JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It feels different around TIAA Bank Field.
The Jaguars are in the early stages of their offseason program, but there’s a much different vibe around the franchise. Trevor Lawrence is in the same offensive system for the first time in his NFL career. There’s coaching stability and a franchise that’s ascending. They’ve added a motivated playmaker at receiver and some depth pieces in free agency. The draft, which Jacksonville has gotten accustomed to picking high in, isn’t the talk of town this year.
The expectations were minimal last season. Now, they’re immense. That’s what happens with a young franchise quarterback and a coach of the year finalist both back in the mix. Lawrence said that the increased focus around the team isn’t a bother because the Jaguars aren’t thinking beyond the present day and trying to get better.
“I think we can’t really focus on the expectations. Obviously, you’re doing something right when the expectations raise for your team. So obviously, that’s just a byproduct of the success we had last year,” Lawrence said Wednesday.
“But still, last year didn’t end the way we wanted it to. Obviously, it was a good year for our team, for the city, for this organization. But there’s more out there. I think we’ve set a new standard of who we’re going to be, the team we’re going to be, and we got to start that way this year.”
The Jaguars, now more than ever, feel like they’re Lawrence’s team. He was drafted to be that player but labored through a tough rookie season under Urban Meyer. Things appeared better in his second year, but Jacksonville was erratic in the first half of the season. The Jaguars were competitive but limped to the bye week at 3-7. Lawrence grew up significantly in the stretch that followed, leading the Jaguars to a 6-1 closing run and to the AFC South title.
One player who watched that surge from afar was receiver Calvin Ridley. Jacksonville made a trade deadline deal with the Falcons for the suspended fourth-year player. Ridley missed a chunk of 2021 after stepping away for his mental health, and later, he revealed, to rehab a broken foot. He was out the entire 2022 season due to betting on NFL games.
“I watched every play maybe 10 to 12 times, over and over, every play they ever did here last season,” Ridley said. “So, I kind of tried to just put myself in those situations like all right. Yeah, they’re damn good.”
The offseason program this week is essentially a knock off the rust and slowly get acclimated back to NFL life. Players are limited to working out, watching film or rehabbing injuries. Jacksonville will segue into its second phase of the offseason in late May and early June before mandatory minicamp June 12-14. And there are still a number of things to check off the list before training camp begins in late July.
Linebacker Foye Oluokun said these workouts are integral to the team. Players returning after a break from NFL life need to get back into the system and start to focus on the basics. Workouts are an invaluable time to forge bonds, something that should be easier this time than it was a season ago.
“Gelling process, culture, keep the culture up. Obviously, we need to enjoy it, we definitely have fun out there, but everybody is working. We don’t take the workouts lightly, I’ll put it that way,” he said. “We have a lot of fun out there, guys jawing back and forth at each other. Making sure we’re keeping the camaraderie up, but we’re definitely lifting our weights. If you need to get a little extra as this OTA period goes on, seeing what you feel like you need to improve on, working that into your workout as well.”
The draft begins on April 27 and the Jaguars are picking 24th, an anomaly for a team that has picked first overall the last two drafts. Help in the secondary, along the defensive line and at tight end are three of the areas where Jacksonville could look with that No. 1 pick. Tight end remains a question, too.
Evan Engram has yet to sign his franchise tag tender and isn’t at offseason workouts. The team has until July 17 to agree on a long-term deal or else they can’t negotiate again until after the season. And after the season remains a significant time period for another reason. That’s when Lawrence, who will be entering his fourth year in the NFL, becomes eligible for a contract extension.
His price will jump by tax brackets as new deals for quarterbacks roll in. This week, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts reportedly agreed to a $255 million deal with nearly $180 million in guaranteed money. Lawrence is in position to cash in with an even larger deal, especially with players like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert up for new contracts ahead of Lawrence.
“That’s a big one. I think that’s awesome for guys to be rewarded for their play, and not even just their play, but just, I don’t know Jalen super well, but it seems like his character is great, and he seems like a great leader,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s always awesome to see guys get rewarded for that and for a team to obviously believe in him that much and kind of go all in on him, so it’s cool to see obviously a big number, which is good for the future of guys playing that position, so I think it’s really cool.”