Following a disappointing 2019, the Jacksonville Jaguars are depending on recent additions and subtractions to right the ship, especially along the team’s defensive line.
Last season, the Jaguars were one of the worst teams in the league against the run, giving up an average of 139.39 yards-per-game, ranking 28th in the league in run defense. The team suffered due to injuries along the defensive line, specifically losing dominant run-stuffing nose tackle Marcell Dareus to a groin injury, which would eventually land him on the team’s reserve/injured list.
Following the season, the team opted not to pick up the last year of Dareus’ deal, making him a free agent for the first time in his nine-year career.
Dareus wouldn’t be the only defensive lineman to depart, however. The Jaguars would trade defensive end/tackle Calais Campbell to the Baltimore Ravens early on in the offseason, moving on from one of their star defenders and marking the start to a full-fledged rebuild for the entire roster.
Replacing the productivity of both players will have to come in the form of several young players along with a few key veterans. The Jaguars signed nose tackle Al Woods and defensive end Rodney Gunter early on during the free agency process, along with drafting nose tackle DaVon Hamilton in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
“The No. 1 identity that we have been talking about is the identity to be able to stop the run,” Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said immediately following the draft in April. “In order to do that, you have to be big up front, you have to be physical and you are going to have to be able to tackle. That is something that has hurt us. That is something that we have put a priority on.”
While Woods, Hamilton and Gunter are sure to play major roles, the expected growth of defensive tackle Taven Bryan and the continued development of defensive end Dawuane Smoot will be just as important.
“I think Taven [Bryan] took a good step near the end of the season and we expect him to take another step and really develop as a better three down player, a better pass rusher,” said Marrone.
The third-year player played in one spot all season in 2019, inside at three-technique, and while he didn’t have many sacks (2), he did show improvement in both areas of his game, earning a run-defense grade of 74.6 (up from 69.1 in 2018) along with a pass-rush grade of 68.8 (up from 60.5 in 2018), according to Pro Football Focus.
Especially in the latter portions of the season, Bryan illustrated - at times -, why he was selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Smoot, entering his contract season, is also expected to take a jump. In 2019, the fourth-year defensive lineman enjoyed his most-productive season, accounting for six sacks on the year. He proved to be one of the team’s most-versatile defenders, often switching from the interior to exterior of the defensive line with ease.
While it has been made clear that the team’s defensive line will not be changing alignment too much in 2020, the team’s addition of outside linebacker/defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson will be pivotal for this season opposite of rising-star defensive end Josh Allen.
Due to the team’s rocky - to say the least - relationship with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, Chaisson will play a major role with the team from day one, potentially starting for the team as soon as week one.
The Jaguars are entering one of the most bizarre years of football, or sports in general, in a long time with some of the most pronounced personnel changes of any team in the NFL. Considering the holes and changes along other major parts of the team’s roster, the defensive line will be the catalyst.