JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The 2018 season has been a disaster for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Injuries hampered the offense, quarterback Blake Bortles regressed, the defense has been good but not the elite unit many expected despite returning all but one starter, and they failed to win a game in October and November.
The Jaguars are still mathematically alive in the playoff race despite entering Thursday’s game (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) in Tennessee with a 4-8 record, but they will be eliminated with their next loss. A team that won the AFC South and was 10 minutes away from the Super Bowl last season is now facing a critical offseason.
Significant changes are needed if the Jaguars are going to contend again in 2019. Here are five things the franchise must do in the offseason:
Find a quarterback(s)
The Jaguars have decided to move on from Bortles as their long-term starter, so quarterback should be their No. 1 priority in the draft, but they also should sign a veteran in free agency as long as they can do so at a reasonable price.
That’s assuming the Jaguars release Bortles, though there might be some hesitancy to do so because of the $16.5 million in dead money that would count against the salary cap. That would be the most any team has ever paid in dead money for a single player in NFL history, so the Jaguars might decide keeping Bortles and his $21 million cap figure makes more sense. They would essentially be paying him $4.5 million to be a backup since they’re going to have to pay $16.5 million regardless.
It’s not a great group of free-agent quarterbacks, though. Tyrod Taylor, Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick top the list. Bridgewater will likely be in high demand and that will drive the price up, so he’s not a quarterback the Jaguars will pursue unless they believe he can be their long-term starter.
There might be some high-profile starters available if they’re cut by their teams, such as Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston, Eli Manning and Nick Foles. Economics might rule those players out because of the Jaguars’ cap situation, so their best option likely will be to draft one in the first round.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert is generally regarded as the best quarterback in the class — provided he decides to forgo his senior season. The Jaguars might have to trade up in order to get him, as well, because the Giants and possibly Oakland — both of whom are currently ahead of the Jaguars in the draft order — could be drafting quarterbacks.
Missouri’s Drew Lock, Duke’s Daniel Jones, NC State’s Ryan Finley, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, and West Virginia’s Will Grier are some of the other top quarterback prospects who could be taken in the first few rounds. If the Jaguars opt to bypass quarterback with their first pick, one of these players should be available in the second round.
Whether it’s a free agent, a yet-to-be-released high-profile starter, or a rookie, the Jaguars must have a new starting quarterback in 2019.
Purge bigger salaries to get cap relief
Per ESPN’s Roster Management system, the Jaguars are $19 million over the projected salary cap in 2019 (Philadelphia is the only team also over the projected cap, by $33.5 million), so that means the franchise will have to cut some big-money players loose. Also looming over the team is a potential $16.5 million dead cap hit if they cut Bortles (that drops to $11.5 million after June 1).
Six of the Jaguars’ eight biggest cap figures in 2019 belong to defensive players, including defensive tackle Malik Jackson ($15 million cap figure/$4 million dead money), defensive end Calais Campbell ($14.5 million/$3 million), and nose tackle Marcell Dareus ($10.6 million/no dead money).
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Campbell (seven sacks) is still very productive at 32 years old and he’s the high-priced player the Jaguars are most likely to retain, but they might ask him to renegotiate his contract to make it more cap-friendly. Same goes for Dareus, who has been the Jaguars’ best interior lineman all season. Jackson, however, has lost his starting job, so he’s pretty much gone.
The Jaguars also are likely to release safety Barry Church ($6.25 million) and right tackle Jermey Parnell ($6 million) because they have no dead money and the team already has their replacements on the roster (Ronnie Harrison and Ereck Flowers/Will Richardson). Safety Tashaun Gipson ($9.05 million/$1.6 million) and running back Carlos Hyde ($4.75 million/no dead money) also could be gone.
The Jaguars had planned ahead with the 2018 draft for some of these moves by taking defensive tackle Taven Bryan, Harrison and Richardson in the first four rounds.
Cutting Jackson, Campbell, Dareus, Church, Parnell, Gipson and Hyde would save the Jaguars $57.55 million in cap space after the $8.6 million in dead money is factored in. They likely won’t all be cut — keeping Campbell and Dareus would be wise if the Jaguars can re-work their deals — but the Jaguars have to make some tough decisions in the offseason.
Find a couple of playmakers
After quarterback, the most glaring weakness on offense is the lack of playmakers other than Leonard Fournette. Poor quarterback play certainly contributed to the inefficiency, but the fact that defenses sold out to stop the run and didn’t worry about giving up big plays was a factor as well.
Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant are likely leaving in free agency (and Hyde could be cut), so the Jaguars should prioritize adding several players there. They don’t need to invest high draft picks to do it, either. The league is full of impact running backs taken in the fourth round or later: Jay Ajayi (fifth), James White (fourth), Latavius Murray (sixth), Frank Gore (third) and Darren Sproles (fourth). Denver’s Phillip Lindsay is fourth in the NFL in rushing and the Broncos signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent.
