When you think of the top Defense’s in the NFL you think of the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and New England Patriots. The Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens also field strong units who are able of shut down the NFL’s elite offenses when everything clicks on defense.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are perennially the pre-season superstars. Every year they seem poiseded to break out of the meager AFC South and establish themselves as young contenders in the top-heavy AFC. Yet ultimately by week 4 analysts find themselves duped as they bought in pre-maturely on the Jags.
However, this year might be different. No not different for the overall team as I believe Blake Bortles under centre places a ceiling on this talented team and the Jaguars still need to address their issues along the O-Line. But 2017 could be a memorable year for Jags fans as this young team may establish themselves as possessing a legitimate Top-5 Defence. In this article I will break down and analyse whether a 3-year re-build that started with the drafting of Dante Fowler Jr. has finally culminated in a top-5 Defense.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have invested significant capital in their defensive line over the past few seasons. This season the Jaguars managed to land the nine-year veteran, 2x Pro-Bowl interior power house, Calais Campbell, from the Arizona Cardinals. Campbell has been one of the most dominant defensive linemen over the past 5 seasons and will likely play inside next to Malik Jackson on passing downs and line up at DE where he will use his size and strength to anchor against the run. Campbell signed for $60m over 4 years and will be an experienced leader and mentor to the young Jaguars defense in the locker room.
Next to Campbell on the inside the Jagaurs have Malik Jackson, a DT who was key in that Super Bowl winning Defense for Denver a few seasons ago. In exchange for $90m over 6 years, the Jaguars are getting one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen over the past three seasons. The Jags have two studs inside with ’13 undrafted DT Abry Jones in rotation. Jones himself is good enough to start inside for at least a quarter of NFL teams but on this talented Jags line he might be limited to a role player.
The Jags struggled to generate turnovers or sacks in 2016 but both complement each other. I.e. if the Jaguars can get pressure upfront, it reduces the stress on the back end and forces the QB to release the ball early, allowing Jacksonville’s play makers in the secondary to generate turnovers. Cranking up the pass rush from the outside will be rookie DE Dawuane Smoot, 2nd-year DE Yannick Ngakoue and 3-year DE Dante Fowler Jr. Ngakoue had more sacks than any other rookie not named Joey Bosa last season. While a liability in run defense (Campbell will switch to DE on obvious running downs), Ngakoue is a ferocious pass rusher and as a rookie amassed 8 sacks, 4 FF and 1 INT.
The ultra-talented Fowler Jr. reminds me of Falcons edge rusher Vic Beasley. Fowler was selected 5 picks before Beasley, going 3rd overall to Jacksonville and while the Jags edge rusher missed the entirety of his rookie season, his first year in the NFL he amassed a measly 4 sacks – the same as Beasley. However, 1 year after gaining just 4 sacks, Beasley led the league and compiled a 15.5 sack campaign in his second full season. I believe Fowler is good enough to pull off a 15 sack season and with the amount of surrounding talented edge he could easily hit double digits.
The key development to watch here will be second-year LB Myles Jack’s move from the strong side to the middle. Jack was a lock-in Top 5 pick a year ago but concerns with his knee injury caused him to slide into Jacksonville’s lap at the start of the 2nd round. Paul Posluszny was excellent at diagnosing and calling plays from the middle for the Jags the past few seasons and Jack has large shoes to fill. While I understand that Jack is viewed as the future and the front office want to get the talented youngster involved early, it is going to be an incredibly steep learning curve as he has to diagnose plays and react not just to fulfill his own assignment, but also to switch plays and get the ten other players on defense aligned correctly. Myles Jack is an athletically gifted LB who if he reaches his potential could be the next Navorro Bowman/ Jamie Collins.
Posluszny will shift to the strong side where he will be a great asset against the run and should allow Jacksonville’s young and smaller DE’s to pin back their ears and not worry so much about setting the edge and anchoring against the run. He was also the 2nd best blitzing ILB last season according to PFF (behind Bobby Wagner). Telvin Smith the Jaguars weak side linebacker flys under the radar but has been one of the most reliable and top performing young linebackers over the past few seasons. Smith cracked the ‘Top 100 Players of 2016’ list and despite being under-sized, is a tackling machine and ferocious hitter. He’s extremely quick and his play recognition combined with 10-yard speed means he routinely blows up screen plays and is able to shut down runs before they develop outside. Posluszny is the older, stout again the run LB, while Jack and Smith are perfect to cover TEs in nickel packages on obvious passing situations.
There is an argument to be made that the Jacksonville Jaguars, the laughing stock in the NFL for much of the past decade, may have one of the most complete Defenses in the NFL. The play making front seven that we have so far reviewed is complemented by a great safety pairing and the second best CB tandem behind Denver’s Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. Jalen Ramsey is an emerging star. I was extremely high on him heading into last year’s Draft and he should have won Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. He’s got proto-typical size, exceptional speed and is a tough, physical press-corner who has the alpha mentality required to play out on an island. In his first year in the NFL he traveled and mirrored Deandre Hopkins and TY Hilton (both very different receivers) stride-for-stride down the field. The Jaguars asked the young rookie to travel week-in week-out and he rose amply to the challenge.
Next to the young emerging star, Jacksonville brought in another young, fiesty and extremely gifted corner in AJ Bouye. Bouye was a lock-down corner for division rivals the Houston Texans last year, however, Jacksonville splashed big money and scored the prized free agent. The Jaguars have two lockdown corners who will force QBs to hold the ball longer as receivers fail to get open down the field – allowing Jacksonville’s young edge rushers more time to get home.
The Jaguars signed Dallas Cowboys strong safety Barry Church this past offseason. Church is a reliable, hard-hitting safety who excels in run support and in pass coverage. Next to Church is another free agent signing with FS Tashaun Gipson.
The problem for Jacksonville will not be a lack of talent; this Defense has it in abundance. The Defense also has capable back ups who can perform a role and also step in as-and-when injuries start to take their toll throughout the season. The problem will be trying to get a group of mercenaries who have signed big money contracts to buy in and gel with the younger guys who have been drafted by the Jaguars. Trying to build chemistry and getting this unit to work like a well-oiled machine will likely take time but if everyone buys in and new DC Todd Wash can get the most out of his players – the Jaguars might just be a Top-5 Defense in 2017.
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