During the 2015 season, when Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles found himself in times of trouble, the interior offensive line was mostly to blame. Granted, the offensive line as a whole progressed from 2014 to 2015 in sacks allowed, lowering the number of sacks from 77 to 55.
Although this is clearly a sign of improvement -- with 47 sacks in the first 15 games and a horrendous eight-sack performance in the season finale giving them 55 sacks on the year -- Bortles needs better protection in 2016. The Jaguars offense is one that depends on long routes and more time for plays to develop.
The only way to make it better is to mend the holes along the line, particularly at left guard and center. Left guard Zane Beadles has been horribly inconsistent at best in his two years so far in Jacksonville, and Stefen Wisniewski struggled in run blocking and was average-at-best in pass protection. Wisniewski also committed four botched snaps throughout the season, and that number needs to be dramatically reduced next season to, well, about zero.
Jaguars fans can come together and celebrate, however, as right guard Brandon Linder will be returning next season. Linder missed the majority of the 2015 season due to a torn labrum. The return of Linder gives the Jaguars several options as to what to do with him and A.J. Cann, who filled in for Linder as a rookie and was the team's best lineman during the 2015 season.
The team has said that both of these players can be moved around on the offensive line, specifically Cann. While it seems most realistic that Cann will move to left guard and replace Beadles and Linder remains at right guard, the team has hinted at the possibility of moving Cann to center.
All in all, whether the depth chart has Cann at left guard and Linder at right guard, Cann at center and Linder at right guard, or any other combination, there will still be one hole remaining along the interior offensive line.
So, who could be brought in through free agency to fill in that remaining hole? The first thought in anyone knowledgeable of the Jaguars is probably Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack.
While this is a nice idea, there is a long and winding road that leads to Alex Mack becoming a Jaguars player this offseason. For this to happen, Mack would have to first opt out of his contract with Cleveland. Remember, the Browns matched the Jaguars five-year offer sheet for Mack, and he very well might want to stay in Cleveland for another year or more based on his contract with the team. If he does opt out, the Jaguars can make an offer, but just remember it's not a given that Mack will say "hello goodbye" to the Browns.
Mack likely won't be coming to Jacksonville, so it'd be best to let it be. Notable free agent interior offensive linemen the Jaguars could look at are:
- Houston Texans guard Brandon Brooks: Brooks has started 44 out of 50 games for the Texans since he was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and has played right guard the majority of his career. Signing Brooks would most likely result in Linder at left guard, Cann at center, and Brooks at right guard.
- Seattle Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy: Sweezy was selected in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but earned himself a starting position at right guard in 2013 and has maintained the position ever since. As Sweezy is a right guard by nature as well, the starting combo would most likely be Linder at left guard, Cann at center, and Sweezy at right guard.
- New England Patriots offensive lineman Ryan Wendell: Wendell has played with the Patriots since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009, and had been the full time starter across the Patriots line for three of his seven seasons with the team. Although Wendell has dealt with some injuries throughout his career, the Jaguars could take a shot at him to come in and play center or guard.
Something in the way the Jaguars offensive line performed last year needs to be fixed. With these players set to hit the market, as well as the possibility of Alex Mack opting out of his contract with Cleveland, free agency could seriously help the Jaguars fix their interior offensive line. But with a pair of young, versatile linemen in Linder and Cann, and a pair of tackles in Luke Joeckel and Jermey Parnell who are better than you think they are, I think we can work it out to fix this line this offseason.