The situation at receiver is a little better. Marqise Lee comes back from a severe knee injury and Dede Westbrook has shown flashes of big-play ability. Rookie DJ Chark has had issues with ball security, but he’s also shown he has potential as a downfield threat. Keelan Cole was benched after dropping five passes and fumbling twice in October and his future with the team is shaky, but he still can be a third or fourth receiver.
Tight end is a problem. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has missed most of the season with a sports hernia, is their best blocker and pass-catcher, but he has averaged only 10 yards per catch in his five-year career. It appears to be a very good draft for tight ends, led by Iowa’s Noah Fant and Alabama’s Irv Smith, Jr. The Jaguars failed to draft a tight end in 2018 and cannot make the same mistake in 2019.
Draft an offensive lineman in first three rounds
The Jaguars’ offensive line was ravaged by injuries this season and left tackle Cam Robinson, left guard Andrew Norwell, and center Brandon Linder will be returning from season-ending knee and foot injuries. The team will have to replace right guard A.J. Cann and Parnell, though Flowers or Richardson will have the inside track to be the right tackle.
NFL teams generally don’t have good depth along the offensive line, so a talented rookie would help significantly. Especially an interior player, because Linder, who started his career at guard, has never played a full season and will have missed 26 out of a possible 80 games by the time this season ends.
The Jaguars missed on addressing this area, too, bypassing guard Will Hernandez to add Bryan to a position group that was already the team’s strength. If they’re going to continue to emphasize the power-run game to open up the pass game, then they must not repeat that mistake.
Seriously listen to trade offers regarding Ramsey
Although the team said in a statement that it has zero intention of trading Jalen Ramsey, there’s no harm in listening.
The roster’s biggest holes can’t be fixed in one offseason and the best way to re-stock is through the draft. Ramsey is the most valuable commodity the Jaguars have, and though he likely wouldn’t command what Chicago gave up for Khalil Mack (two firsts, a third-, and a sixth-round pick) the Jaguars might be able to get two first-round picks. That’s two additional impact players (if they make the right picks) — or they could be used as part of a package to move up to be in position to get their choice at quarterback.
An elite cornerback — even one as great as Ramsey is and will become — isn’t necessary to win a Super Bowl. It surely helps, but teams have done it without one. For example, New England’s starting corners in Super Bowl LI were Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Good players, but not elite. Philadelphia’s corners in Super Bowl LII were Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills. Same thing. Quarterbacks and pass-rushers are more important and the Jaguars could use additional picks to acquire one or more.
It’s unlikely the Jaguars will trade Ramsey, but it would be irresponsible not to listen. They might get an offer they can’t refuse.
Jerry Jones not expecting NFL to discipline Elliott
FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones doesn’t believe that the NFL will take any action against Ezekiel Elliott for his role in an incident involving security guards at a Las Vegas music festival last weekend.
“I think that the main thing is that I don’t see anything that needs supporting,” Jones said Thursday. “In terms of his status with us, [it] has not been impacted in any way. And frankly, I know how conscientious he has been in the offseason, and that’s good enough. No, I don’t see that having any consequences for us.”
Elliott was seen on cellphone video released by TMZ confronting a member of event security and using his body to push the man backward until he fell after hitting a gate. The running back was detained briefly early Sunday during the Electric Daisy Carnival at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He was handcuffed by police when he was detained but not arrested.
Elliott’s attorney, Frank Salzano, called it an overreaction by security after Elliott was seen arguing with his girlfriend.
Elliott did not speak to reporters after Wednesday’s organized team activity.
In 2017, Jones was steadfast in his belief that Elliott would not face discipline from the NFL after he was accused by a former girlfriend of domestic violence over multiple days in Columbus, Ohio, in July 2016. Legal authorities never arrested or charged Elliott, but the NFL eventually suspended him six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Earlier this week, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said the Las Vegas incident would not have any impact on negotiations regarding a contract extension. Elliott is under contract through 2020 after the Cowboys picked up his fifth-year option for just over $9 million.
The Joneses and coach Jason Garrett have lauded Elliott’s growth since the suspension. Earlier this month, Elliott paid for the funeral expenses of a star teenage football player, Jaylon McKenzie, who was killed by a stray bullet as he left a party near St. Louis.
“I think that he certainly has had a great offseason, had a great year last year, and I think that’ll speak for itself,” Jerry Jones said. “So I think that, yes, his overall career at this point is in a really positive place.”
Brew-haha — Yelich, Rodgers chug at Bucks game
While being shown on the video screens at the Fiserv Forum, Bakhtiari put back two beers in a matter of seconds then pointed toward Rodgers.
