As training camp begins, Jaguars face a slew of unanswered questions

Quarterback Gardner Minshew (15), defensive ends Josh Allen (41) and Yannick Ngakoue (91) and coach Doug Marrone all face their own sets of questions as NFL training camps begin. A bigger question: what will the NFL season look like during the midst of a pandemic?
Quarterback Gardner Minshew (15), defensive ends Josh Allen (41) and Yannick Ngakoue (91) and coach Doug Marrone all face their own sets of questions as NFL training camps begin. A bigger question: what will the NFL season look like during the midst of a pandemic? (Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jaguars can break out the helmets on Wednesday and dive in to their first training camp practice after nearly two weeks of buildup. The Jaguars are coming off of a 6-10 season and a massive overhaul of their roster. The News4Jax sports staff looks at training camp storylines entering the most unusual season in league history.

1. Can Gardner Minshew take the next step?

Justin Barney: I think Minshew takes the next step forward but I don’t see that step being a massive one. Maybe something akin to a half of a step. He was very good for a rookie last year and went 6-6 as a starter in the NFL while learning on the fly and running an offense that wasn’t tailored for him. That’s something we shouldn’t discount. I think if we keep expectations tempered on what to expect from this offense, the Jaguars can improve on what they delivered last year. I think Minshew is a top 18 to 20 QB in the league this year. News4Jax sports analyst Mark Brunell said that Minshew making the jump in Year 2 is going to be a challenge without the benefit of a traditional offseason.

Cole Pepper: If any second-year quarterback can overcome the obstacles associated with this offseason, it’s Minshew. He’s made a career in college and the NFL of adapting to new systems. That being said, I think the expectations have to tempered a bit. It’s not just about the quarterback, but you can’t win in this league without your quarterback having a good year. For Minshew, and so many other parts of this team, this year is about advancement as much as it is about contending.

Jamal St. Cyr: It will be hard for Minshew not to take steps forward. The Jaguars have done a good job of surrounding him with more playmakers than he had last season. If the offensive line is able to give him more time than he had last season I expect Minshew Mania will take some major steps forward. It wouldn’t surprise me if at the end of the season he is considered the second-best QB in the AFC south.

2. Will Yannick Ngakoue be there?

JB: In spirit, perhaps. He has yet to sign his franchise tender. He obviously wants out. Who blinks first in this standoff? I think Ngakoue is dealt at some point. The difference between Ngakoue and safety Jamal Adams who forced his way off of the Jets — using Ngakoue and Jalen Ramsey public pouting 101 — by napalming anyone and everyone in the organization is that Adams is under contract and Ngakoue is not. At some point, Jacksonville will get an offer it likes and trade him. Ngakoue’s leverage is sitting out the season, which hurts him far more than it hurts the Jaguars. Is he bold enough to turn down more than $17 million over hurt feelings?

CP: It’s not so much about whether Ngakoue will be there as it is about what comes next. We’ve passed the point of him signing a new deal. Will the Jaguars get anything for Ngakoue? And then there is this scenario to think about: NFL players have the right to opt out of this season. What if Ngakoue does that? He would only make $150,000 and he would not accrue a season (which he would risk if the Jaguars placed him on the Reserve-Did not report list). Who has the leverage here? It’s the Jaguars. Ngakoue can lose a year’s worth of earnings, while losing a season. If the Jaguars embrace the fact that Ngakoue isn’t going to play, they don’t have much to lose. At this point, it’s Advantage Jaguars.

JS: It’s not happening. Yan will likely end up sitting out the majority if not all of training camp before finally being traded. That’s only if a team offers more than at least a third-round pick for him because if the Jaguars just let him leave in free agency they will likely receive a third-round comp pick.

3. Can Taven Bryan step up?

JB: He played better last year than he did as a rookie. That being said, Bryan was invisible as a rookie. The spots that have opened up on the line through trades and release since the end of last season make this the year for Bryan to make that transition from role player to contributor. I don’t think Bryan is going to ever justify his first-round draft spot, but this is the year for him to contribute more.

