Welcome back to our NFL season preview series. Over the course of August, we're taking a look at all 32 teams in the National Football League and how they look heading into the new season.
Last time out we previewed the Detroit Lions season. Matt Patricia's first season in charge projects to be a tough one in an improving division and facing a underrated schedule. The running game, which has long plagued the offense, seems to have gotten a boost this offseason though and Matthew Stafford should reap the benefits of that. You can read more on their chances for the season ahead here.
Today we're focusing on the UK's adopted home team; the Jacksonville Jaguars. Doug Marrone's squad fell just shy of a Super Bowl appearance last time out, narrowly losing out to Tom Brady and the Patriots in a closely fought AFC Championship game. The defense was elite on all three levels, and the running game with Leonard Fournette was strong. As with last year, much of their hopes in 2018 will hinge on the play of Blake Bortles at quarterback, so let's dive in and see how they're shaping up.
2017 was a breakthrough year for a roster that's brimming with high draft picks. After six straight years posting a record under .500, a 10-6 return was much needed in Jacksonville.
After years of bringing up the rear at the bottom of the AFC South, the Jags' talent finally gelled and put together an impressive season. The defense featured no fewer than six Pro Bowlers and finished second in the NFL in both total sacks and total interceptions.
The fearsome pass defense gave up the fewest yards through the air of any defense and the second fewest total yards, with young corners AJ Bouye and Jalen Ramsey proving to be amongst the best in the league at their position.
Up front Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue wrecked havoc to the tune of 14.5 and 12 sacks respectively, whilst former top five pick Dante Fowler Jr and Malik Jackson added each.
Telvin Smith was everywhere on the second level, wracking up an impressive 102 tackles, three picks, a forced fumble and a sack to boot. The leader of the defense truly shone out as one of the elite middle linebackers in the league and truly embodied the toughness, speed and versatility of the vaunted 'Sacksonville' D.
The impressive unit held opponents to single digit points on eight occasions and they'll be raring to go again in 2018 with even more firepower after a strong draft.
On offense Leonard Fournette ripped off a promising rookie year with 1009 yards rushing and nine TD's on the ground whilst adding another 302 yards and a score in the air. Enigmatic QB Blake Bortles managed to restrict the mistakes and put up big numbers in key games on his way to arguably his best year as a Pro.
Bortles threw for 3687 yards and 21 touchdowns against 13 picks, but completed a career high 60.2% of his passes in a run-first offense.
The Divisional Playoff matchup against the Steelers in Pittsburgh was a particularly impressive night for both men as Fournette put up 109 yards rushing and ran in three touchdowns whilst Bortles completed 14 of 26 passes for 204 yards and a score without throwing a pick and even added 35 valuable yards on the ground.
The two wins over the Steelers across the year were mightily impressive and proved the Jags can hang with anyone on their night, even in an offensive slug-fest. They eventually fell to Brady, Belichick and co. 24-20 in Foxborough, in a game they probably should've won having held the lead for long stretches of the game.
All in all, it was a highly successful year and they'll certainly be looking to go one step further this time around.
Free Agency Moves
The biggest get for the Jags was former Panthers All Pro Guard Andrew Norwell who's presence on the left hand side of the line will only increase Fournette's effectiveness and give Bortles more time in the pocket to make his reads and execute with clean air around him on a more frequent basis.
Norwell was one of the highest profile free agents available and he instantly upgrades the O-Line.
Donte Moncrief arrived from the divisional rival Colts to bolster the receiving corps and the capture of the former third round pick makes up for Allen Hurns' departure to the Cowboys and Allen Robinson leaving for the Bears. Moncrief flashed WR1 potential at times in Indy but has been hampered by injuries and inconsistent quarterback play of late and a change of scenery could get the best out of him.
Re-signing Marqise Lee was also of vital importance given Hurns' and Robinson's absence in that room now, and the speedster will likely enter the year atop the depth chart with Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole joining Moncrief and impressive rookie DJ Chark behind him.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul arrived from the Jets and Redskins respectively to add some veteran nouse and talent to a very weak tight end group and both will give Bortles the big bodied targets he needs over the middle on short and intermediate throws.
