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The Jaguars Still Have a Path to Relevancy—If They Play Their Cards Right

This offseason could be the difference between a full-scale teardown in Jacksonville and a trip back to the postseason in the not-so-distant future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In January 2018, the Jaguars were about a quarter away from playing in the Super Bowl. Two years later, they’re selling their roster off for parts. Tuesday’s AJ Bouye trade—which sent the high-priced cornerback to Denver in exchange for a fourth-round pick—is just the latest piece of the overhaul, and it probably won’t be the last. The gradual destruction of the 2017 Jaguars provides plenty of lessons about the danger of putting too much stock in a single 10-6 season, but it’s also a window into the type of franchise this has been in the past decade. Jacksonville lost double-digit games in eight of its past nine seasons. The team’s run to the AFC championship was more the exception than the rule.

Following last year’s disappointing 6-10 finish, there was speculation that head coach Doug Marrone would be fired. Marrone avoided the chopping block, but once again, the power structure in Jacksonville shifted. Former general manager David Caldwell, forced into the background for the past few seasons, replaced Tom Coughlin, who was let go in mid-December after a deluge of bad PR. With Caldwell back at the helm, the Jags once again find themselves scrambling to figure out what type of team they want to be—and how they will get there.

Before speculating about how that plan might unfold, let’s recap some of the moves Jacksonville has made since that AFC championship loss to New England in 2018. In an effort to wedge open a championship window that probably never existed in the first place, the team extended Blake Bortles to free up $10 million in cap space. When that move went down in flames during the 2018 season, Jacksonville responded by handing Nick Foles a four-year, $88 million deal (with $45 million guaranteed at signing)—presumably to preserve a championship window that still didn’t exist. Without many other QB-needy teams wading into the market, the Jags were probably bidding against themselves for Foles’s services. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported that Jacksonville felt the sizable deal was necessary to make it clear Foles was the “unquestioned starter.” Nine months later, the Jags benched their unquestioned starter—who’d already missed eight games with a broken collarbone—for a sixth-round rookie making $545,000.

The Jags’ penchant for allocating their financial resources to unworthy QBs and other outside free agents helped fuel a discord with cornerback Jalen Ramsey. That eventually led Jacksonville to send Ramsey to the Rams last season in exchange for two first-round picks. Ramsey seemed to delight in Tuesday’s Bouye trade, tweeting, “Free all my dawgs LOL” after his friend was dealt to Denver.

The next buddy on his way out could be defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who the Jags will reportedly give their franchise tag when the window opens on Thursday. Ngakoue tweeted last week that the Jaguars are aware he has no interest in signing a long-term deal in Jacksonville. This has become a theme. In less than five months, the Jags have lost a 25-year-old All-Pro corner and alienated a 24-year-old pass rusher with 37.5 sacks in four seasons. All this came on the heels of Telvin Smith deciding he’d prefer to sit out the 2019 season rather than play for Jacksonville. When someone on Twitter posited that Smith’s decision related to his mental health, the linebacker and renowned locker room leader said that was “false.”

Parsing why the Jaguars’ locker-room environment eroded gets complicated, but there’s no question that even outside of how the franchise spent its money, Jacksonville became a notoriously miserable place to play under Coughlin. The former Giants coach was fired in December shortly after the NFLPA released a statement describing the Jags attempts to fine players for not attending “mandatory” workouts during the offseason, which violates the current CBA. The statement noted that more than 25 percent of player grievances filed to the union since 2017 had come from Jacksonville—and that players should consider that when selecting their next team. Plenty of current and former Jaguars made their feelings about Coughlin and the situation known shortly after he was let go. Rams pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., who was fined more than $700,000 (!) for missing offseason appointments, went so far as to say the Jaguars “hated” him during his time there. The toxicity that pervaded the Coughlin era makes it difficult to remember the specifics of the animosity. Up until this week, I’d forgotten the Telvin Smith incident even happened.

