In what has been the strangest offseason possibly ever due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and what will inevitably be the strangest training camp and eventually NFL regular season ever, the league is marching forward with the 2020 campaign.
Rookies reported to training camp for testing last week, while veterans have reported this week. The Jacksonville Jaguars have already placed a few rookies on the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list, and offensive linemen Jawaan Taylor and Ryan Pope recently joined them.
In any event, even though things look a lot different this year, we can finally start talking about actual football storylines. Perhaps there is no bigger storyline or question mark than how Gardner Minshew II is going to perform as Jacksonville’s undisputed No. 1 signal-caller this season.
After a promising, though sometimes inconsistent rookie campaign in 2019, there is a lot of pressure on Minshew to deliver. The team is unlikely to win many games this coming season (assuming there actually is a season), but Minshew has a chance to cement his spot at the longterm franchise quarterback with smart and efficient play.
The last time I wrote a similar article about a questionable Jaguars starting quarterback, he just happened to go on to have his most efficient season and lead Jacksonville to an AFC Championship game. Of course, Bortles regressed back to the mean after that, but maybe it’s a good omen for Minshew for the coming season.
So, without further ado, here are five reasons (in no particular order) to be cautiously optimistic about Minshew in his sophomore campaign:
1. Minshew excels at throwing the deep ball:
One of the biggest knocks on Minshew entering the 2019 NFL Draft was that he lacked the necessary arm strength to be successful in the league. Well, believe it or not, Minshew was actually the third-highest graded quarterback on throws of 20 yards or more last season, per Pro Football Focus. Minshew’s grade of 94.7 was ahead of the likes of Patrick Mahomes Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers, and only behind Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson.
Highest graded QBs on throws 20+ yards downfield in 2019— PFF (@PFF) May 10, 2020
1. Russell Wilson: 98.9
2. Deshaun Watson: 98.2
3. Gardner Minshew: 94.7
4. Dak Prescott: 93.9 pic.twitter.com/NUqLsV5F6H
I am not totally sure how often Minshew will be throwing downfield in Jay Gruden’s variation of the West Coast offense, but Jaguars fans should feel confident that when those plays are called, Minshew will deliver more often than not.
According to Sharp Football Stats, Minshew had a rating of 146 when throwing passes of 15-plus yards to the right of the field, and a rating of 126 when throwing in the deep middle of the field. He wasn’t as good throwing to the deep left (rating of 57), but that is not unusual for a right-handed quarterback. He also had solid ratings on all three directional throws on passes of 14 yards or fewer, as illustrated below.
2. The Jaguars added weapons around Minshew
While nobody is claiming Jacksonville’s unit to be top-10 (probably not even top-15) offense in the 2020 season, the argument can and should be made that it has been upgraded since last season. For example, the tight end group left a lot to be desired last season. Minshew now has a talented and capable veteran tight end in Tyler Eifert, who when healthy has made a big impact (2015 Pro Bowler). Josh Oliver also enters the season healthy after struggling to stay on the field as a rookie, and James O’Shaughnessy was putting together a promising campaign before an ACL injury ended his season (he expects to be back by the first week of the regular season). The team also drafted Tyler Davis in the sixth round of this year’s Draft. We should see much-improved tight end play in Duval this season.
The team also drafted a pair of wide receivers in Laviska Shenault Jr. and Collin Johnson, who each have the opportunity to make an impact as a rookie. I would think Shenault has the much more clear path to playing time, and his versatility (as both a receiver and runner with the ball in his hands) is going to allow him more opportunities than Johnson. However, at 6-foot-6, 222 pounds, Johnson has an opportunity to carve out a niche role as a red zone specialist and possession receiver. He should also win a lot of jump balls. Add in D.J. Chark, Dede Westbrook, Chris Conley and possibly Keelan Cole, and this is actually a really solid group of wide outs. In fact, I recently wrote about how the wide receivers for the Jaguars are being overlooked.
The team also adds Chris Thompson to the backfield who can spell Leonard Fournette on passing downs. Thompson is already familiar with Gruden’s system and has caught 212 passes for 1,772 yards and 10 touchdowns throughout the duration of his career — which is in addition to the 1,194 yards and five touchdowns he has amassed on the ground. Speaking of Fournette, he has a lot to prove in a contract year and should provide plenty of offense for the Jaguars, taking pressure off of Minshew.
3. Intense and disciplined training regimen throughout the offseason
Minshew has been taking his job as starting quarterback seriously throughout the offseason. In May, he mentioned that since the Super Bowl ended, he has been training six days per week (a combination of lifting, running and throwing). Of course, Minshew and the rest of the players lost out on things like OTAs and offseason workouts due to the pandemic, but Minshew has clearly been putting in the work on his own.
