the money allocated to Bortles in 2019 won’t prohibit the Jaguars from making their ideal combination of moves. Still, this extension ties them to another year of considerable financial responsibility for a quarterback they were close to benching six months ago.
If Bortles craters in 2018 and the Jaguars are forced to search for an answer at quarterback next spring, they may not have much recourse to find one. At the very least, they’ll have to pay Bortles $16.5 million to not play for them next season, which drastically limits how much they could spend on a free-agent replacement. With all the talent that this team has on defense, its floor is high enough that it likely won’t be in a favorable position to draft a quarterback in 2019 regardless of how Bortles fares. By signing him to this deal, the Jaguars have committed to him as the quarterback who will navigate them through their Super Bowl dreams for the next two years.
The Bortles extension is grounded in logic, and comes with less risk than it might seem. But even relatively low-risk moves have potential drawbacks. In this case, Jacksonville was willing to tie up future cap dollars in order to add to an already stacked roster this fall. The Jaguars are hoping to follow the Eagles’ lead and ride a complete team to a championship. They just have to hope that plan was worth the price.