Duval faithful likely, and understandably, have low expectations entering week one of the 2020 season. National media pundits, Twitter experts and casual observers alike all seem to project this team to be the favorite for the number one overall pick and the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes.
In 2019 the Jaguars traded away their best player in Jalen Ramsey, surrendered 2,229 rushing yards, benched an $88 million dollar quarterback, and, to make matters worse star EDGE Yannick Ngakoue demanded a trade. The last part came after Nagakoue spent the 2020 offseason making it crystal clear he was done playing for the organization after feeling disrespected in contract negotiations. That culminated in a trade to Minnesota. The team also traded a leader and impact player, Calais Campbell, jettisoned A.J. Bouye and cut running back Leonard Fournette. Young, and talented, safety Ronnie Harrison was just sent to Cleveland for a 5th round pick.
I won’t lie, being a fan of this team has been difficult at best for the majority of the 21st century and futile at worst. It’s easy to see why some fans have been vocal about the level of apathy they feel towards the organization right now. This team sucks at optics. Always has and likely always will. But, and there is a but! When looking at this team entering the 2020 season, there is reason to have some hope beyond just fandom.
Rookie sensation Gardner Minshew outplayed his 6th round draft selection and led multiple 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives. DJ Chark looks to be the most promising receiver this team has had in years, including fan favorite and another front office gaffe in Allen Robinson. 2019 draft pick, Josh Allen, had a DROTY-worthy campaign on limited snaps. On paper, the draft class looks to improve this roster and free agency addition of tight end Tyler Eifert could pay dividends for the offense and Minshew’s success. So what should you expect from the team you hate to love, Duval faithful? I’m glad you asked.
- Gardner. Flint. Minshew. This team will sink or swim on the Stache’s growth or lack thereof. Minshew truly had a 2nd round grade on him coming out of Washington State University, and he played even better as a rookie than I, or most fans, could have projected. The ugly truth, is that he is always going to be limited physically. Whether or not he can maximize his physical talent, and leverage his intangibles to compensate for any negatives will determine if he is a franchise guy, or just slated for a long career as a journeyman backup/spot starter.
- The running back room looks drastically difference with the unceremonious release of former #4 overall selection Leonard Fournette. Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo and Chris Thompson will each have ample opportunity to take the starting role. Armstead stands to be the beneficiary on early downs and short yardage situations, as the former 5th rounder can quickly fill in for Fournette without a playcalling learning curve. Ozigbo and Thompson will both make more of an impact as a receiving threats in new OC Jay Gruden’s offense. So far, this staff really seems to like Ozigbo.
- At the receiver position, there is much to be optimistic about. DJ Chark looks like an emerging star and a true #1 at the position. Chris Conley, Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook have all produced at the NFL level. While they might not jump off the score card, they are certainly serviceable. The team seems to already be enamored with second round rookie Laviska Shenault and he figures to see a high-volume of touches. The surprise of this off season, however, may be in 5th round pick Collin Johnson. Former Texas standout has made big play after big play in training camp. Head Coach Doug Marrone has mentioned how impressed he is with the 6’6 Johnson’s ability to sink his hips and get in and out of his breaks. I expect Johnson to force his way on the field more and more as the season progresses.
- Tight end has been a desolate group since the team chose to move on from Mercedes Lewis. They drafted Josh Oliver in the 3rd round in 2018, but a hamstring and back injury limited him to just four games as a rookie and a broken bone in his foot suffered in training camp will cost him the entire 2020 campaign. James O’Shaughnessy built good chemistry with Minshew before suffering an ACL tear a year ago. The hope is that he will be serviceable in 2020. The free agency addition of Tyler Eifert needs to pan out for this offense. When healthy, he has shown the ability to be an effective option in the middle of the field and can stretch a defense down the seam, something this team has lacked for, what seems like, it’s entire existence.
- Offensive line is a group that simply needs to play better. The team has invested in the O-line with 2nd round picks, tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor, signed center Brandon Linder to a huge extension, signed guard Andrew Norwell to a massive contract in free agency, and selected right guard A.J. Cann in the third round. Taylor and Linder are solid, but Robinson must rebound this season. I’m not sure he would have kept his job had there been a preseason for Will Richardson to push him. Rookie Ben Bartch is transitioning to guard, and has impressed in camp. He will be a starter sooner than later if he continues to develop the way the team, and fans, hopes.
As a whole, this offense has many more questions than it does answers. The potential is there for this unit to improved over last season. Unfortunately, so much is reliant on rookie production, the development of a 6th round pick turned starting quarterback and a quick adaptation to a drastically different scheme in an offseason already laden with unprecedented challenges.