CP: I’m skeptical, but this is important. Bryan showed signs of life last year, but not so much that the Jaguars didn’t make the defensive line a focus of free agency. If the Jaguars play more of a 3-4 look this year on defense, they can minimize Bryan’s exposure. But if they have to do that, it doesn’t bode well for his future.

JS: Bryan’s play last season was much improved. With Calais Campbell being traded to Baltimore during the offseason the Jaguars definitely need Bryan to step up and help fill his void. Bryan will have a lot of competition along the defensive line. I expect his production to stay similar to how it was last season.

4. Will Myles Jack return to form on the outside?

JB: Myles Jack was made for the outside. This move will, optimistically, help Jacksonville tap Jack’s potential even if it comes at a spot that he’s never played. The addition of a true middle linebacker in Joe Schobert in free agency puts Jack at the weakside linebacker position where he won’t have to call out plays or line up against tight ends snap after snap after snap. Jack is best served in a position that takes advantage of his athleticism and where he can somewhat freelance.

CP: Great leaders have a trait that the historian David McCullough attributed to George Washington. He saw his world as it was, not as he wished it to be. For some reason, the Jaguars have spent most of the last three seasons trying to make Myles Jack a middle linebacker. I get the wish. You want to find the guy to plug into the middle of your defense for years to come. But wanting it to work doesn’t mean it’s going to. Jack was a playmaker on the outside with Paul Posluzny in the middle. Now, the Jaguars have signed Poz light, in Joe Schobert. Jack should be able to let his athleticism and playmaking shine once again.

JS: Jack’s playstyle has always been best suited for the outside. This will be the first time in Jack’s career that he will be able to play on the weakside and if he stays healthy he will set new career-high marks.

5. Is the offensive line good enough?

JB: This group was inconsistent last year. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but it shouldn’t be that bad in 2020 with four starters back. Andrew Norwell has largely underwhelmed since coming over as a big money free agent from Carolina two years ago. Cam Robinson was coming off of a torn ACL last year and he has to be better if he’s out to be a long-term left tackle. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor can only get better in Year 2, right? Brandon Linder is paid like one of the best centers in the league. I do think we’ll get more out of this unit in 2020.

CP: This is a huge concern of mine. I was shocked that the Jaguars didn’t make any substantial effort to upgrade the offensive line. Cam Robinson needs to show he’s a starting caliber left tackle. Andrew Norwell needs to show that he’s worth his big free agent deal. Brandon Linder needs to show that he’s not in decline, and the right guard needs to show us who he is. A.J. Cann? Will Richardson? Ben Bartch? Jawaan Taylor showed promise as a rookie at right tackle. A better season will be expected this year.

JS: Only time will tell. While the Jaguars have made changes around the rest of the offense, they are running it back with the same O-line group from last season. Seems like a mistake. The best way to help a young QB is to give him time to throw the ball. But continuity along the O-line can go a long way.

6. Will any rookies make an impact?

JB: They better. This team is positioned well for multiple rookies to play large roles. That’s great for a large rookie class. Cornerback C.J. Henderson is an instant starter. K’Lavon Chaisson could see a larger role if Yannick Ngakoue is out of the lineup. Can Laviska Shenault jump as high as a No. 2 receiver? There are so many holes and spots for depth that at least half of this 12-member class is going to contribute very quickly.

CP: They drafted 12 guys, somebody better make a difference. I suspect that C.J. Henderson will start at cornerback from Day 1. K’Lavon Chaisson should be a disrupter, although not a starter and there’s some good buzz about Laviska Shenault’s potential. As mentioned above, Bartch could be the surprise contributor if he pushes for a starting role on the offensive line. The Jaguars see him as a left tackle of the future, but might find a spot for him somewhere else in the meantime.

JS: Yes. The Jaguars first three picks are all going to play huge roles for the team this season. With some late-round guys like Chris Claybrooks who have a chance to make an impact by earning special teams roles. If this rookie class doesn’t make an impact this will be a very hard season to watch.

