The “dead zone” period in the NFL comes to a merciful end this week for Jaguar fans, as the unofficial start to football season begins on the morning of July 25th with the men of black and teal taking the field to begin the annual late-summer grind that is training camp, that will inevitably produce what will be the 2019 edition of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After a winter that saw somewhat of a roster overhaul at some key positions, none bigger than at quarterback, and a spring that saw the team make national headlines thanks to off the field issues and contract statuses for key players, all the attention now turns solely to the on the field product and the team’s ability under new quarterback Nick Foles to return to the promise that was spurned by the 2017 season.
Most teams enter training camp needing to iron out the last couple of wrinkles before kicking off the regular season, but for the Jaguars this camp has the feel of a franchise needing to sew up quite a few loose ends before meeting the Kansas City Chiefs at TIAA Bank field on September 8th.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five biggest issues facing the team as they open camp this week.
1. Will Nick Foles’ productive spring carry over into camp and the preseason?
While the headlines over the past couple of months pertaining to the Jaguars have all stemmed from the business side of things, lost among all the contract talk was the spring practice productivity of Foles and the seemingly instant leadership he has brought to a team in desperate need of direction.
Though media was limited in what they were able to report during OTAs and the team’s mini-camp sessions, by all accounts the team’s signing of the former Super Bowl MVP to a monster contract in March looked to already be paying off dividends for an offense that was as watchable in 2018 as the new trailer for “Cats”.
If Foles can continue to show the consistency that displayed in May and June over the course of the next five weeks, particularly in the down field passing game, the optimism most Jaguars fans had at the start of 2018 will return at a fever pitch. Foles’ history with injury and the team’s lack of a known entity at the back up quarterback spot will make for an interesting preseason story line in terms of how many snaps Doug Marrone and John Defillipo want to give their $88 million dollar investment, particularly with him dropping back behind what will be a work in progress offensive line.
2. What does Yannick Ngakoue’s future in Jacksonville look like?
Undoubtedly, the most pressing issue facing the franchise heading into camp is the contract status of the ultra-productive defensive end. While it would seem hard to believe that Ngakoue and the team won’t find a resolution to get a guy under a new contract who has given you close to 30 sacks over the last three seasons and is just entering his prime, until there is pen to paper the cloud will continue to hang over the organization this summer.
As the saying goes, deadlines spur deals, and it would be a shock if a long-term deal isn’t ironed out perhaps as early as the eve of camp starting. Until then we await to see if the sides can indeed come to an agreement, and what Ngakoue’s participation in camp looks like if they don’t prior to Thursday. For a team that is hanging much of their hopes on it’s defense returning to 2017 form, not having your most explosive front seven player from that season out there to get the quarterback, seems less than ideal.
3. How soon will the offensive tackles be ready to go?
As mentioned, Foles and the offense showed promising signs over the spring practices, but that was without any fear of contact from the guys on the other side of the ball coming the quarterback’s way. Now the real bullets start to fly, and the need for the Jaguars to cement their starting offensive line and avoid the atrocity that befell them last season is at a head. Left tackle Cam Robinson is still penned in as the opening day starter, but he didn’t see the field at all in OTAs or mini-camp as he works back from a torn ACL, and coach Doug Marrone has already stated Robinson will be a slow progression back into full speed work when camp opens.
On the opposite side, the battle between rookie Jawaan Taylor and free agent Cedric Ogbuehi will be one of the better competitions to keep an eye on as camp and the preseason move along.
The team is quietly rooting for Taylor to win the camp battle and entrench himself at the right tackle spot by the end of the preseason, but Ogbuehi did run the first team much of spring and drew high praise from the coaching staff. Taylor losing the position to a guy who was widely considered a first-round bust and brought in with the idea of being a depth guy at best, however, would be concerning. It seems likely the team will bring Robinson along much in the way they did with Kelvin Beachum in 2016 in a similar situation, where we don’t see him take the field until the final “dress rehearsal” for the starters in Week 3 of the preseason. This likely leaves Josh Wells as the starting left tackle until further notice. God help Nick Foles.
4. Who is the starting weak side linebacker on opening day?
Telvin Smith’s abrupt departure from the team in May left a gaping hole at the weak side (WILL) linebacker spot, and it will take the summer for the team to see who can possibly attempt to fill the shoes of a former Pro Bowler whose been the NFL’s leading tackler over the last three seasons.
Despite a down season last year, Smith’s talent and productivity is something that the team will be hard pressed to replace and the options currently on the roster don’t jump out as instant fixes by any stretch. The Jaguars appear to be OK with third-round pick Quincy Williams starting much sooner than they anticipated, and he did flash at times in spring practices, but expecting Smith-like production out of a rookie making the jump from Murray State to the NFL is a huge and perhaps reckless risk. Myles Jack has no plans on moving from the middle linebacker position, leaving the only other viable options currently on the roster being veterans Najee Goode or Ramik Wilson.
It would not surprise me if the Jaguars are scouring the waiver wire after cuts are made or seeking out a trade partner to acquire a veteran if Williams proves to be in above his head.
5. Can Jarrod Wilson be an adequate replacement for Tashaun Gipson?
The Jaguars biggest shuffle on the defensive side of the ball this offseason was the essential passing of the torch at free safety from Tashaun Gipson to Jarrod Wilson. Gipson was a part of the mass cap slashing moves the team made in early March in anticipation of giving Foles his large contract, and though there were rumors of his role as less of a locker room leader than the team would’ve liked and more of a distraction at times, his play on the field was everything the team could’ve asked for when they signed him as a free agent from Cleveland as he played consistently at a Pro Bowl level in his time with the Jaguars.
Wilson has appeared in 47 games since making the team as an undrafted free agent, and the Jaguars signed him to three year extension in February after being a productive special teams player and fill-in when needed at safety. Now he’s been given the role as the “quarterback” of a secondary that at times last season seemed to lack discipline in their assignments. With a bevy of known entities surprisingly still available on the free agent market, Wilson will have to quickly answer the question as to whether or not he’s ready to take over such a massive responsibility this August, before the Jaguars are forced seek help off the street.