All the promise and optimism surrounding the Jacksonville Jaguars of a few seasons ago, when they reached the AFC Championship Game, seems to have long since dissipated.
The Jags currently sit at the bottom of the AFC South at 4-6, and with upcoming games against the Titans, Buccaneers, Chargers, Raiders, Falcons and Colts, they could easily finish the season 7-9.
That would be second consecutive losing season for the franchise under current head coach Doug Marrone, which may be too much for front office decision makers Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell to take, especially given the level of defensive talent on this roster. How can Jacksonville bring postseason football back to Duval County?
Hire a new head coach
As I’ve written previously, the time is probably right for Jacksonville to move on from Marrone. The very public examples of discipline issues over the past couple of seasons will not sit well with the task-master Coughlin, who has made his dissatisfaction with the actions of players like Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon last season, very clear. The fallout between Marrone and former star cornerback Jalen Ramsey this season, coupled with the team’s losing record, may be the final straw.
The one factor that may work in Marrone’s favour was the loss of free agent quarterback Nick Foles in the season opener. That forced the former Bills head coach to turn to sixth round pick Gardner Minshew, though with more success than the team could ever have anticipated.
Given the lengthy spell out with injury to their prized offseason addition, Marrone may be able to convince Coughlin and Caldwell that he should be given at least another season to turn the team around with Foles at the helm.
Candidates to replace Marrone could be varied. It’s not in Coughlin’s DNA to follow the league wide trend of hiring young, offensive coaches just for the sake of it. However, Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski could fit the profile of what the franchise needs to take it forward. Given the team’s roster strength on defence, an offensive minded head coach could make sense, especially to maximise the investment made in Foles.
Stefanski has shown he can put together a bruising run game, whilst also getting high level production out of his quarterback. If he can sell Caldwell and Coughlin on a plan to get Leonard Fournette performing at the level he did in college for LSU, yet maintaining a balanced passing game, he could be a frontrunner.
Could the Jaguars see a younger coach who is better able to manage this relatively youthful than Marrone as the way forward? That could open the door for a coach like Dallas’ Kris Richard, or a reunion with Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who coached the Jags’ linebackers from 2014-16. Saleh has put together impressive defensive production with a youthful defensive corps in San Francisco, though his pick for offensive coordinator would be crucial.
It will be fascinating to see what direction the front office goes in if they part ways with Marrone, especially given Coughlin’s old school, disciplinarian approach doesn’t necessarily mesh with the likely candidates available in the summer.
Create cap space
Next season, per Spotrac, Jacksonville is likely to have around $11.7 million in available cap space. That doesn’t leave a lot of scope for the team to add instant impact additions, particularly at the offensive skill positions, as well as a cornerback to play opposite A.J. Bouye. We also mustn’t forget that fourth year defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is currently in the last few months of his rookie contract, after failing to come to agreement with the Jags on a long-term extension in the summer.
Retaining Ngakoue must be a priority for this franchise over the coming months leading into the offseason. A third round pick out of Maryland, he has logged 34.5 sacks during his time in the league, and has been a full-time starter since being drafted. Durable and productive pass rushers are hard to find, and the Jaguars should be finding ways to retain homegrown talent.
It’s also important to remember that Calais Campbell, whilst still effective, is getting closer to the end of his career, and the Jags don’t want to be left with just Josh Allen as their only sack specialist of note.
The trade of Jalen Ramsey has created a significant hole in the secondary, and whilst D.J. Chark has made significant steps during his second season in the league, Foles needs more weapons around him in the passing game.
Cutting oft-injured wideout Marqise Lee could create cap space for a replacement, though it’s likely the team would have to see who else is a cutdown casualty from other teams given the prospective free agent class is highlighted by 32-year-old A.J. Green who has had his own issues with availability.
Add talent on offense
This obviously leads into the main priority for the franchise this summer, which is getting the offense firing on all cylinders. The Jaguars aren’t terrible in terms of offensive production, given they rank 12th and 13th respectively in pass yards and rush yards per game. However, they are averaging 18.9 points per game currently, and clearly lack explosiveness.
It’s been noted by many across the league that Fournette has improved his game this year, upping his per rush average to 4.7 yards, from a measly 3.3 yards last year. Whilst Fournette is able to make those chunk gains on the ground, and wear down opposing defences with his downhill running, he isn’t necessarily a home run hitter.
We’ve already mentioned wide receiver and how the Jags might be reliant on players being cut by other teams. The prospective picture at tight end isn’t much better, although again this pool of players could be buoyed by potential cuts. Adding an upper echelon tight end could be key to helping this offense develop, from acting as an additional blocker for Fournette, to playing the Zach Ertz role in the passing game, which Foles is used to from his time in Philadelphia.
Currently slated to pick 11th overall in the first round, the front office might be circling the names of prospects like CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs III who would upgrade the talent level in the wide receivers’ room. Dede Westbrook hasn’t become a game breaker at the position, and though Chris Conley has put up better numbers than his recent years in Kansas City, he projects more as a WR3.
Only a few seasons back it seemed like Jacksonville was a team on the rise, powered by a youthful, smothering defense full of attitude. The focus on building up an effective defense, though, has left the cupboard somewhat bare on offense. Letting players like Allen Robinson Jr walk, has helped create a dearth of talent at some positions, as well as injuries and less-than-expected progression from the likes of Westbrook and Lee.
However, the presence of Foles; a young, cheap and capable backup in Minshew; and youthful and talented players like Myles Jack, Bouye and Chark, will make any job opening in Duval attractive to up and coming coaches wanting to make their name in the league.