Jags QB @GardnerMinshew5 has been counted out over & over again.— QB Country (@QBCountry) May 21, 2020
BUT he has traits you can’t measure & 1 of them is a work ethic that is relentless.
He should be an inspiration to any young QB who feels overlooked.
Why not YOU? pic.twitter.com/bidymiS2jL
Minshew has improved his physique and looks noticeably more lean and muscular. He has most notably been working with performance coach/training guru Anthony Tumbarello throughout the offseason in hopes of increasing his strength and speed, while also working on actual throwing techniques and timing. Additionally, Minshew followed along with the plan from Jaguars strength and conditioning coordinator, Tom Myslinski.
“It’s been good, I’ve been trying to (improve) really every asset – bigger, faster, stronger,” Minshew said. “Really putting an emphasis on trying to figure out the best weight for me to have as much arm strength as possible, while maintaining as much speed. So just figuring that out, it’s been a fun process. I’ve had a lot of help from Coach Anthony Tumbarello. I’ve been training with him a lot down in South Florida. Also, I have been using Coach Milo’s (Myslinski) stuff with the Jags, kind of a joint effort there, we’ve been able to get me moving in the right direction”
4. Minshew could thrive in Gruden’s offensive system
While it is often difficult for quarterbacks (and the rest of the offense) to quickly learn a new offensive scheme after the coordinator has been replaced, Gruden and Minshew could be a strong pairing. Minshew flashed his potential last offseason in John DeFilippo’s offense, but Gruden’s variation of West Coast-style offense is likely a better fit for the second-year quarterback. Gruden incorporates a lot of play-action passing concepts and the scheme is built around getting quarterbacks into a rhythm, which could be exactly what Minshew needs to build confidence. Gruden has had plenty of success with young quarterbacks throughout his career, including Andy Dalton (as offensive coordinator fo the Cincinnati Bengals) and Kirk Cousins (as head coach of the Washington...Football Team). While Gruden’s tenure as head coach ended unceremoniously, he was a great hire by the Jaguars as an offensive play-caller.
The Jaguars also hired Ben McAdoo as quarterbacks coach this offseason, which is another mentor for Minshew. McAdoo has head coach experience with the New York Giants in 2016 and 2017, as well as offensive coordinator experience with the Giants in 2014 and 2015. Additionally, McAdoo helped tutor Aaron Rodgers as quarterbacks coach with the Gre Bay Packers in 2012 and 2013. Gruden, McAdoo and head coach Doug Marrone make up a strong trio of coaches for Minshew to lean on, as each of whom has had at least one stint as a head coach.
5. More consistent offensive line play?
I have a question mark here because perhaps the biggest thing that could affect Minshew’s play in 2020 is something that is out of his hands — protection from the offensive line. The Jacksonville offensive line has struggled to remain healthy and remain consistent in each of the past two seasons. Cam Robinson tore his ACL in the second game of 2018 season, which forced him to miss the rest of the campaign. He was able to play in 14 games in 2019 without further serious injury, but his play was noticeably down and it is likely that the knee was still bothering him. The rest of the starters were able to remain healthy throughout the season for the most part, which was a big change from the 2018 season, but the level of play was not up to par. Minshew did thrive as a rookie while making plays outside of the pocket when he was able to use his mobility to create on his own, but if he wants to become a better pocket passer, the unit must collectively improve in pass protection. The team also needs do a much better job in the red zone.
Jacksonville also couldn’t decide on a permanent right guard in 2019, as A.J. Cann and Will Richardson platooned at the spot all season long. The two continued to split reps all year, and it wasn’t until close to the end of the season where Cann solely took over the starting spot. Rotating offensive linemen in certain situations or when a starter needs rest is a common practice in the NFL, but not having a starer cemented in the lineup probably hurt the consistency and camaraderie of the starting unit. Richardson has moved back to tackle for the 2020 season, but Cann may now see competition from rookie Ben Bartch, who played tackle in college but will slot in at right guard for the Jags.
Outside of adding Bartch in the Draft, the Jaguars didn’t make a lot of significant moves along the offensive line this offseason. While there were a lot of struggles last season, I don’t think that is necessarily a negative. If the unit is able to stay healthy and raise its level of play from the past two seasons, there is a lot of talent in the trenches with Andrew Norwell, Brandon Linder and Jawaan Taylor who is coming off of a promising campaign. If Robinson returns fully healthy this season, and the Jaguars find an answer at right guard between Cann, Bartch (or an outside source), there is reason for optimism. Offensive line play will be key to Minshew’s success in 2020.