JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The frustration over the Jacksonville Jaguars’ divisional round playoff loss will linger, but there’s a sense of optimism over where the franchise is headed.
That has happened before — the 2017 season that ended in the AFC Championship Game — but this time feels different. Maybe it’s because the Jaguars have found their franchise quarterback and a head coach who has won a Super Bowl. Or maybe it’s because the AFC South seems like their division to lose.
Regardless, there’s a feeling inside the organization that the Jaguars’ 2022 accomplishments are just the beginning.
“We’re going to be back,” quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. “We set that. This is the bar and we’ll be back.”
It’s hard not to be eager for the future when you consider how far the franchise has come in one year. The Jaguars are the first team in NFL history to have the worst record in the league and make the playoffs the following season. It wasn’t a smooth journey — they were 2-6 — but that’s what made their 9-8 record, AFC South title, and come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in a wild-card playoff so rewarding.
“There is a sense of accomplishment for everything this team has gone through over the last year and a half,” Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said. “To go from one of the worst teams record-wise a year ago to winning a playoff game this year, there is a sense of accomplishment. It’s just a credit to these guys.
“It wasn’t a pretty season, by any means. We had that stretch in there that was pretty rough on us. Every guy in there right now, they all had a belief that we could accomplish our goals, and they never wavered.”
Of course, there are still questions facing the team heading into 2023 and the Jaguars have to find answers for their recent success to continue. Here are the three biggest questions entering the 2023 offseason.
What’s next for Trevor Lawrence?
The biggest thing Lawrence has going for him this offseason? Stability.
Lawrence has had three head coaches, three offensive coordinators and three offenses to learn in the past three years. For the first time since he entered his final season at Clemson, he won’t have to deal with change.
That means he can spend the offseason concentrating on perfecting timing with receivers, having a fuller understanding of why Pederson is calling a specific play, and weeding out stuff in the offense that he doesn’t like and adding more of what he does. He and Pederson believe this time to practice will lead to an even better season for him in 2023.
“It feels good, just the foundation that we have here, that we set this season and last offseason, knowing that I’m going to be in the same system, all those things moving forward,” Lawrence said. “I’m really excited to have that experience and have all this tape to learn from and so many things.”
Lawrence finished his second season with 4,113 yards passing (second-most in franchise history) and 25 touchdowns with eight interceptions. His passer rating jumped from 71.9 as a rookie to 95.2, which ranked 10th in the NFL — and ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Justin Herbert and Tom Brady.
Now that Lawrence has had a season in the offense, Pederson said he’s expecting Lawrence to help shape what it looks like going forward. It’s especially helpful that the film Lawrence will watch is of him running the offense rather than watching other teams.
It’s also helpful that receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones will return. The team is hoping soon-to-be free agent tight end Evan Engram does, as well.
“For Trevor, it’s everything,” Pederson said. “There’s continuity. There’s consistency. He knows the guys he’s going to be throwing the ball to. He knows the coaching staff that’s going to be coaching him. That’s big for us, from year one to year two.
With the addition of receiver Calvin Ridley, who can apply to be reinstated on Feb. 15 from his indefinite suspension for betting on NFL games, the offense has a chance to make a significant jump in 2023.
That’s what happened under Pederson in his first two seasons in Philadelphia. The Eagles averaged 22.9 points and 337.4 yards per game and quarterback Carson Wentz threw for 16 touchdowns with 14 interceptions and had a passer rating of 79.3 in 2016. In 2017 the Eagles averaged 28.6 points and 365.8 yards per game and Wentz threw 33 touchdown passes with seven interceptions and had a 101.9 passer rating. Before a knee injury in Week 13 cost him the rest of the season, Wentz was an MVP candidate.
How does Ridley fit in?
In November at the trade deadline, the Jaguars traded a conditional 2023 sixth-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick to the Falcons to acquire the wide receiver. The 2023 pick becomes a fifth-rounder if Ridley is reinstated, and the 2024 pick could become a third-rounder (based on playing time) or a second-rounder if the team re-signs Ridley. If he is reinstated, Ridley will play on his fifth-year option of $11.1 million.
Adding Ridley could turn out to be a massive move if he’s a similar player to what he was in 2020, when he caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons. In 2021, he played five games before announcing he was stepping away for mental health reasons, and then he was suspended for all of 2022.
Both Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke are optimistic Ridley will be reinstated, but nobody knows exactly what to expect from Ridley on the field. He has posted on his official Twitter account that he will be ready, but if he plays in the 2023 season opener, that will mark 23 months in between NFL games. Expectations are high, but it’s realistic to expect some adjustment.
How do they fix their salary cap issues?
The Jaguars are $31.4 million over the projected cap of $224.8 million according ESPN’s Roster Management System but they can save $13.15 million with the expected release of cornerback Shaquill Griffin.
The Jaguars can create more cap space by releasing defensive tackle Roy Robertson-Harris ($7.8 million in savings) and returner/receiver Jamal Agnew ($4.7 million in savings). However, it’s more likely the Jaguars will go the restructure route with multiple players to push some cap money into the next few seasons. That usually means converting salary to a bonus paid immediately, which allows that number to be spread over the life of the contract. The Jaguars have to be judicious, though, because of the looming contract extension for Lawrence (he’s eligible for one after the 2023 season).
Which free agents will the Jaguars try to re-sign?
Twelve players are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the 2023 league year begins on March 13. Engram and right tackle Jawaan Taylor are the top two priorities. Both have indicated they want to return, and Baalke and Pederson have both said publicly they’d like to bring them back, but it’s likely not going to be a quick process.