The two-time NFL MVP couldn’t get through his entire beer in one go, and Bakhtiari, who has slammed beers during other games in the Bucks’ playoff run this season, proceeded to show him how it’s done with a third cold one.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) May 24, 2019
Rodgers did offer somewhat of an explanation, implying in a tweet that he would prefer a different libation.
— Aaron Rodgers (@AaronRodgers12) May 24, 2019
Later in the game, a fan wearing a Bakhtiari jersey was shown downing a beer on the big screen, prompting the lineman to empty a can into his own mouth.
HE’S NOT DONE!! 🍻
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) May 24, 2019
Soon after, Yelich — the reigning National League MVP who was seated next to Bakhtiari — got in on the fun by finishing his own beer, much to the delight of the crowd.
Yelich was a bit faster than Rodgers, but the quarterback wasn’t impressed and indicated that Yelich’s cup had been slightly less than full.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) May 24, 2019
Predicting the next NFL players who could force contract standoffs
What Le’Veon Bell did in 2018 was historic. And when someone does something historic, it’s natural to wonder who will be the next to try it.
Sitting out an entire NFL season to make sure he reached free agency healthy and scored the kind of contract Bell believed he deserved was a gambit few saw coming, and it challenged many of the commonly held perceptions of an NFL player’s individual power in the marketplace. In an economic structure that allows teams to delay long-term contracts well beyond the point at which players have earned them, Bell exerted the leverage he had (the withholding of services) to deny the Pittsburgh Steelers what they wanted.
This was a win for other players, if they were paying attention, because it proved to them (and to their teams) that it’s possible for a player to make good on a threat to sit out if he doesn’t get what he wants. The next time a player or his agent suggests that he might skip the season, we’ll only have to go back to 2018 to find an example of one who did just that.
With that in mind, Pittsburgh could have a similar problem on its hands in a couple of years with another star second-round pick. Standout wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is entering his third NFL season and is vastly underpaid. He can’t make an issue of it this year or next, because unless a player has put in four years’ worth of service time, he has to report within 30 days of the start of the season or lose a year of credit toward free agency. But the Steelers and their fans certainly hope Smith-Schuster continues to play at a level that keeps his contract looking like a steal.
Now, every circumstance is different, and many players likely wouldn’t want to subject themselves to the public heat Bell absorbed. We don’t know this far out whether Smith-Schuster is the kind of guy who would make a major issue out of his rookie contract in its final years or chafe against a franchise tag as Bell did. Just Wednesday, Smith-Schuster made a point of announcing he didn’t plan to make trouble. As one person I interviewed while researching this story pointed out, being a lifelong Steeler carries post-career financial benefits that Bell won’t get to enjoy the way guys like Franco Harris do.
All of that said, the NFL’s economic structure remains one in which great young players often are playing for far less than what the market would say they’re worth. And as long as that’s the case, some players and agents are going to try to see what they can do to get around it. We took a look at some players who could, over the next few years, be the next Le’Veon Bell and force a team’s hand by sitting out. This is a partial list.
Pick: No. 1 in 2014
For the most part, first-round picks don’t fit into this category because they get paid so much up front. Clowney already has pocketed more than $34.5 million from his fully guaranteed four-year rookie contract and its fifth-year team option. This is his sixth season, and the Texans have elected to franchise him at the cost of $15.967 million. Assuming he has saved well and invested wisely, Clowney never has to work another day in his life.
Unlike a lot of the other guys on this list, he can afford to sit out the season if he doesn’t want to play on the franchise tag. The problem is, Houston could franchise him again next year (an option that wasn’t financially realistic for the Steelers with Bell, since they already had franchised him twice). So if he doesn’t like the tag, Clowney’s best hope is that the Texans do for him what the Kansas City Chiefs did for Dee Ford and the Seattle Seahawks did for Frank Clark: Trade him to a team that will give him the contract he wants. Clowney is really the only star player from the 2014 draft who hasn’t yet scored a long-term deal, so we put him in here because his situation is front and center and could be an issue this summer.
Pick: No. 15 in 2015
Gordon falls into the “underpaid” category because of his position. He has averaged $2.67 million a year on his four-year rookie deal and is scheduled to play this season on a $5.605 million team option. (The rookie wage scale doesn’t do any favors for running backs or safeties picked outside of the top 10.) Gordon has averaged 1,457 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns a season over the past three years, and he obviously would have made much more than $5.6 million had he hit the free-agent market this offseason.