7. Can Tyler Eifert make a difference?

JB: If he’s healthy, yes. Tight end is a black hole and drafting Josh Oliver last year didn’t address that. Eifert is going into his eighth year in the league. He’s played 16 games one time. This is a low-risk, high-reward roster move, with the hope that Eifert can give Jacksonville something at a position that has been awful. Jaguars tight ends had a combined three TD catches last year.

CP: Considering their options after the draft, the Jaguars did well to lure Eifert to Jacksonville. I’m not expecting him to be a difference maker, but I do believe he can be an upgrade to the position. Health is, of course, the biggest question. He was healthy, although not particularly effective last season. Maybe the Jaguars can catch lightning in a bottle with the former first-round pick.

JS: Not on the field. Let’s be realistic Eifert has only played all 16 games once in his entire career. When healthy Eifert was once one of the best tight ends’ in the league but injuries have taken a toll on him. I think Eifert will play a few games this season but his biggest impact on the team moving forward will be mentoring Josh Oliver.

8. Will Josh Allen build on his rookie season?

JB: As Cole mentions below, this is a question on A) how Allen handles more traffic in front of him, and B) how much Jacksonville’s defensive line can crank out. Allen was exceptional as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl. The flip side is that he had Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus and Yannick Ngakoue on the defensive line with him. Without those guys alongside him, it’s going to be how much of a leap can Allen take between Year 1 and 2.

CP: What happens when the Jaguars’ opponents don’t have to gameplan to block Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue? We’re about to find out how good Josh Allen can be. He’ll be the focus of the pass-blocking game plans in 2020. He has the ability, and perhaps more importantly, the approach to become a star. Will one year learning under Campbell’s tutelage be enough? This could be the year Josh Allen becomes a star.

JS: The league better start to put some respect on Josh Allen’s name. Allen’s snap count should drastically increase this season. More opportunities means more chances for production. Allen has the talent and opportunity to compete for the NFL sack title this season.

9. Can the Jaguars stop the run?

JB: They had the fifth-worst run defense in the league last year (2,229 yards) and gave up 23 rushing TDs, second-worst in the league. Most days, they looked like the worst run-stopping team in the NFL. Was that a scheme problem or more of a talent issue? Well, there’s less talent entering 2020 than there was entering 2019. They’re still not poised to be very good against the run.

CP: They can’ be any worse than they were in 2019, can they? Without Marcell Dareus, the Jaguars were putrid against the run. Even with him, they had problems. Now, Dareus is gone (will he be brought back from the bargain bin?), and the Jaguars spent most of their free agent dollars addressing the defensive front seven. Al Woods and Rodney Gunter should help, but they aren’t Dareus and Campbell. Joe Schobert’s signing at middle linebacker should improve the Jaguars defense simply by moving Jack to the outside. Can Schobert be a tackling machine? It’s a pivotal question for the Jaguars’ defense in 2020.

JS: That is a tough question to answer until the cleats hit the grass. It will be tough for them to be worse than they were towards the end of last season. The hope is Joe Schobert will be able to take charge from his middle linebacker spot and help the Jaguars improve in this category.

10. Will COVID-19 change the way the season is approached or played?

JB: Losing players for chunks of time due to the coronavirus is what (other than the preseason experience for younger players) I think the biggest issue will be. NFL players aren’t going to be in a bubble like NBA players. Positive COVID-19 tests taking over the season is the most significant concern I have.

CP: Without a doubt. With larger practice squads for the season, the NFL is preparing to lose players for weeks at a time due to positive tests. I will be pleasantly surprised if the season goes on uninterrupted, but we’re in uncharted waters here, so hold onto your hats.

JS: It already has. With the changes to preseason and stadium capacity. The true test will be how the league will operate when players begin to test positive.

11. Is there enough on the roster for the Jaguars to win enough games for Doug Marrone and Dave Caldwell to keep their jobs?