I do believe Minshew will improve, and I do think this offense will score points. I’d say realistically this offense should finish the season somewhere ranked between 16 and 24 overall. If Minshew’s play improves and the team stay’s relatively healthy, Jay Gruden’s scheme and the talent at receiver is enough to be excited about. It would appear the days of the Jaguars being a run first offense are indeed over, which is a good thing. This offense shouldn’t be in the bottom quarter.
- The Jaguars defensive line lost a ton of talent in the offseason with Campbell and Ngakoue landing elsewhere. Losing Al Woods and Rodney Gunter – among others – to opt outs, injury, or retirement hurts the Jaguars efforts to improve against the run. Josh Allen and 2020 rookie K’Lavon Chaisson both look like they will have big impacts this season. 3rd round rookie DaVon Hamilton is going to need to play well for this team. Taven Bryan, Dawuane Smoot and Abry Jones need to provide veteran leadership for what is a very young line. Taven Bryan playing well may be the most important piece. The late addition of Timmy Jernigan is a low risk, high reward, move provided he can stay healthy.
- At linebacker, Myles Jack moving weakside to make room for Joe Schobert at Mike is an upgrade. Leon Jacobs has played exceptionally well for a seventh round selection, and reports from camp are Cassius Marsh is pushing him for reps. Quincy Williams is an uber athletic player who just needs time to develop. Rookie linebacker Shaquille Quarterman is a player this team is excited to see in live action. The depth here is still strong despite Lerentee McCray opting out.
- Trading Ronnie Harrison is a move I can’t grasp. He wasn’t an aging veteran on a bloated contract. To my knowledge he wasn’t a locker room issue. He was a 23 year old ascending player and the team settled for a 5th round pick as compensation. It is bewildering, with this unproven secondary. In all likelihood the back end of the defense will be unreliable in 2020. C.J. Henderson, despite being a top 10 selection, is going to have rookie moments. Tre Herndon played well for the most part when thrust into #20’s position. D.J. Hayden has played phenomenally for this team at the nickel position and is the veteran leader. At safety, Jarrod Wilson has been serviceable for the most part. Josh Jones and Andrew Wingard look to be the primary beneficiaries of Harrison’s departure. This group is not strong enough to hold up if the pass rush isn’t affecting opposing quarterbacks.
Overall, the defensive unit isn’t really any better, or worse, headed into the 2020 season. The run defense must absolutely improve or the whole thing will fall apart. The pass rush should be above average, and the starters are decent across the board. Should players go down with injury and miss significant time, I do not trust the depth of this unit to be successful. Unfortunately I expect this Defense to likely finish in the bottom quarter of the league.
- Josh Lambo is one of the best kickers in the league. After the Jason Myers disaster, it is beyond comforting not holding my breath during every extra point attempt. Lambo has been among the most accurate kickers in the league since joining the team, and he provides real value. Kickers are always overlooked until they lose you games. Jaguar fans at least don’t have to worry here.
- Logan Cooke has been an average to above average punter for the team since joining in 2018. Not much to say here, other than he does his job.
- Coverage units have been generally solid in the Joe Decamillis era, and I expect that to continue.
Special Teams is easily the strongest unit on this team overall. They are experienced and proven. Field position and three points when you need it, they are solid and we cannot complain here. We have also seen that fakes are a threat.
Looking at the schedule, one thing is very clear about the 2020 season. If this team is to be competitive they must win early. Home games against the Colts, Dolphins and Lions before the bye are crucial to the season. Going any worse than 2-1 in those contests would be very discouraging. The three road trips before the bye are the Titans, Bengals and Texans. Find a way to beat one of the division opponents and the Bengals, and the team has a relatively realistic path to 4-2 at the bye. Following that, the schedule gets ROUGH. Road games against the Chargers, Packers, Vikings, Ravens and Colts look to be long shots, at best, for this roster right now. The Steelers, Browns and Bears at home is better, but not by much. I’ve seen predictions as low as 3-13, and given the way the schedule shakes out it could happen, particularly if the team struggles early. I won’t predict wins and losses here, that is for another article, but the schedule is no cakewalk.
No Pressure, Be Good or We Suck
This team’s success, or failure, in 2020 will fall on the shoulders of a few individuals. Football may be a team sport, but there is no denying that weak links in the wrong spots can be disastrous. Here I’ll rank the most important players for the 2020 season, 1-10, with 10 being the most important.
- Myles Jack- Jack simply hasn’t lived up to expectations since joining this team. Despite being in the same draft class as Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue, Jack was the one to get an extension. Now being moved to Will, he must become a more consistent impact player, and one without temper tantrums leading to penalty/ejection.
