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Jaguars defensive line should be greatly improved in 2017

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NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars-OTA Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Training camp is under way and we’re finally getting a glimpse at what the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars could potentially look like.

One positional group that was seemingly upgraded in the offseason was the defensive line. The Jaguars signed big name free agent Calais Campbell to a big contract, and also drafted Dawuane Smoot out of Illinois in the third round of this year’s draft. They also signed a few depth players in the defensive trenches through free agency and brought in a couple of undrafted free agents who could compete for a roster spot in Hunter Dimick and Carroll Phillips.

Of course, this was in addition to already having Malik Jackson and Abry Jones in the interior, and Yannick Ngakoue on the weak-side edge.

The Jaguars pass rush struggled as a team in 2016. Jacksonville only had 33 sacks as a team last season, which was tied for 19th in the league. But there was some promise. According to SportingCharts, the Jaguars ranked fifth in the league in total team defensive hurries. And, of course, Ngakoue exploded with eight sacks as a rookie.

I only expect these numbers to get better in 2017. Campbell, who had eight sacks himself last season, has already made his presence felt in the locker room and in offseason workouts. He immediately took on a leadership role and gained the respect of his teammates and coaching staff.

From what it looks like, Campbell has continued to impress through the first two days of training camp. Granted, pads are not on yet, but Campbell in full pads will likely be an even scarier scenario for the offense to deal with at practice.

Look at Campbell destroy this bag with one swift movement in individual drills.

Campbell also offers versatility. He is one of the NFL’s best strong-side defensive ends, and can effectively rush from the outside, but he can also bump inside and play three-technique.

Looking inside now, Jackson quietly had one of the best years of his career during his first season in Jacksonville. He got off to a somewhat slow start, and nobody talked about him because he played in Jacksonville, but was really solid. He had 20 quarterback hurries, and a career-high 6.5 sacks. Jackson was constantly demanding the attention of opposing offenses.

Jones appeared in 15 games last year, with nine starts, and played his role as a nose tackle well after being thrust into the lineup due to an injury to Roy Miller. He’ll be looking to ascend his game even further this season, and while personally I still think the jury should be out on him a bit, I expect him to eat up gaps and play well again.

Ngakoue is also a player who still has a little more to prove after performing well in 2016. He should have the starting weak-side end position locked up, especially after Dante Fowler Jr. proving he still has a lot of maturing to do after his recent arrest. He is also a tone-setter on the defense.

But because Ngakoue set expectations so high for himself as a rookie, it would be easy for him to have a disappointing year if he doesn’t play at an even higher level. And he still needs to get better when defending the run.

Both Ngakoue and Jones have flashed good potential, and if they’re able to work on their craft throughout camp, good things will likely happen. This defensive line could be a force if Campbell, Jackson, Jones and Ngakoue all do their jobs correctly.

Rotationally at defensive end, Smoot can spell Campbell as a strong-side end, but can play either side. Fowler will likely remain as a rotational player on the weak-side. If Dimick or Phillips are able to make the team, that gives the Jags a solid fifth pass-rushing option. But I would expect Lerentee McCray to earn that role due to his special team prowess.

The defensive tackle rotation is a little harder to figure out, as several guys are fighting for a roster spot, and with Campbell having the ability to play inside, the Jags may not need to carry many backups. Stefan Charles, Sheldon Day and Michael Bennet are the likely candidates.

With all of this said, it seems that the Jaguars have an extremely talented starting defensive line, with solid options rotating in off of the bench. I expect this group to get to the quarterback more, cause a raucous and perhaps even help force more turnovers, which was a weak-point for this defense in 2016 — causing only 13 (tied for 30th).

With Campbell’s ability and leadership, Jackson and Jones’ presence in the interior and the pass-rushing prowess of Ngakoue, look for Jaguars to give offensive coordinators fits in 2017.

Still plenty of work to do from now until September, though.