Engram signed a one-year contract last March worth $9 million guaranteed to bet on himself, and it paid off: He set career highs in catches (73) and receiving yards (766), numbers that are also Jaguars’ records for a tight end.
“It’s special [in Jacksonville],” Engram said in the locker room after the divisional round loss to the Chiefs. “Honestly I can’t even explain to you because this is the first time I’ve really, honestly felt that. Wasn’t a good five years my first five years in the league. It was just rough. All I knew was work at that point. Coming here, I love working here.”
But he also admitted that money will factor into his decision. He was the 14th-highest paid tight end in 2022 in terms of annual salary but finished the season tied for third in receptions with Mark Andrews and fourth in receiving yards among tight ends. Only Travis Kelce (110) and T.J. Hockenson (86) caught more passes and Kelce (1,338), Hockenson (914) and Andrews (847) had more receiving yards.
Kelce and Andrews both make $14-plus million annually, which trails George Kittle ($15 million) and Darren Waller ($17 million). That likely means negotiations between Engram and the Jaguars will start in the $10 million to $12 million annually range.
“What he did this year, I just saw the joy in his eyes talking to him again [two days after the season ended],” Pederson said. “He’s a big part of our success.
“… He knows how we feel. We know how he feels, and hopefully it gets worked out.”
Like Engram, Taylor could test the market when free agency opens. He was one of the NFL’s worst offensive tackles through his first three seasons but improved significantly in 2022. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Taylor allowed an NFL-high 40 sacks from 2019-21 but allowed six in 2022. His pass block win rate of 84.5% from 2019-21 ranked 56th among offensive tackles. The number improved in 2022 to 88.8%, which ranked 37th among offensive tackles.
The biggest difference for Taylor was working under new offensive line coach Phil Rauscher, who brought a zone-blocking scheme that fit Taylor’s strengths. After the best year of his career Taylor might be willing to test the free-agent market to gauge his worth instead of re-signing with the Jaguars before his contract expires.
The Jaguars are in a much different situation with defensive end Arden Key, who signed a one-year deal worth $3 million last March. He finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks and second with 15 quarterback hits. He has had 11 sacks in the past two seasons combined and turns 27 in May, so he’s likely to be a sought-after free agent because young, experienced pass rushers are coveted, especially if teams believe they’re ascending. That might price Key out of the Jaguars’ plans.
The team does have the franchise tag available to use on Engram, Taylor or Key, but the projected salary for offensive linemen ($18.3 million) and defensive ends ($19.7 million) would likely be too high for the Jaguars. It’s a much more reasonable $11.4 million for a tight end, which makes the team tagging Engram a possibility if they can’t work out a deal.
What are the biggest areas of need heading into 2023?
The Jaguars need to focus on bolstering the pass rush and finding another cornerback because to reach a Super Bowl, they’re going to have to get past AFC quarterbacks Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, among others.
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Jaguars were among the league leaders in pressuring the quarterback, but they were among the league’s worst teams in terms of finishing. Their 209 QB pressures tied for second and their 32.9% QB pressure percentage was third. However, they had 35 sacks, which was tied for 25th.
Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen led the team with seven sacks. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot was second with five (in just 15 games). Key had 4.5 and linebacker Travon Walker had 3.5. That’s a disappointing number for Walker, whom the Jaguars took No. 1 overall in the 2022 NFL draft over defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who led all rookies with 9.5 sacks.
The Jaguars knew Walker was raw as a pass-rusher and eventually had him move around and rush from the interior at times. Pederson hinted that it will continue in 2023. Baalke said he was pleased with the way Walker played in 2022, but both are expecting significant growth from him in 2023.
“That stat number that everybody has in their mind of sacks is, in a lot of ways, very overvalued,” Baalke said. “There’s a lot of ways to influence a game, and I think Travon, you saw him do it, whether it be the run or the pass, he had an impact this year, and it’s only going to get better from here.”
The Jaguars signed cornerback Darious Williams to a three-year, $30 million contract ($18 million guaranteed) last March but played him at nickel because Griffin was starting outside opposite Tyson Campbell. When Griffin went on IR with a back injury after Week 6, the team kept Williams inside instead of moving him outside, which is where he played with the Los Angeles Rams and is most comfortable.
The Jaguars moved Williams outside in Week 14 and he flourished, allowing only nine catches for 96 yards in the final five games as the nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He had allowed 34 catches for 332 yards and one touchdown as the nearest defender in Weeks 1-13.
But with the Jaguars being in nickel coverage for 66.5% of their defensive snaps — the fifth-highest percentage in the NFL — they need a third corner who either plays exclusively inside or can play both. They’re likely to use the draft to find one.
Tight end is another need because the Jaguars currently have only one tight end under contract for 2023: Luke Farrell, who has 11 catches in two seasons. The Jaguars are trying to bring Engram back. Chris Manhertz, who played well as a blocking tight end, is a free agent and could be targeted as well. The 2023 draft is regarded as a good class of tight ends, and it’s not out of the question for the Jaguars to use a pick in the first several rounds on one.
Free agency also is an option because there are good players available — such as Mike Gesicki, Dalton Schultz, Hayden Hurst and Austin Hooper — but Baalke said it’s time for the franchise to move away from using free agency to address most of their major needs.
“We have a lot of young players on their first contracts,” Baalke said. “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. We’ve got to look to developing the guys that are currently here and obviously retain as many of these guys as we can.”