- Dawuane Smoot- Smoot stands to see a large percentage of reps in the Big End role previously occupied by Calais Campbell. After a difficult and frustrating start to his career, Smoot finally found some success last season. Entering a contract season the Jaguars need Smoot to play his best football yet, particularly against the run.
- Laviska Shenault/Collin Johnson- These two are lumped together because they are both going to be asked to produce more than is fair to expect from a rookie of their respective draft positions. It is unlikely that this defense is going to be very good this season, so these two need to help the offense score touchdowns. This offense couldn’t attack the middle of the field last season, Shenault needs to help change that. This team struggled in the red zone, and at 6’6, Collin Johnson needs to be a reliable threat from day one. If these two play well, this offense will be significantly improved.
- Cam Robinson/Andrew Norwell- Another two player combination. Both are playing for their football futures in Jacksonville this season. Cam Robinson had a promising rookie season prior to tearing his ACL, after-which he struggled in 2019. The team also PAID Norwell, who hasn’t played as rough as some believe, but certainly hasn’t played well. The offensive line needs to be better in all facets this season, and it starts with these two.
- CJ Henderson- Henderson doesn’t need to be Jalen Ramsey, but for this secondary to hold up, the top 10 pick must play up to his potential. This secondary is young. There will be miscommunications, blown assignments etc., and Henderson needs to offset those errors by being the best player on the back end and doing his job. If Henderson flops, this defense will be carved.
- Tyler Eifert- The Jaguars MUST be a more multi-dimensional on offense this season. Last year, Minshew was largely ineffective to the middle of the field, and at times just ignored it all together. Eifert has played some really good football in his career and Jacksonville is depending on him being healthy and in-form this season. I cannot overstate how important Eifert is to this offense’s ability to be effective in the middle of the field.
- Joe Schobert- This defense gave up an embarrassing amount of rushing yards last season, and per the norm, tight ends and running backs were able to find a ton of success against the linebackers tasked with covering them. Schobert was paid to shore up the run defense and be an upgrade to what Myles Jack has been. If he is, then the improvement could be substantial for the entire unit.
- DJ Chark- Chark looks like an emerging star in the league. He has the size, speed, route running and hands necessary to be a true No. 1 guy. He has to be for this team to be competitive. A large part of that will be learning to win at the ball, even with defenses paying closer attention to him. An aspect of his game he struggled with some last year. Chark is quite easily the best player we have on the offensive side of the ball.
- Taven Bryan- Notice how players that can stop the run keep popping up here? Even in today’s pass happy NFL, if you cannot stop the run you cannot win. It just is what it is. Taven Bryan catches a ton of heat for the slow start to his career from fans and the saltiness that comes from the team passing on Lamar Jackson and Will Hernandez for him. What’s been overlooked is how much better he was playing towards the end of last season. He finally understands his role and can react instead of think. He was able to get consistent penetration and was solid against the run. If Bryan can continue his momentum as an ascending player, this entire defense will be better off for it.
- Gardner Minshew- Duh. There is no position more important in sports than the quarterback. This long haired, mustache rocking, jorts wearing, bud light sponsored, sixth-round rookie turned cult hero is such a perfect fit for Duval. He played so much better than anticipated as a rookie, and one could argue he should have won OROTY over Kyler Murray. Here’s the thing- it’s not enough. It’s not enough to be better than a late day 3 pick. It’s not enough to be good on a bad team, and it’s not enough to show promise in lieu of results. The Jaguars have a plethora of draft capital, and the most hyped quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck is the darling of the draft class. He even has his own great hair. If Minshew doesn’t want to be replaced, likely by Trevor Lawrence, being good just is not enough. He needs to be Good, and elevate the team around him. He won six games as a rookie, but that won’t be enough to keep his job beyond 2020. If Minshew is tragically bad, Mike Glennon, Joshua Dobbs and Jake Luton aren’t going to save the day.
This season can really only go one of two ways in my opinion: 1) Everyone is right and we suck. Minshew struggles, the defense is a sieve, Marrone and Co. are consistently out coached and we are firmly in the mix for Trevor Lawrence and a new GM and coaching staff. 2) Minshew plays well, the defense is just good enough, and the team is competitive on it’s way to a seven or nine win season – surprising literally everyone.
I have no idea which one will happen, but I have a feeling we will find out relatively early on. If the team gets off to a slow start it will be over by week 7. How depressing. Ultimately, I expect this team to be more fun than good, and that’s alright. Competitiveness, finding out exactly what you have in Minshew, and developing young players is what this season is all about. And I will be completely here for it every step of the way! Through the good, the bad, and the Jaguars, I’ve got you covered. Be sure to stay tuned for more great Jacksonville Jaguar coverage, and thank you for supporting NZI! You can always tell me how much I suck on Twitter @HindenburgScout.