The Jaguars defense has played at an elite level this season. They have kept opponents to an average of just 15.3 points per game, a mark which no team has achieved since the 2013 Super Bowl-winning Seahawks (14.4).
They are talented and productive, while also being relatively young when you consider that several of their stars are aged between 23 and 26 — Jalen Ramsey is already a top shutdown corner at age 23; Telvin Smith at 26 has built on his hype and is entering his prime as one of the better defensive playmakers in the league; AJ Bouye is also 26 and has earned every cent of his big deal; and then there’s three players under 24 who are thriving in the system – Yannick Ngakoue, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler Jr.
Mix in a DPOY-level season from the veteran Calais Campbell, a pair of prolific, big-money DTs in Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus, very reliable safety play from Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, several other solid pieces, and you have a near historic defense. If they were in a bigger market like New York or Chicago, you could argue that they would attract even more attention. The scariest part is that they should only get better. Their young players should develop, and their best vets are locked up for several years on good money.
Winning in the NFL is such an inexact science, there’s many ways to do it, and approaches that win for one team may lose for another. There are so many on-field variables that analytics and other more objective methods struggle to really evaluate teams and predict success. Compare it to the Moneyball revolution in baseball which essentially broke down the components of a win in baseball, and revalued the game. That’s basically impossible to do in football.
Therefore, I think in the NFL it is very important to recognise when you have a position or unit that is clearly winning you football games, and do everything you can to keep it and supplement it. Very few teams get the opportunity to have that clear “special something”, and even some that do will fail to adhere to that rule of keeping it and supplementing it (the Colts are at risk of this, but the shoulder injury has been “bad Luck”).
The Jaguars defense is a perfect example of what I mean. Many of the Jaguars’ wins this year have simply been a case of strangling the other team to single digits, and then the offense just doing enough to get the job done. Their defense is capable of single-handedly winning games.
The Jaguars have the chance to be like the recent Seahawks and Broncos teams that went to several Super Bowls and had sustained success, often (with the exception of Peyton’s 2013 fountain of youth season) built on an elite defensive group. In fact, they have a chance to be better.
But in order to do that, and increase their chances to get a long-awaited Super Bowl ring, the Jaguars will need two key things in the future: (1) cap space, to keep this defense together; and (2) better offense, to consistently beat good teams late in the playoffs. Their main obstacle to both of these could very possibly (and suddenly) become Blake Bortles.
Bortles may not be a lost cause, as QB development in the NFL is fickle. He may go on to become a more than solid starter. But all he has shown recently is that he is a below-average NFL quarterback. He seemed to have a great start to his career, but he relied heavily on “garbage time” (great article here on FiveThirtyEight) and his stats didn’t actually translate to efficient offense. Meanwhile he has shown nothing of late to justify or suggest that they commit to him long-term. I mean, at one point this preseason he was benched for Chad Henne.
Nonetheless, the Jaguars are currently 7-4 and in good position to win their division. Some people like to use W-L record as an important quarterback metric, and so, some people will probably endorse extending him long-term at some point. With the QB market as inefficient and confusing as it is, there would be little surprise to see the thought behind a Blake Bortles long term extension being: “he’s 6’5, he’s a top 3 pick, and he’s winning games”. But if the Jaguars management were to do this, they’d be, in my opinion, making a poor economic decision, and really a poor football decision.
Having Bortles on his $19 million option next season is actually an OK spot to be in. They’ve got enough 2018 cap space to keep the defense together, only slot corner Aaron Colvin and veteran LB Paul Posluszny hit the market after this season. I would say, unless they really like a rookie QB in the draft that they think can give more than Bortles, that keeping him there is a justifiable “safe” short-term option. But down the line, they will eventually have to top the market for Jalen Ramsey ($16m+ APY), while paying up to keep promising edge rushers Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue. There’s also the huge potential of Myles Jack who may become irreplaceable, as Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly are to their defenses. These are all while they have about $90 million worth of veteran defensive talent currently on the roster for 2020. There will be some very hard decisions, even if a couple of the veterans decline and become expendable.
Therefore, they must be very cautious with how they approach Bortles’ contract situation in the longer term. They could easily fall into the trap of throwing $100+ million at him over four or five years, if he tries to push the envelope and they get scared of losing a QB that has “won games” for them. They could try and get him for a short two-year deal after the option, but there’ll be competitors in the QB market, especially if Bortles gets some wins on his resume. A franchise tag approach like Washington have done with Cousins could work alright, just to see how Bortles develops. But Washington haven’t had any substantial (and costly) plan to build around, Cousins has essentially been their “plan”, and his play has deserved that chance. The Jaguars are in a different situation, they’ve built a winning and increasingly expensive defense before having to put any cap faith in a QB. With the Jags’ approach, the short-term tradeoffs involving that 1 year, $20-23 million are more difficult.
This leads me to think that one possibility is biding their time until a veteran to become available, a la the Broncos and Peyton Manning back in 2012. Granted, Peyton was a special case, but a guy like Eli Manning, Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger may become available in 2018/2019 just before this defense becomes even more expensive. Plugging a winner under center alongside a feature back in Fournette, an upgraded offensive line (Jags should focus draft capital there in next couple drafts IMO) and with this elite defense, could bring a lot of joy to Jacksonville fans in the near future. It may be a small market, but wins do the talking in this league, and any quarterback would love to play alongside a defense that often keeps an opponent to 10 points or less.
With their defense fully stocked with talent, and many key players signed long-term, the Jaguars can focus on accumulating offensive talent early in the next couple of drafts, and sprinkling in some defensive reinforcements. They can reinforce their offensive line. Also, depending how the Allen Robinson FA situation goes, they could aim for a more durable receiving star. A young, mismatch TE could also bring them forward as an offense. There is huge promise for this franchise, but Blake Bortles continuing to play at an average or worse level will only set a cap on their offensive potential.
So, to round up this piece, my basic premise is that Jacksonville are in an enviable spot given the landscape of the league, and their opportunity is exciting, but also fragile. They were only recently perennial losers, and have built this outstanding defense that is on its way to historic capabilities. The Jaguars front office has a chance, a significant chance, to build a championship team there. But it starts with making the right choice on their QB situation. Whether that’s leaving Bortles on his option and going from there, or drafting a QB early in the 2018 draft (Lamar Jackson and Fournette in a zone read, anyone?!) — the Jaguars should consider all paths available before sticking with Bortles and refusing to try and turn something good into something great.
Will Eddowes is a 21 year old college student from New Zealand. Will is in his fourth year of study at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, pursuing conjoint degrees in law and economics. Despite living so far away from football, Will has developed a strong passion for the game, particularly the front office aspects of salary cap analysis and team building/scouting. Follow Will on Twitter @WillEddowesNFL