Slot corner Aaron Colvin left for the Texans and that hurts the depth in the defensive backfield, but DJ Hayden's arrival from the Lions should help to ease that loss a little.
Taven Bryan - DT, Florida. 1st round, 29th overall.
DJ Chark - WR, LSU. 2nd round, 61st overall.
Ronnie Harrison - S, Alabama. 3rd round, 93rd overall.
Will Richardson - OT, NC State. 4th round, 129th overall.
Tanner Lee - QB, Nebraska. 6th round, 203rd overall.
Leon Jacobs - LB, Wisconsin. 7th round, 230th overall.
Logan Cooke - P, Mississippi State. 7th round, 247th overall.
Fans Eye View
In all our 2018 previews we'll be speaking to a fan to get their opinion on the current state of the team. Representing the Jaguars is Jozef Vincent. Check him out on Twitter and give him a follow @UnionJaxJoe. Here are his thoughts on the season ahead...
GMS: How would you rate your team's offseason?
Nothing was going to match the Free Agency class of 2017 which included Calais Campbell and AJ Bouye, however the team has attempted to upgrade the O-line, adding Andrew Norwell from the Panthers. First rounder Taven Bryan is a pick for the future - at some point in the next few years the time will come when we have to move on from some of the big names on the D-line and the hope is that Bryan is groomed and ready to plug the hole. It felt a bit weird as a Jags fan on draft night to see the team pick a player who wasn’t going to be required/expected to contribute immediately and speaks to the current quality of the roster - GM Dave Caldwell deserves great credit for his work after being on hot seat toward the end of the Gus Bradley era.
GMS: What's the general opinion of the job the head coach is doing?
While Doug Marrone is the Head Coach, nobody doubts that Tom Coughlin has had a great influence on the way this team has been put together. That said, Marrone plays off of Coughlin brilliantly and this is clearly ‘his team’. I had my doubts of whether this slightly unusual setup would work, but it’s certainly a case of ‘so far, so good’. The people of Jacksonville have really taken to Doug (to the surprise of all Bills fans) and he’s even got the local press on-side. While the W’s keep coming, Jags fans will keep lapping up the bologna sandwiches.
GMS: Your opinions of the offense? (What's good, bad, different from 2017)
People obviously have their opinions on Blake Bortles (The BOAT) - I think he proved many wrong with his performances in the playoffs, getting it done with his legs against Buffalo, out duelling Big Ben and coming up just short in New England. He will have a few new toys in LSU rookie DJ Chark and free agents Austin Safarian-Jenkins and Dante Moncrief, who can hopefully stay healthy after not quite fulfilling his potential with the Colts. Allen Robinson has left but he only had one catch in 2017 before injuring his knee so we know the team can get the job done without him. Fournette is in the trimmest shape of his life and will have All Pro FA Andrew Norwell busting holes in D-lines which should mean an improvement in his rushing average. Look for the team to stay run first, but throw more than last season.
GMS: Your thoughts on the state of the defense? (What's good, bad, different from 2017)
Fan favourite Paul Posluszny has retired, Dante Fowler Jr is going to miss the opening game by suspension and Marcell Dareus has some ongoing issues - disaster, right? NOT SO FAST! This D is going to be special (again). First rounder Taven Bryan will be able to learn his trade on arguably the best D-line in the game and has been told by Tom Coughlin to get Calais Campbell his coffee each morning. New father Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye will be back to lock down the corners while Telvin Smith and Myles Jack are formidable at linebacker. This will be the highest scoring D in the game - if you play fantasy make sure you pick them up early.
GMS: What's your deepest concern for 2018?
In the 2017 season the Jags were only without one defensive starter for two games - an incredible stat considering the grind of an NFL season. I worry that a spate of injuries will test our depth at linebacker and cornerback. Even though he played a lesser role last year, Paul Posluszny was a hell of an insurance policy and the D didn’t miss a beat when Telvin Smith couldn’t go. This year will undoubtedly see a larger role for some as yet untested backup if one of the stars goes down.
GMS: Give us a name to watch out for?
Running back Corey Grant showed flashes of his blistering speed in the first half of the AFC Championship Game and has signed his second round tender (worth $2.9m this season). He figures to play a larger role behind Fournette this year and though he may not rack up huge yardage I can see him being used as a change of pace and really causing issues for opposing D’s.
GMS: And finally...your crystal ball prediction for the season?
I predict a virtual re-run of the 2017 season. I don’t see the Titans closing the gap, the Texans will be improved but come up short and Luck will be lucky to play 6 games with his dodgy shoulder. The Jags will win the AFC South and come up just short of a Super Bowl spot, getting stuffed by a bad refereeing decision (again, #MylesJackWasntDown)
Week 1: @Giants
Week 2: vs Patriots
Week 3: vs Titans
Week 4: vs Jets
Week 5: @Chiefs
Week 6: @Cowboys
Week 7: vs Texans
Week 8: vs Eagles
Week 9: BYE WEEK
Week 10: @Colts
Week 11: vs Steelers
Week 12: @Bills
Week 13: vs Colts
Week 14: @Titans
Week 15: vs Redskins
Week 16: @ Dolphins
Week 17: @Texans
In this run-first offense Leonard Fournette projects to be a top ten running back and should be dead-cert high first round pick in most leagues. The Jags ranked first in the NFL for attempted rushes in 2017 and there's no reason to suggest that will change this season.
The second-year pro should improve on his rushing total from last season and will have even more scope to take balls to the house from deep now that Andrew Norwell is blocking for him.
Nathaniel Hackett will likely employ Blake Bortles in a similar fashion to last season, restricting him to around 20 attempts per game and thus the enigmatic signal caller's value is hard to judge. He's worth picking up in the middle rounds despite his awful career completion percentage and TD-INT ratio due to his ability to pick up yards with his legs and the nature of his outside weapons.
Marqise Lee is a lethal deep threat whom Bortles links well with and considering the former UCF standout has finished inside the top 13 scoring QB's for three straight years he's certainly worth a gamble on as a QB2.
As for the receiving group, it's anyone's guess who will receive the majority of targets outside of Lee. Donte Moncrief could be worth a late round gamble due to his history as a solid number two, whilst the improving Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook will have to scrap for targets with second-round pick DJ Chark.
Both new TE arrivals figure to get a fair few targets, with the Jags regularly using two tight end sets last year, but neither would be expected to put up big numbers. Seferian-Jenkins could be worth a late round pick due to his red zone potential though.
The defense will be fearsome once more, and with even more bite up front. First round pick Taven Bryan will add size and nastiness over the middle and former number three overall pick Dante Fowler Jr should finally fulfil his huge promise off the edge.
Ngakoue and Campbell will be a handful again, whilst the sidelines will be locked down by Bouye and Ramsey. It's a tough defense to pick apart due to their depth and lack of an obvious weakness, but teams did find ways to score on them at times and the offense will need to pick up the slack when needed.
Speaking of the offense, the lack of a true WR1 is worrying given Bortles' struggles but this will always be a run-first team and Leonard Fournette is the perfect bell-cow back for them. Expect him to pound the ball over and over to the tune of well over 1000 yards this season.
They face a much tougher division in 2018 though, and whilst they were impressive in shutting teams out last season a few of those big defensive performances came against teams with backup QB's in the game.
Both wins against the Colts came against Jacoby Brissett whilst Andrew Luck watched on and the big week 15 win in Houston came after Deshaun Watson had gone down injured.
As far as QB's go the AFC South may have the one of the strongest trio's the Jags could face in Luck, Watson and Marcus Mariota and they'll be hard pressed to repeat those big wins again.
They also face tough road assignments against the Cowboys and Chiefs whilst hosting both Super Bowl teams from last year in the Patriots and Eagles.
So, the schedule isn't kind and a repeat of a 10-6 season seems far away at this point unless Bortles comes back a Pro Bowl type signal caller. But that just isn't happening.
The defense will carry them to some wins and this team certainly has a chance at winning the division, but they'll face seven Pro Bowl QB's in 2018 and that doesn't include potential Pro Bowlers in Mariota, Watson and Patrick Mahomes.
Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone have this team playing good football, but their offensive restrictions mean it will be hard for them to hang in games against high powered offenses when the defense isn't holding them back. For that reason we predict a slight drop off, but still a solid year and a 9-7 record.