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Jaguars have perfected the pattern of first-round draft failures. Can Baalke, Meyer make it stop?

FILE - Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback CJ Henderson (23) follows a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in Jacksonville, in this Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, file photo. Henderson hasn't been the same since a shoulder injury last October. New coach Urban Meyer raved about Hendersons rehab in March and said were counting on him. But Meyers faith in Henderson seems to be waning. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)
FILE - Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback CJ Henderson (23) follows a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in Jacksonville, in this Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, file photo. Henderson hasn't been the same since a shoulder injury last October. New coach Urban Meyer raved about Hendersons rehab in March and said were counting on him. But Meyers faith in Henderson seems to be waning. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The NFL draft is an inexact science, but the Jaguars have done a remarkable job at making it exactly predictable.

What a mess. What a pattern. What a problem.

Monday was yet another reminder of just how poorly the franchise has done for so long in selecting players high in the draft.

Writing off the ninth overall pick in the 2020 draft, CJ Henderson, for a free agent tight end and a swap of draft picks is a colossal failure for a franchise that has had plenty of them.

We can’t pin this most recent mistake on Urban Meyer and general manager Trent Baalke. They’re simply cleaning up the mess. Henderson was a nonfactor, and his availability due to injuries was a concern. Baalke and Meyer didn’t draft Henderson and obviously didn’t see his attitude or his injury situation improving, so they cut their losses. It happens.

But the fact that it continues to happen over and over again in Jacksonville makes why getting it right this time is so important.

Will it be different under Baalke and Meyer? It has to be or the Jaguars will continue to be one of the most tortured franchises in the NFL.

This ineptitude predates Jacksonville’s current regime. Remember these guys?

Dave Caldwell.

Gene Smith.

James “Shack” Harris.

Those three GMs ran things from 2003 until 2020. And there’s a case to be made that all but three of those 19 first-round picks that they made (Josh Allen, Jalen Ramsey, Marcedes Lewis) missed the mark. Byron Leftwich in 2003, Reggie Nelson in 2007, Eugene Monroe in 2009 and Tyson Alualu in 2010 were average to slightly below-average players.

The list of misses is spectacular.

If there were a hall of fame for draft failure, Caldwell, Harris and Smith would be inducted with no lines, no wait.

Under Harris, who took over in the role after Tom Coughlin was fired following the 2002 season, Jacksonville spent first-round picks on these gems — Reggie Williams, Matt Jones and Derrick Harvey.

Smith had this quartet on his ledger — Monroe, Alualu, Blaine Gabbert and Justin Blackmon. Monroe and Alualu were average players who didn’t live up to their draft status of eighth and 10th, respectively. Smith also drafted a punter in the third round, five spots in front of some guy named Russell Wilson.

And Caldwell remains the gift that keeps on giving. While he did construct rosters that led to the drafting of Trevor Lawrence, only three of his nine first-round draft picks remain with the team (K’Lavon Chaisson, Allen and Taven Bryan). Bryan and Chaisson have been underwhelming, to put it mildly.

The true telling sign of bad drafts is the sheer number of first-round players who made it past five years (or signed a second contract) with the Jaguars. Only nine Jacksonville first-rounders have (Alualu, Tony Boselli, Kevin Hardy, Marcus Stroud, Marcedes Lewis, John Henderson, Fred Taylor, Donovin Darius and Blake Bortles). Six of those players were Coughlin draft picks if that gives an indication of how long and how poorly this franchise has drafted. Coughlin’s last season coaching was 2002. Bortles’ second contract was an albatross, also a Caldwell special.

But let’s break this down into a more digestible slice of failure and look at the drafts from 2010-21. The list of Jacksonville first-round picks over the last 12 years (from 2010-21) paints a picture of flat-out inept drafting under two general managers in Caldwell and Smith.

Pro Football Focus rates Jacksonville the 29th worst team at drafting first-round picks since 2010. Only the Seahawks, Lions and Raiders rank worse than the Jaguars using PFF’s Wins Above Replacement metric.

To Jaguars fans, 29th is probably too fair of a grade.

It feels significantly worse, especially after Monday’s giveaway of Henderson, who never seemed to click in Jacksonville. Meyer said that Henderson needed a “fresh start.” Fresh start? Henderson was hardly in town long to not have to break a 12-month lease. That’s embarrassing.

And it’s par for the Jaguars course.

Jacksonville traded Henderson and a fifth-round pick to Carolina for tight end Dan Arnold and a third-rounder. Arnold was a free-agent signee who was on Jacksonville’s radar during the offseason. Instead, the Jaguars got pennies on the dollar of their original investment on Henderson.

Jacksonville fans have every right to feel burned again. Recent history has been one first-round miss after another. While every team drafts players who don’t pan out, the Jaguars have been the blueprint for how not to draft. They’ve been pretty exact on this inexact science.

First-round picks don’t constitute entire draft classes, but they get the bulk of the attention. First-round picks should pan out more often than not. Jacksonville’s have a history of falling flat. Who’s to blame for that? The scouts? The GM?

Looking at every first-round pick since 2010 (and not counting picks of Lawrence and Travis Etienne), Jacksonville’s unquestioned top first-round selection was cornerback Jalen Ramsey. He forced his way out of town by trade. The Jaguars dealt him to the Rams for a pair of first-round picks, which, in theory, sounded great. Those picks eventually become players and those players were Chaisson and Etienne.

