It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, 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 saw their playoff hopes vanquished in a blowout loss to the Chargers on Sunday.
What Went Right
Gardner Minshew II was a revelation—at least for a time. When Nick Foles was injured in the first quarter of the first game of the season, it looked like Jacksonville was in for a long year. To replace him, the team turned to a sixth-round rookie out of Washington State who looked like he should be working at a laundromat … yet Minshew delivered. In his first eight games under center, Minshew threw for nearly 2,000 yards while notching 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and the Jags went 4-4 in that stretch.
In particular, Minshew impressed with his accuracy and ability to move around in the pocket and turn broken plays into crucial gains. He doesn’t have a big arm or tantalizing physical tools, but Minshew regularly showed the poise and, well, chutzpah that Jaguars fans have been waiting for. It’s a cliché, but there are some skills you just can’t coach:
THE MINSHEW MAGIC IS REAL.— NFL (@NFL) September 29, 2019
He avoids the sack multiple times and throws for the TD! @GardnerMinshew5 #JAXvsDEN #DUUUVAL
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/lm0vvtP8ei pic.twitter.com/WeJVm6WQaI
Minshew went back to the bench when Foles returned (we’ll get to him) and since coming back in Week 13, hasn’t shown the same magic he did early in the year. It may be that the Minshew who took over the spotlight in the first half of the NFL season was just a flash in the pan—but just the prospect of finding out is exciting. In the final three weeks the Jags will continue to evaluate their surprising late-round rookie, and they’ll likely want to see how he develops going into 2020, too. If Minshew doesn’t work out, there’s no harm done. But if Minshew Mania returns—and sticks—next year, the Jags will feel like they’ve won the lottery.
What Went Wrong
The other quarterback on the roster did not have the same luck. After returning from his collarbone injury, Foles was ineffective in his next three games as a starter, and the Jaguars watched their slim playoff hopes slip away with their high-priced free-agent acquisition under center. Foles’s statline as a Jag is underwhelming, to say the least: he completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 736 yards (6.3 per attempt), three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Foles doesn’t have enough pass attempts to qualify for ESPN’s QBR leaderboard, but his 32.8 QBR would be tied for last in the league with Mason Rudolph if he did qualify. The Foles signing is officially a bust.
But the Jaguars’ problems run far deeper than who is under center. Jacksonville is the first team to lose five games by 17 points or more since 1986, and that takes a collapse on all fronts. The team ranks in the bottom third of the league in both offensive and defensive DVOA—the ferocious 2017 defense that nearly launched the team to the Super Bowl has all but collapsed.
After a disappointing 2018, Jacksonville thought it could gloss over its problems by sending Blake Bortles off and signing Foles. But now it’s clear that the team needs a much more comprehensive overhaul. They’ve already begun that process by sending disgruntled corner Jalen Ramsey to the Rams for a haul of first-round picks.
The Jaguars have almost everyone on the roster locked up through at least 2020, with the one notable exception of Yannick Ngakoue. The defensive end made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and has been a key part of Jacksonville’s defense for four seasons now. The former third-round pick is reaching the end of his rookie deal and will be in line for a hefty raise.
The Jags are projected to have just $1.5 million in cap space next season, the third-least amount in the league. That’s partially due to Foles, whose cap hit will jump from $12 million this year to over $22 million next year. The Jags should look for a way to get out from under that number, but they’ll be hard-pressed to do so. Foles’s trade value is at an all-time low and the 2020 quarterback market is crowded. Jacksonville needs to remake its roster, but it won’t be able to do much in free agency. That brings us to ...
While the Jags don’t have much money in the bank, they have plenty of draft assets. The team has an extra first-round pick in 2020 thanks to the Ramsey trade with the Rams, and they’ll have the same luxury in 2021. If the team wants to tear the roster down to the studs and start over, now is the time to do it.
The Jags’ first pick should be in the top 10, while the Rams’ selection will likely fall around no. 20 (assuming L.A. misses out on the playoffs). From there, the Jags have all kinds of options: They could go after a quarterback if they don’t believe in Minshew, or bolster their defense or offense. The draft is the Jaguars’ oyster—they could use help everywhere, so a “best player available” draft strategy is what they’ll likely pursue.