JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The difference from one year to the next is remarkable for the Jaguars, and no one exemplifies that more than general manager Trent Baalke.
At the end of the 2021 season, it was Baalke who was in the crosshairs of fans who were unhappy with yet another frustrating season. The remnants of the Urban Meyer debacle hung around the franchise and the product on the field wasn’t pretty. There was a fan-led movement and a Change.org petition for owner Shad Khan to clean house, fire Baalke and start anew.
It’s a good thing that Khan didn’t listen.
A year later, Baalke and Doug Pederson have remade the Jaguars into one of the league’s fastest risers. Pederson earned AFC Coach of the Year honors on Tuesday, and Baalke, through the last two drafts and a wildly successful free agent haul, has assembled an excellent roster. Jacksonville, for the first time since 2017, is coming off a playoff season and is ascending.
That’s a 180 from how it felt a year ago, when fans sporting clown noses dotted the crowd at TIAA Bank Field for the regular season finale against the Colts. But Baalke said he didn’t feel any sort of vindication or need for an ‘I told you so,’ from the turnaround.
“I don’t look at it like that. We’re paid to do a job, and our job is to put the best product we can on the field,” Baalke said on Tuesday. “I’ve never listened to the noise. The noise doesn’t determine the decisions that we’re going to make as an organization. I think the best thing you can do when there’s a lot of noise is put earplugs in and go about your job, and that’s what we tried to do.”
Public vindication or not, Baalke and Pederson have turned the fortunes of the Jaguars around quickly. No longer a guaranteed W on the schedule, Jacksonville’s focus is now from a position as a favorite. After years of chasing the Titans and Colts for AFC South accolades, the Jaguars will enter 2023 as the overwhelming frontrunner in the division. It helps to have the quarterback situation set with Trevor Lawrence entering his age-24 season and playing exceptionally well.
Pederson deservedly gets the credit for the product on the field and the unity in the locker room after the stain of Meyer. Behind the scenes, Baalke hit on his 2021 draft and crushed the 2022 free-agent haul. The 2022 draft, which included the likes of Travon Walker, Devin Lloyd, Luke Fortner and Chad Muma, has immense potential to continue that upward trajectory.
Taken together, Baalke’s two seasons as Jacksonville’s GM have been far better than what he was initially painted as. That puts the Jaguars in a much different offseason vantage point in 2023 than the one before it.
From hunter to hunted
“The good thing about that, first of all, it’s a lot easier to be the hunter than the hunted, right? As you get better and you become the hunted, the challenge gets harder,” Baalke said. “You’re going to get every team’s best when they show up in Jacksonville. In the past, maybe they thought this was going to be an easy out, that’s no longer going to be the case. I think the last part of this season really prepared this young group to understand that there’s a real sense of urgency that goes into being a championship-caliber team. It just doesn’t happen.”
The immediate challenge for Baalke and the Jaguars is taking a long, in-depth look at the roster and forming a plan to approach free agency with. Unlike the 2022 offseason when Jacksonville handed out mega contracts like spare change, this year’s process will require some patience and creative accounting.
“We have a lot of young players on their first contracts, a lot of players overall on their first contracts. As you transition into more guys that are on their second deals, it becomes more and more difficult to use free agency as a strong vehicle to improve your team, so we’ve got to look to the draft,” he said. “We’ve got to look to developing the guys that are currently here and obviously retain as many of these guys as we can.”
Keeping their own
The Jaguars are projected to be more than $20 million over the cap, according to Spotrac, although that number will go down significantly with some basic moves and a cap that will be higher than it was in 2022.
The Jaguars have 16 free agents, with right tackle Jawaan Taylor, tight end Evan Engram and defensive end Arden Key as the biggest targets to try and re-sign. Engram was the player whom Baalke was asked about the most. He set Jaguars franchise records in receptions (73) and yardage (766) in the regular season. That position has been a black hole for years for Jacksonville. Engram was able to shine with the Jaguars. Baalke said he was hopeful the team wouldn’t have to use the franchise tag this season.
“Obviously, we’d love to have Evan back. Evan and I visited yesterday as he went around the building and visited with everybody,” Baalke said. “I think it’s mutual. Now we have to make it happen. That’s something that we’re going to work on with Evan and all the other free agents that we have. We have a list of them that we’ve got to mow down one at a time.”
Key was a major defensive piece for the Jaguars, although the pass rush will be a major point of emphasis in the offseason. And Taylor played out his four-year rookie deal with his best season in the NFL. Both Engram and Key took one-year prove-it deals and stand to cash in. Baalke said that the nature of the business makes it impossible to bring every player back.
“Well, goodbyes are tough. You want to keep as many of these guys as you can, everybody understands that we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen, but if we’re going to make that happen, something has to give,” he said. “Everybody has got to give a little bit. We had those conversations on the way out with the players and they understand that. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us in order to make this happen, but I’m pretty confident that we can do what we need to do structurally if we need to sign the guys back that we need to bring back.”