Chaisson has been a disappointment, and Etienne is on injured reserve after foot surgery.

Wind the clock back even further.

Eugene Monroe (eighth in 2009) was an average tackle. Derrick Harvey (ninth in 2008) was a flop. Reggie Nelson (21st in 2007) wasn’t bad but had his most success after he left town, making two Pro Bowls. Matt Jones (21st in 2005) and Reggie Williams (ninth in 2004) weren’t good picks. Leftwich (seventh in 2003) underachieved in Jacksonville. R. Jay Soward (29th in 2000) was the worst draft selection in Coughlin’s tenure.

It’s up to Baalke and Meyer to clean up that messy draft history.

Jaguars draft misery

A look at first-round draft picks of the Jaguars since 2010 and how they’ve panned out.

Year, No. Position, Player, What happened

2021: 1. QB Trevor Lawrence, starter; 25. RB Travis Etienne, injured reserve: This year’s rookie first-rounders. Lawrence is struggling like most rookie QBs do. Etienne is out for the year after foot surgery.

2020: 9. CB CJ Henderson, traded; 20. LB K’Lavon Chaisson, backup: Henderson will go down as one of the bigger busts in Jaguars history. Played just 10 games for Jacksonville and had 44 tackles and an interception. Chaisson has been a disappointment, recording 27 tackles and a sack. This was the final draft for GM Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone and it looks like a double-miss.

2019: 7. DE Josh Allen, starter: A Pro Bowl player as a rookie, he missed the bulk of 2020 with an injury. Has 66 tackles, 15 sacks in his career, but this is a big season for Allen.

2018: 27. DT Taven Bryan, backup: He was a project to begin with when the team selected him to be a stalwart on a physical defensive line. Bryan has looked lost, overmatched and been unproductive on the field. The team declined his fifth-year option, making this likely his last season in town. Has 77 total tackles, 3.5 sacks.

2017: 4. RB Leonard Fournette, cut: Too high of a pick for a running back, Fournette last three seasons in town and rushed for 2,631 yards and 17 TDs. The team cut him before the start of the 2020 season. He won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in his first season there. Making this selection worse were the players who went after Fournette was selected. Some of the players drafted not far after Fournette include S Jamal Adams (sixth), RB Christian McCaffrey (eighth), and QBs Patrick Mahomes (10th) and Deshaun Watson (12th).

2016: 5. CB Jalen Ramsey, traded: The best first-round pick by Caldwell. But the relationship between team and player soured and Ramsey forced his way out of town via trade. Ramsey started 51 games in Jacksonville and picked off nine passes.

2015: 3. DE Dante Fowler, traded: Another high reach by the Jaguars. Fowler tore his ACL in minicamp and missed the season. He was plagued by off-field issues and only started one game in his Jacksonville career, although he did produce 14 sacks in that span. Only one player in that first round in 2015 did less for the team that drafted them than Fowler did, according to Pro Football Reference, Bears WR Kevin White, who had 285 yards receiving and no TDs in three seasons.

2014: 3. QB Blake Bortles, cut: Classic overreach by Caldwell. Bortles was more down than up in Jacksonville. He was 24-49 as a starter and threw 103 TDs and 75 INTs. The Jaguars made it to the AFC championship game at the end of the 2017 season, largely on the strength of their defense. Jacksonville rewarded Bortles with a three-year, $54 million extension, which was panned at the time. Bortles was benched during the 2018 season and cut the following year when the team signed Nick Foles. LB Khalil Mack went fifth and receiver Mike Evans was selected seventh in this draft.

2013: 2. OT Luke Joeckel, released: Dubbed Baby Boselli early, he was Caldwell’s first pick. Was gone after four seasons with the Jaguars in a draft that is arguably the worst of the 2010s. DE Dion Jordan (third), LB Barkevious Mingo (sixth), G Jonathan Cooper (seventh) and CB Dee Milliner (ninth) also went in the top 10 of this draft.

2012: 5. WR Justin Blackmon, suspended and never returned to NFL: Played in 20 career games and had 1,280 yards on 93 catches and six TDs. Was very good when he was on the field, but substance abuse issues ended his career. There were three terrible other first-rounders in this draft (Trent Richardson at No. 3, AJ Jenkins at No. 30 and David Wilson at 32), but Blackmon stands out because red flags existed before he was selected.

2011: 10. QB Blaine Gabbert, traded: The Jaguars gave up their first- and second-round picks to move up from No. 16 He was thrown into the starting mix too early and never had a chance. Gabbert was 5-22 as a starter, passed for 22 TDs and 24 INTs before being dealt to San Francisco. Only two players in the first round that year graded out worse value for the teams that drafted them than Gabbert; Green Bay OT Derek Sherrod and Kansas City WR Jonathan Baldwin. This one stings because future hall of famer JJ Watt went one pick after Gabbert.

2010: 10. DT Tyson Alualu, not re-signed: Had 17.5 sacks during 7 seasons in Jacksonville. A decent player but was considered a massive overreach at the time at his draft spot. According to PFR, the most value of Alualu’s career came after he left Jacksonville.


About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.