‘Window of opportunity is now’: Jaguars believe they’re ready to contend

Jacksonville made massive gains in Doug Pederson’s first season

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) runs out of the pocket against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (Charlie Riedel, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jaguars have gone from a perpetually rebuilding franchise into a darkhorse Super Bowl contender in one offseason.

The right coach, exceptional moves in free agency and a once-in-a-generation quarterback scratching the surface of his potential have accelerated that rebuild into a new phase.

The Jaguars wrapped up their season Saturday night with a 27-20 loss to the Chiefs in the AFC divisional round. The disappointment was pronounced for players after that loss, but the future is brighter, perhaps as it ever has been.

The arrow is pointing up in Jacksonville for the first time in quite some time.

The Jaguars won nine games in the regular season and another in the playoffs. They did that despite a 3-7 record at the bye week and having one of the league’s youngest teams while playing for first-year head coach Doug Pederson. Jacksonville started the season with an average of 25 years, 4 months old.

Success, of course, has a way of changing things up rapidly. For the Jaguars, the time isn’t long into the future anymore. That future is the present. Pederson and quarterback Trevor Lawrence have put the Jaguars’ expectations on the fast-track.

“Yeah, you feel like your window of opportunity is now, strike while the iron is hot so to speak,” Pederson said. “We’ve got to take advantage of that with the guys we have, with the free agent process, with the draft process coming up and just we got to hit on all those benchmarks and continue to improve the team.”

The last time the Jaguars were coming off a playoff loss — the AFC championship game to the Patriots in the 2017 season — there were some major differences.

Unlike now with a franchise quarterback in Lawrence, Jacksonville still had major issues at the position after its run to the AFC title game.

It made what was, even then, viewed as a premature and head-scratching decision by signing Blake Bortles to a three-year, $54 million contract extension. Bortles was an average quarterback who never came close to the billing as the No. 3 selection in the draft. The 2018 season was his last in Jacksonville, although the financial strain from that deal lived on well after the team released him.

There was also locker room strife simmering. They dealt disappointing former first-round pick Dante Fowler in October 2018 and then shipped out the disruptive Jalen Ramsey the following year.

In hindsight, the Jaguars hit their peak in the stretch run of the 2017 season and were ill-prepared to sustain it. It took four awful seasons after that for the Jaguars to dig out of that post-2017 pit.

Pederson’s team doesn’t show those same deficiencies. Hired by Shad Khan to clean up the mess from Urban Meyer and help restore the franchise, the biggest gains in Jacksonville weren’t just on the field.

“I think we all know what it feels like now to be a part of something special and moving forward have something we can build on and I think we all see the trajectory of where this organization is headed,” Lawrence said. “I know I feel super excited to be a part of it and I think a lot of guys are.”

Pederson rebuilt the morale, confidence and trust among the players before a game was even played. That was obvious as early as training camp and was in plain sight during the year, even during the doldrums, like an 0-for-October showing.

“I think everybody should be in the right mind space going into this offseason, ready to do this again, plus more. I think that’s the mindset going into this offseason is how well can we come back to the same shape but better,” said linebacker Josh Allen. “It’s going to take a little bit more to get to where we need to get to next year. I love this team, I love the coaching staff, I just love the vibe we have here, and I just want to get better and improve each week.”

The challenge of a successful season — and not another teardown or rebuild as fans are accustomed to — is in building on that and rewarding the players responsible.

Jacksonville has a lengthy list of its own free agents (16) to focus on, something that will be at the forefront of conversations in the lead into free agency (March 15).

At the top of the list are tight end Evan Engram, right tackle Jawaan Taylor and defensive lineman Arden Key. Engram and Key both took one-year prove-it deals and certainly played their way into better contracts. Taylor, a second-round pick in 2019, played out his four-year contract and is in line for a significant pay raise.

“That’s the conversations we have to have, and they’re going to be tough decisions and tough conversations. It’s hard to put a time frame on it. It could be a day, it could be a couple days. We’re going to do the best for the Jags and making sure that we have the right people here,” Pederson said.

“A lot of the guys that are free agents, they’re the right type of guys that we want, and we hope to at least make an impact in trying to re-sign our own.”

The Jaguars are projected to be more than $20 million over the salary cap in 2023, although restructures, releases and creative accounting will clean that up quickly. The big change from years past is that many of the pieces are already in place. The chemistry is there. So, too, is the trust in the coaching staff.

“I think we have, like I said, the foundation here. We have the core guys here that we need to keep that going in what we have established,” said receiver Christian Kirk. “For all the new guys that come in to be able to buy into that, it’s on the leaders and the guys in this locker room to kind of insinuate that with them and get them to buy in.”

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.