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5 ways the Jaguars defense improved for 2017

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Jacksonville Jaguars Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

For a team that won just three games, certain aspects for the defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars were exceptional last season. This may come as a surprise to some, but the Jaguars didn’t do that bad statistically — they finished the year ranked sixth in total yards and fifth in passing yards.

After more big spending in free agency this offseason by general manager, Dave Caldwell, there is no reason why the Jags can’t improve upon those numbers during the 2017 season. Jacksonville added its fair share of coveted free agents on the defensive side of the ball. The team signed defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye, and strong safety Barry Church.

Looking ahead, here are five ways in which Jacksonville’s defense could be different during the 2017 campaign.

5. They bolstered their pass rush (again)

As good as Jacksonville’s defense was in 2016, the pass rush just wasn’t up to par. There were bright spots (I’m looking at you, Yannick Ngakoue) but the Jaguars got to the quarterback just 33 times, which was tied for 19th in the NFL. Behind Ngakoue’s eight sacks was Malik Jackson with 6.5, and then Dante Fowler Jr. who got to the quarterback four times. These numbers need to improve.

Enter Calais Campbell, who had eight sacks in 2016, and has 56.5 in his career. According to USA Today’s CardsWire website, Campbell also had 15 quarterback hits and 32 hurries. Grouping Campbell with Ngakoue and Jackson (and hopefully either Stanford’s Solomon Thomas or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen) could give Jacksonville the scariest defensive line in all of football.

4. Forcing more turnovers

Jacksonville was abysmal at taking the ball away from opponents in 2016. The team forced 10 fumbles (recovering six) and intercepted the ball just seven times. None of those ranked higher than 24th in the NFL: and the team was dead last in interceptions. Thanks to 29 turnovers from the offense, the Jaguars had a turnover differential of -16.

The takeaway numbers can only go up from here, hopefully.

Campbell has forced and recovered eight fumbles in his career. He has picked off three passes and has an astounding 42 pass deflections. Church also has eight career forced fumbles, with three recoveries and five interceptions. Bouye only had one interception in 2016, but his ability to play lock down coverage is going to force quarterbacks to make bad decisions and throw into tight windows. He has six career picks.

Adding those three players with the talent already on the roster at the defensive line, cornerback and linebacker positions should cause the team to force more turnovers in 2017.

3. Gus Bradley is gone which has to be a plus

The era of Gus Bradley is over. While Doug Marrone has been on the coaching staff since 2015, and was the interim head coach at the tail end of 2016, he now takes the reins on a full time basis.

The team is familiar with Marrone’s coaching style, and he has earned the respect of both his players and those around the league. He must do his part to rid Jacksonville of the losing stigma that has plagued the team for so long. Expect the defense to feed off of Marrone’s attitude.

Tom Coughlin returns to Jacksonville as executive vice president of football operations and said it best at the State of the Franchise Address, when he suggested the team adopt the word “grit” as a way to define themselves. That starts on defense.

2. Myles Jack will get more opportunities

It was a less than stellar rookie year for 2016 second-round pick Myles Jack. In 16 games (with 10 starts) Jack recorded just 24 combined tackles with 0.5 sacks. Expect that to change as the Jaguars want to use Jack as an every-down linebacker and give him more than the dozen or so snaps he averaged per game last season. Jack’s increased role, coupled with his athleticism, should allow for him to make a lot of plays in 2017.

The fact that Jack gets to play next to Telvin Smith — who covers a lot of ground with his speed and athletic ability — should help ascend Jack toward that playmaking linebacker he is capable of becoming.

1. A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey

After a spectacular rookie season by Jalen Ramsey, Caldwell did the right thing — instead of resting on their laurels and putting more on Ramsey’s shoulders, they got him a running mate in the secondary. Jacksonville’s pass defense was already good in my opinion, but moving away from mediocre guys like Davon House and Prince Amukamara and putting a premium on the secondary is a good place to double down.

If Bouye can live up to that mammoth contract he received, not only should the Jaguars have one of the top cornerback duos in 2017, but for the next several seasons as well. Pro Football Focus gave Ramsey a coverage grade of 82.5 in 2016 (led team) while Bouye received a grade of 92.5, which was tied for first in the entire league.

The Jaguars now have the pieces in place to potentially be the best defense in the NFL. It won’t be truly elite until they find an edge rusher opposite Ngakoue, but it will be better.