The optics behind all the discontent certainly don’t look great, but this stuff also has practical consequences that could affect the Jags’ plans for this season and beyond. In terms of production and positional value, Ramsey and Ngakoue—who were drafted fifth and 69th, respectively, in 2016—are arguably the franchise’s two best draft picks in the past decade. There seems to be a strong chance neither will be on the roster when the 2020 season begins. If the Jags decide to deal Ngakoue after franchising him, they’ll likely get a decent haul in return. Seattle got a 2019 first and a 2020 second when it traded tagged pass rusher Frank Clark to Kansas City last year. Ngakoue’s pass-rushing production rivals what Clark accomplished in his first four seasons, and he’s two years younger than Clark was at the time he was traded. Dealing Ngakoue for a first-round pick would give Jacksonville three extra firsts in the next two drafts. That’s not a bad way to start a rebuild, but there are a few other elements for the Jags to consider as they continue to jettison good players to accrue draft picks.

The quarterback conundrum is probably next on the Jaguars’ agenda, and unfortunately, there are no attractive solutions. Releasing Foles would be devastating. Jacksonville would take on $33.9 million in dead money if it cut him before the season. Caldwell’s best hope is to wait out the looming leaguewide game of quarterback musical chairs and hope the team without a seat will trade for a late-round pick for Foles and his $15 million base salary. If not, Jacksonville may have to package a pick with Foles to get his onerous deal off the books. Keeping Foles at nearly $22 million in 2020 isn’t totally out of the question, but as the Jags try to retool the roster, their best bet is to hand Gardner Minshew the keys this season and claim they’re “evaluating him for the future.” And it’s hard to sell that to both the fan base and the locker room when a guy making about 40 times Minshew’s salary is standing on the sideline.

As they purge talent from their roster, the Jags have to decide how far they want to take this teardown. After trading Bouye, Calais Campbell would be the next logical candidate to be shipped out. Unlike Bouye—who had a down year in 2019 for a struggling Jags defense—Campbell is still playing at an All-Pro level. He’s also a famously great locker-room presence. Even at 33 years old and with a $15 million base salary in the final year of his deal, there will be absolutely be a market for his services.

Trading Campbell would send the message that the Jags are going Full Metal Dolphins and embracing the tank in 2020. There are benefits to freeing up cap space and collecting a war chest of picks as a team tries to rebuild, but think about how the league’s most recent successes have built their rosters. Rather than bottoming out, the Ravens traded up for Lamar Jackson in 2018 and found an MVP-caliber quarterback with the 32nd pick. Kansas City was a playoff team before trading up for Patrick Mahomes and turning into a true Super Bowl contender. And Houston made the postseason the year before trading up for Deshaun Watson.

It’s hard to overstate the impact a disastrous season has on an organization and young players. Trotting out Minshew and a depleted defense, going 4-12, and hoping to get into position to draft Trevor Lawrence makes sense on paper. But ownership has to contemplate how that plan would affect the development of second-year pass rusher Josh Allen, or the Jags’ ability to eventually retain promising young receiver DJ Chark. More nightmare seasons won’t help rebuild trust in an organization that’s been tarnished for years, and for this team to thrive, Jacksonville will have to eventually turn its homegrown draft hits into long-term building blocks.

No moves the Jags make this year will turn them into a contender, but there’s at least a route to relevancy: bring back Campbell to fortify the defense (and mentor younger players), spend modestly in free agency to fill a few holes, get some production from their two first-round picks, and hope that first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden can extract even more magic from Minshew. This formula can easily keep this team hovering around 8-8 this season. The Jags have two first-round picks in 2021 and are set to have more than $114 million in cap space next season. There isn’t a clear path to contention, but this team is positioned to trade up for its QB of the future next spring and use its cap flexibility to build the roster however the GM (Caldwell or otherwise) sees fit. A full teardown would just mean another brutal season for a franchise desperately trying to break a cycle filled with them.