JB: Their seats have been hot to everyone other than the man who keeps both employed, Shad Khan. I don’t think the roster as it stands is built to reach the playoffs. I do think that if the Jaguars can show some strides forward, win five or six games, then the Caldwell-Marrone duo will get another shot in 2021. Couple the five or six wins with the pandemic mess and I think we’ll see the braintrust back for another season. Now, if Jacksonville completely tanks and wins two games, I think Khan pulls the plug.

CP: The decisions the Jaguars made this past offseason didn’t seem to be in sync with the expectations that Caldwell and Marrone are on the hot seat again. Why would you keep a GM and a coach around if you are going to trade Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Nick Foles? Granted, Caldwell did well to recoup some draft picks as a result. Couple those moves with the Jalen Ramsey trade and the Jaguars are loaded for the future. But this is about the present. I don’t see the Jaguars having enough to have a winning record this year under normal circumstance, but we can expect the unusual this year, murder hornets be damned.

JS: I’m not convinced their jobs are on the line this season. This roster is not built to win now. Just look at this offseason the Jaguars traded away veteran players and have replaced them with young talented but unproven players. If Marrone and Caldwell put together this year’s rosters knowing that their job is on the line they are clearly very special people who value the long term of a franchise over their own employment.

12. What will the Jaguars’ personality be without Ramsey, Bouye, Campbell, and Foles? Will there be less drama?

JB: Without the coronavirus, I think we’d have an idea what type of locker room personality this unit was leaning towards. Without it, who knows. I do think that with as much youth on this team as there is, it’s a blank slate at this point. It sounds cliche, but I believe that the new players are going to work to distance themselves from the mess that was in there before.

CP: I think they’ll be looking for their personality. Marrone wants it to be far less drama-filled than it has been the past several seasons. Usually, drama doesn’t show up until a team encounters adversity (unless a player backs an armored truck up to your front gates). What happens when the Jaguars face adversity? You never know until they face it.

JS: Young and Hungry (apparently that is already a TV show). The Jaguars are filled with a lot of young players who are all hungry to earn their place in the league.

13. Will Jay Gruden’s offense be effective?

JB: Eventually, I think it can be. Out of the gate in Week 1 against the Colts? Probably not. I like the addition of Gruden as an OC better than I liked John DeFilippo, Nathaniel Hackett or Greg Olson as OCs. Will he last more than a season is a better question? News4Jax sports analyst Mark Brunell really liked the Gruden hire and I do think there’s potential for him to excel here. I just don’t think it’s right out of the gate.

CP: In a normal offseason, the Jaguars would have had a lot more time on the field to work on a new system. They had no offseason practices with the coaches this summer. Will the offense be better? Probably. But the offensive line is going to be a bigger part of the answer than the playcalling.

JS: Jay Gruden has coached a lot of football and for the majority of his career his teams have been good offensively. If the Jaguars offensive line can win in the trenches. This will be a unit that puts up a lot of points.

14. Will the Jaguars be in contention for the first pick in the draft?

JB: They have never had the No. 1 pick, even with some of the awful teams that they’ve had and I don’t see it happening this year. Minshew is going to find ways to win Jacksonville a game or two that it shouldn’t. The Jaguars, who I think finish 5-11, will be one of the teams with the lowest win totals in the league, but not the lowest.

CP: I think it could happen, but they would have to get unlucky with COVID-19. That being said, Jacksonville has been a hotspot for positive tests, so you never know. Without the virus, I’m not convinced the Jaguars have enough difference makers on the roster to have a winning record, and it’s not that much of a stretch to say that they are among the handful of teams expected to be underdogs most of the year. At least one service has the Jaguars as underdogs in every game this season. That means, yes, they could be in contention for the No. 1 pick.

JS: Nope. Not even close. There aren’t many people with high expectations for the 2020 Jaguars. I’m not expecting this to be a playoff team or anything but I do expect them to win five or six games. The first half of their schedule has some very winnable games and confidence could go a long way towards helping this team win a few games that no one expects.

About the Authors: