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The stunted growth of Dawuane Smoot leaves the Jaguars in a bind

Design by @JaxonFil

Social media was abuzz earlier this morning when New York Jets beat writer Manish Mehta published a report stating that the Jets had recently reached out to the Jacksonville Jaguars to gauge the availability of 2015 third overall pick Dante Fowler Jr.

On the surface, an inquiry by general manager Mike Maccagnan makes sense. The Jets’ defensive roster is missing a dynamic edge rushing threat and the Jets front office was very transparent about their affection for Fowler during the entire 2015 draft process. In an appearance on the Jaguars Today radio program this morning, Mehta even went so far as to confirm that Fowler was above Leonard Williams on their draft board, who ended up being their pick at the No. 6 spot.

In a vacuum, moving Fowler for fair value would make sense at this point in time. Fowler is entering his final year with the team and is not a likely candidate for re-signing due to an already steep financial investment in the defensive line. As a result, the opportunity to recoup some capital would be good business for the Jaguars if it weren’t for the fact that it would leave the team bereft of an auxiliary edge rusher during a Super Bowl push.

The real culprit for why this isn’t a no brainer is not Fowler.

It’s not Dave Caldwell.

And it’s not Tom Coughlin.

It’s Dawuane Smoot.

When the Jaguars selected Smoot in the third round of last year’s draft, they did so with the blueprint of a potential succession plan in a post-Dante era. Based on Smoot’s performance in 2017 and his lack of availability so far this offseason due to injury, it is difficult to envision him as a viable long-term pass rushing replacement for Fowler. Some on the team beat have even gone so far as to suggest that his spot on the final roster isn’t safe. While I’m not entirely sure that’s going to happen, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Despite producing 15.5 sacks and over 136 tackles in his four-year career at Illinois, Smoot failed to register a single sack last season, totaling only 20 total tackles in 16 games. For the Pro Football Focus crowd, Smoot earned a paltry 50.5 pass rush grade on 288 total snaps in 2017. When you see the list of pass rushers who were selected after Smoot in the 2017 draft (Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis, Tim Williams), it adds more insult to injury. Lawson and Willis combined for 9.5 sacks last season in spell duty for Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, while Tim Williams has been a problem for offensive linemen in three preseason games so far for the Ravens.

At this point in time, if you swapped Smoot for any of these three pass rushers, the decision to move Fowler to a motivated buyer like the Jets for, say, a third round draft pick would be a simple one. However, Smoot’s lack of production and recent unavailability makes Fowler really indispensable for 2018 and puts the team brass in a bind. I went back and reviewed three games last season which Smoot had the most snaps — Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens, Week 14 against the Seattle Seahawks, and Week 15 against the Houston Texans — to see if I could pull some positive things to project promising development from Smoot as pass rusher.

The results, however, were discouraging:

Out of 76 total snaps, Smoot did little to nothing to affect the passer and disrupt rushing lanes with pressures or hurry the quarterback off the spot. The only notable tape came from collapsing a run play, hustling downfield on a screen, and chasing down a runner in which he may or may not have lost contain in the first place. Smoot’s best plays did demonstrate tremendous effort and motor, but effort will only get you so far in the NFL.

Quite frankly, the major takeaway for me was that Smoot will be nothing more than a solid run defender in the NFL. In comparison to Fowler and Ngakoue, Smoot showed little explosiveness off the snap, demonstrated average athleticism and flexibility, and was unimaginative with his hand usage to shed blocks. Pass rushers in particular usually take longer to develop, which is why I wouldn’t hit the eject button on Smoot quite yet, but he has to get healthy quick and make up for lost time this offseason.

If the Jaguars do end up holding on to Fowler for this season, it will be an inadvertent statement on how they feel about Smoot. A few years ago when the roster was in full re-build mode with the likes of Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson, this team could afford to be patient with long-term projects.

Entering a year where it’s championship or bust, this regime may not be so tolerant.