Pick: No. 27 in 2015
Jones’ case is an odd one. He is playing cornerback for the Cowboys now, but his fifth-year-option salary for this season is the safety number of $6.26 million, as opposed to the corner number of $9.07 million. This is because Jones played the bulk of his third-season snaps at safety, and that’s how they decide your position for purposes of the fifth-year option. (Cleveland’s Damarious Randall, a safety who used to play cornerback, is in the opposite position, which helps his leverage in contract talks with the Browns.)
The Cowboys would like to extend Jones, and they likely will, after they address the Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper situations. But it hurts Jones that the starting point for negotiations (that is, his current salary) is lower than it would be if it reflected the position he currently plays.
Pick: No. 47 in 2016
First-rounders from 2016 such as Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey could create contract-related messes for their teams in the coming years, but let’s leave those guys out for now because they were picked very high and already have made a bunch of money.
Thomas is in a group with a real gripe. Unlike the first three guys on this list, he was not a first-round pick, but rather a second-rounder in 2016. This means the Saints don’t get a fifth-year option on him, and Thomas has only one year left on his rookie deal. No player in NFL history has caught more passes in his first three seasons than Thomas.
Those guys make an average of $16 million per year. Thomas is scheduled to earn $1.148 million this year, and it’s not even guaranteed. What would you do if you knew you were worth 14 times more than you’re making? I’m guessing “show up for voluntary offseason workouts” isn’t part of the answer, though Thomas has been doing just that. It would be a major shock if New Orleans didn’t make Thomas a lucrative extension offer this summer. The question is whether that offer will be good enough to convince Thomas to take the bird in the hand or whether he wants to bet on himself, wait it out and try free agency.
Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones ($1.07 million) and Chicago Bears center Cody Whitehair ($1.026 million) are two other 2016 second-rounders whose salaries fail to reflect their roles and production levels.
Pick: No. 69 in 2016
Ngakoue has 29.5 sacks in his three NFL seasons. Only nine players have more, and their average annual salary is $17.14 million per year. Ngakoue is scheduled to earn $2.025 million this year, which actually is more than his original rookie contract called for. Players picked in the third round or later who participate in at least 35 percent of their team’s offensive or defensive snaps in two of their first three seasons get performance-based salary escalators in their fourth seasons, and Ngakoue fell into that category. (Note: Second-round picks do not get the escalators, providing yet another gripe for those in the Thomas/Jones/Whitehair group discussed above.) But even with the bump, Ngakoue is earning maybe one-ninth of his market value this year, unless the Jags extend him.
Other third-through-seventh-round picks from 2016 who fall into Ngakoue’s category include (but are not limited to) Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon, New England Patriots offensive lineman Joe Thuney and, of course, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. And don’t forget about Indianapolis Colts backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who is a fascinating case unto himself. Franchising him isn’t going to be an option as he sits behind Andrew Luck. What kind of deal could he get from the Colts if he really wanted to force their hands?
Pick: No. 62 in 2017
We mentioned Smith-Schuster earlier, but the year in which he could “pull a Le’Veon” would be 2022. This assumes he continues his high-level production and that the Steelers franchise him in 2021 and again in 2022, mirroring Bell’s path. Smith-Schuster is in line to be the Steelers’ No. 1 wide receiver with Antonio Brown gone. Even with Brown on the team last season, Smith-Schuster finished fifth in the league in receiving yards. He is scheduled to make nearly $850,000 this year and $1.04 million in 2020. And remember, as a second-rounder, he is not eligible for performance-based escalators. Another 1,400-yard season would make Smith-Schuster the league’s best bargain. Except for maybe this next guy.
Pick: No. 67 in 2017
It’s a weird quirk of the system that Kamara, the third pick of the 2017 third round, will end up making more on his rookie deal than Smith-Schuster, the 30th pick of that year’s second round. Once the performance-based escalator kicks in, Kamara’s 2020 salary will jump from $977,500 to more than $2 million. A nice bump, but nowhere close to the salaries of Todd Gurley II, Ezekiel Elliott or Julio Jones, the only players with more yards from scrimmage than Kamara over the past two seasons. (Gurley is the only player who has scored more touchdowns.) Even with Elliott on his rookie deal, that trio averages $11.6 million a year. Kamara will average maybe $1.5 million over the next two years. Just like Smith-Schuster and anyone else drafted in 2017, Kamara has to wait until after this season to negotiate a new contract. If the Saints can’t get him extended next offseason, you wonder if Kamara decides to create a problem.
Other third-through-seventh-round picks from 2017 who could fall into Kamara’s category include Steelers running back James Conner, Bears safety Eddie Jackson, Bears running back Tarik Cohen and San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle. You could even add Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay to this particular list of names to watch, as he was undrafted in 2018 and rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a rookie. Undrafted players only sign three-year deals, so Lindsay’s contract runs out at the same time as those picked after the first round in 2017. If he goes over 1,000 again in Year 2 … who knows?
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