The Jacksonville Jaguars are 1-2. They lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, which was kinda predictable, and they lost to the Houston Texans, which was a bit harder to see coming. Both losses have been at home, and both have come with underwhelming offensive performances. The Jags totaled nine points in 11 drives against Kansas City and 17 points in 10 meaningful drives against a Texans defense that had previously surrendered 25 and 31.
This is a frustrating start for the team that went on a 7-2 run to finish the 2022 regular season and was a substantial preseason favorite to win its division. It’s a frustrating start for Trevor Lawrence, who began the season at the sixth spot in our QB Rankings.
So, how concerned should we be? In response, I’d like to show you a cutup of every single Lawrence pass attempt to the end zone over his past two games.
This is silly stuff. A couple of defensive pass interference flags, a couple of suboptimal throws, but mostly a bunch of near misses. Drops and receivers landing out of bounds. In fact, the Jaguars have lost more expected points on drops this season than any other team—and that doesn’t even include the failed catches along the end line.
The Jaguars’ early-season struggles have been, largely, nonsense. They’ve lost the fourth-most expected points from offensive turnovers, and three of their five total turnovers have been fumbles. They’re 5-for-7 on field goals (tied for the fifth-worst percentage leaguewide). And, critically, their performance on late downs is dragging their offense into the muck.
Here’s every team’s success rate this season, organized by down. On first down, the Jaguars are the eighth-best offense; on third down, they’re the fifth worst.
You know what makes this even worse? The Jaguars have faced the league’s shortest third downs this season—they’ve averaged 5.7 yards to go. And yet they cannot buy a conversion.
It’s not like fourth downs are coming to save them, either. The Jaguars have attempted six fourth-down conversions (tied for the league lead) and converted on just one (not the league worst, but still about as bad as you can get). If you look at series conversion rate—a metric that asks, “What percentage of a team’s fresh sets of downs become a new first-and-10 or a touchdown?”—the Jaguars are 24th.
Third downs, like turnovers and fumbles and drops and failed catches against the end line, tend to be noisy. Terrible one week and then much better the next week. It’s pretty easy to say, “The Jaguars have been unlucky on third downs through the first three weeks of the season, but it’s a small sample, and they will regress to the mean, and the offense will be fine.” End the article. Good times.
But there’s a lot more going on with the Jaguars than that. The Jaguars will be fine because they have a good quarterback in Lawrence, who’s still playing great ball despite the shaky statistical start. But the concern is that the Jaguars might not ever be better than fine, and they might struggle to pull themselves out of this early-season tailspin, because outside of Lawrence, they don’t have much.
Let’s walk through what the plans were. The big boost for this year’s team was supposed to be wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Ridley has looked good, but a year off from professional football comes with a coating of rust. Ridley had two drops and two false starts against the Texans; head coach Doug Pederson advised him this week to “just be Calvin.”
Ridley isn’t the only new thing on offense. Just before the season opener, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Pederson had handed over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Press Taylor. Taylor, a longtime offensive assistant of Pederson’s in Philadelphia and then in Jacksonville, had experience calling plays in the second halves of some games last season. But this year, it wouldn’t be short bursts of play-calling later in games, with his boss over his shoulder: Taylor would have the reins.
Well, that change puts some of the offensive hiccups under heavier scrutiny. Poor third-down performance under Pederson is definitely noise; poor third-down performance under Taylor might mean something. There was buzz in Jacksonville this week that Pederson took play-calling back from Taylor during the second half of the Texans game, when the Jaguars scored on three of their first four drives out of the locker room. It was a rumor that Pederson immediately shot down, but if the offense continues to struggle, then the question will persist.
How about more Pederson press conference highlights? Watch him try to respond to a question about the Jaguars pass rush on Sunday against Houston:
Pederson asked about the pass-rush. 0 sacks today against a banged up OL and rookie QB. About as pointed of a response as I've seen from him after a game when you consider how long the answer took pic.twitter.com/40irJDKa2W— John Shipley (@_John_Shipley) September 24, 2023
Pederson is right to be a bit flummoxed. Considering both draft capital and spending, the Jaguars have poured as many resources into their defensive line as any other team. Three homegrown first-round edge rushers (K’Lavon Chaisson, Josh Allen, Travon Walker) took snaps on Sunday—and, according to TruMedia, the trio combined for just six pressures on Houston’s rookie quarterback.
Perhaps the biggest concern is Walker, last year’s no. 1 pick, who simply has not developed into the player the team was hoping to see by Year 2. Compare Walker with the player who went directly after him: pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson, now a Detroit Lion.
Travon Walker and Aiden Hutchinson's splits as an interior (0-4i technique) vs outside (4-9) pass rusher pic.twitter.com/2tq1GBgNCu— Gus Logue (@gus_logue) September 26, 2023
That little pressure from that many first-round picks is pretty bad. Sadly, Walker is not alone as a miss on a defensive roster largely built by general manager Trent Baalke; he’s just the most egregious one. Their current starters along the interior—Roy Robertson-Harris and Foley Fatukasi—are free agents signed by Baalke. At linebacker: Foyesade Oluokun was a marquee free agent signing, Devin Lloyd was a first-round draft selection last year, and Chad Muma was selected a couple of rounds later. All three are struggling mightily this season. At corner: Darious Williams, a Baalke signing, lines up opposite Tyson Campbell, a Baalke draft pick. At safety: Rayshawn Jenkins, a Baalke signing, lines up opposite Andre Cisco, a Baalke draft pick.
There are some good players in that bunch, namely Campbell, Cisco, and Robertson-Harris. The defense hasn’t necessarily been a problem or a liability. But there really aren’t any impact defenders. The same can be said on the offensive side of the ball, where there are young players and good players but a worrying lack of true needle movers. If the best player on the Jaguars is Lawrence, who is the second-best player? Is it Ridley, who is still trying to prove he retained the form of a top-10 receiver? Or Allen, who is maybe a top-15 edge rusher? When Lawrence’s offense stops working for whatever reason—third-down high jinks, unlucky fumbles, new play caller—who is around to pick up the slack?
It might be time to recalibrate our expectations for the Jaguars, a darling team down the homestretch of the 2022 season, a storybook hero that descended into the maw of the Urban Meyer era and came out alive. They were so fun to root for last season, up to and through one of the best playoff comebacks we’ve ever seen. It was grand, but it also got us a bit out over our skis in our 2023 expectations for Jacksonville. The thinking was that if you tossed Ridley in there, Travis Etienne Jr. got better, Lloyd got better, Walker got better, Cisco got better, three other young guys stepped up, and so on and so forth, the Jags would walk away with the AFC South.
Three games in, the reality is colder and a lot harsher. It’s pretty clear who is actually taking the leap among the second-tier AFC teams: The Dolphins are ready to race for the trophy. The Ravens look like they’re on the precipice of putting it together. And the Jaguars are just a little undermanned. They can’t get away with sloppy red zone performances, bad kickoff coverage, and some unlucky bounces. They don’t have the star power just yet.
That’s the bad news. The good news is this: The third-down stuff will improve. So will the fumble stuff and the special teams woes. Things will get a little easier in the margins. Lawrence will continue to outclass the other guys’ quarterbacks. Jacksonville will right the ship and win some games.
But the Jaguars want to be taken seriously not just in September, but also in January. To do that, they need those leaps from those young players. They need a pass rush that can disrupt a star quarterback on the opposite sideline. They need to have zero questions about the play caller’s ability. Jacksonville has the rest of the season to get its house in order before the real class of the AFC comes calling.