These are strange times, to say the least. The Jacksonville Jaguars are slated to hit the practice field this week, but we truly have no idea what is to come amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In an offseason full of uncertainty, a common theme regarding the Jaguars in 2020 is that this roster is extremely young, inexperienced and unlikely to be a contender in 2020 (if there even is a season to play) — with Pro Football Focus going as far as ranking Jacksonville’s roster talent dead last in the NFL.
However, what if the roster is viewed from a different angle? In a guest column for ESPN, Scott Spratt, a senior analyst for Football Outsiders, took a look at each of the NFL teams’ talent based on players who are 25 years old or younger (ESPN+ access required). This may mean teams that aren’t necessarily set up for success in the present or immediate future, but those teams that are built to be strong a couple years from now.
Enter the Jaguars, who Spratt ranks seventh overall of the 32 teams. As things currently stand, nearly one-third of Jacksonville’s 80-man roster is made up of rookies. The team drafted a franchise-record 12 rookies in April, and signed a slew of undrafted free agents shortly thereafter. There are an additional 20 players who are considered to be in their first or second year in the NFL. That’s over half the roster when combining these groups. While the Jaguars are going to have plenty of growing pains and struggles on the field in the next year or two, Jacksonville hopes to develop its homegrown young talent and be a force in the future.
The six teams ahead of the Jaguars in these rankings include the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively. The bottom five teams here are the Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
Here is what Spratt had to say on the youthful Jaguars:
Blue-chip players: Gardner Minshew II, QB; Jawaan Taylor, RT; Josh Allen, DE; DJ Chark, WR; CJ Henderson, CB
Notable graduated players: Leonard Fournette, RB; Yannick Ngakoue, DE
Despite his sixth-round draft selection, Gardner Minshew finished second among the regular rookie quarterbacks with a -5.0% passing DVOA, just behind top overall pick and rookie of the year Kyler Murray (-3.1%) and comfortably ahead of Daniel Jones (-19.2%) and Dwayne Haskins (-42.0%). Even first-round quarterbacks provide their teams with incredible bargains on their rookie deals. If Minshew can build on his rookie season, then the Jaguars will have the rare luxury of cap flexibility to build a veteran team than can compete for the next three seasons no matter their other cost-controlled young talent.
That said, the Jaguars already have other young talent. On offense, Minshew found great chemistry with second-year, second-round receiver DJ Chark, who more than quintupled his rookie production with 73 catches and 1,008 yards in his sophomore season and was efficient overall (1.9% DVOA) and in the red zone (eight touchdowns on just 12 end zone targets). Second-round rookie Laviska Shenault has similar versatility — he rotated through all three receiver positions at Colorado and even took 42 carries in three seasons there — and can elevate the team’s underrated core of skill talent to one of the best in football. And they’ll have help from bookend tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor, who have impressed with 31 and 16 respective starts at just 24 and 22 years old even if their 4.1% and 3.0% blown block rates from 2019 leave room for improvement.
The Jaguars’ defense fell from sixth in DVOA in 2018 to 29th in 2019 and sabotaged the efforts of an unexpectedly decent offense to make a playoff push in the AFC South. But despite their recent inefficiency and several trades over the past 12 months, the defense has even more young talent than the offense. Defensive end Josh Allen finished second among rookies to Nick Bosa with 29 hurries and first with 10.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. He’ll have a new pass-rushing mate in second-round rookie K’Lavon Chaisson to replace the traded Calais Campbell. Top 10 pick CJ Henderson will have his own big shoes to fill as the effective replacement for former cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Henderson has the size and athleticism to do so, and he’ll have help from Tre Herndon and fourth-round rookie Josiah Scott. Herndon might have a lesser pedigree than his 2020 rookie teammates, but he produced a solid 52% coverage success rate over 14 starts in his sophomore NFL season. Even accomplished run-stuffing safety Ronnie Harrison excelled in coverage in 2019 with a 63% coverage success rate. The team will have to hope that young secondary can make up for some of the coverage limitations their linebackers have shown in recent seasons.
Perhaps nothing hinges on Jacksonville’s future success more than the further development of starting quarterback Gardner Minshew II. If he is successful, the Jaguars have a solid starter on a cheap rookie sixth-round deal and can continue to build around him for the foreseeable future. If he falters, it could mean drafting another rookie quarterback and staying in the continuous loop of being in a “rebuild.” Of course for players like Josh Allen and Jawaan Taylor, who had strong rookie campaigns, taking the next step is important as well, along with the development of the 2020 rookie class. If all of that goes smoothly, Jacksonville could be set up for success sooner rather than later — but as Jaguars fans, we know to approach that idea with caution.