JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As this season got underway, I spent a fair amount of time talking about Doug Pederson’s approach and how he coached compared to Urban Meyer. Some viewers questioned why I was spending so much time focusing on Meyer. The fact is that the change was so dramatic, even before the results started to come, that you could tell that things were changing. So I reported on it.
Then, when the Jaguars won games against the Colts and Chargers in the first quarter of the season, it appeared that the change had happened in a hurry and that the Jaguars were responding. Then, October arrived. Five straight losses.
We know what happened next. We can talk about the progress made by Trevor Lawrence or the impact of a healthy Travis Etienne, or Rayshawn Jenkins having a career year with regard to impact plays or half a dozen other factors that came from player performance.
The fact is that it was Pederson’s steady presence that allowed that to happen. The Jaguars were better than a three-win team last year, talent-wise. And they were better this year. I think that underlines the impact a head coach can have on the tone and culture of a team. Pederson hit all the right notes.
Now let’s take a look ahead.
What comes next for the Jaguars?
Let’s talk about free agency first.
Here are the Jaguars players who become unrestricted free agents now:
- Tight end Evan Engram
- Defensive end Arden Key
- Defensive end Dawuane Smoot
- Wide receiver Marvin Jones
- Right tackle Jawaan Taylor
- Tight end Chris Manhertz
Engram and Key are the top two targets to keep here as far as I’m concerned. Smoot will depend on how he recovers from his Achilles injury. Will Marvin Jones be happy with Calvin Ridley being brought in? Taylor had a good year, but will the Jaguars be willing to spend money on him when they have Walker Little ready to step in, still on a rookie contract? Finally, how much do the Jaguars value the blocking of Manhertz? Are they willing to spend to keep him?
The salary cap is expected to be over $220 million next season, up from $208 million this year. Before the cap goes up, the Jaguars are about $20 million over the cap for next season. With the expected increase, let’s assume that’s more like $12 million. They can make some more room by restructuring some existing contracts. Josh Allen for instance. Maybe Roy Robertson-Harris.
I suspect that we’ve seen the last of Shaq Griffin in a Jaguars uniform. The Jaguars can save around $13.5 million under the cap if they cut him free. Cutting K’Lavon Chaisson would save another $2.4 million.
At some point in the next year or two, the Jaguars will give Trevor Lawrence a big contract that should help free up some cap space based on the way the deal will be structured, but it’s always advantageous for a contending team with a quarterback on his rookie deal. That’s where the Jaguars are right now.
Unlike last year and the year before that and most years in recent memory, the Jaguars aren’t picking near the top of the draft. The Jags won’t make a pick until number 24 in the first round.
If they can add a few pieces in free agency, they can simply take the best player, regardless of position.
So here are the five areas I believe the Jaguars need to look to improve in free agency:
- Pass Rush
- Nickel corner
- Offensive line depth
- Another option at running back
- Did I mention pass rush?
Finally, we can expect some of this year’s rookie class to show improvement. I want to say all, but it rarely happens. If Travon Walker can take a step forward as a pass rusher and linebackers Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma and center Luke Fortner are better next season than they were as rookies, the Jaguars will be in good shape to do more than simply compete. They can challenge for the AFC championship.