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The Jaguars aren’t actively tanking — but does the team have a choice in the matter?

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Jacksonville Jaguars Training Camp Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Jacksonville Jaguars have made a lot of changes this offseason, trading several veterans away (Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Nick Foles), drafting 12 rookies and signing a few free agents — some of which have already left the team due to various reasons, such as sudden retirements or opt outs due to COVID-19 concerns, and won’t play a down for the Jags in 2020.

Then, in recent days the team gave defensive end Yannick Ngakoue his wish and traded him to the Minnesota Vikings for a couple of draft picks, and somewhat surprisingly, waived starting running back Leonard Fournette.

I think most Jaguars fans had the mindset that Ngakoue wasn’t going to play a single snap for Jacksonville this year anyway, and while losing Pro Bowl talent (and the Jaguars not getting the type of compensation the team was originally hoping for) is never an ideal situation, the loss of Ngakoue was expected one way or another.

The Fournette news, while not a total shock, was kind out of left field. Yes, the team was actively trying to trade him. Yes, the team didn’t pick up his fifth-year option. Yes, it probably would have been his last year with the team regardless. But why not ride him out one more year while you have him under contract? He was clearly the most talented running back on the roster, and reports out of training camp often praised Fournette for looking strong and impressive. He’s also coming off of his most productive year as a pro in 2019, and has seemed to mature and become more durable since the 2018 season, in which the Jaguars tried to void his guarantees after suspensions. In all honestly, the move to waive Fournette, this late into training camp, looks bad from an optics standpoint, in my personal opinion.

So, this is where the Jaguars stand today, less than two weeks until the Week 1 kickoff against the Indianapolis Colts. What’s left after all of these aforementioned transactions and attrition on the roster is an incredibly young and inexperienced group. It’s fair to expect a lot of growing pains from this team. And, if you’re a Jaguars fan, expectations are fairly low every single year. However, this team has entered a total rebuild, and just getting to five or six wins this season could be a challenge.

Yesterday, Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone spoke to the media about the decision to cut ties with Fournette. The question about whether this team is tanking for a better draft pick came up, and Marrone disputed that notion by saying this:

“If (tanking is) the case — if that happens — I’m not going to be here, right? I mean, at the end of the day if I don’t win enough games or, you know, do enough with this team, I don’t I don’t foresee me still being employed. So, I’m doing everything I can to make sure that we have the best team to win football games. I mean, that’s as simple as I can be on it.”

I believe Marrone about tanking— after two straight losing seasons, he may be on the hot seat following another subpar season, even if expectations are low. I also think the team has confidence in itself. The team is not actively tanking, but based on current roster construction, do the Jags even have a choice in the matter? This roster is not built to compete with the majority of other NFL franchises right now. So whether it’s on purpose or not, this team is expected to lose more often than not.

Also, I don’t quite understand Marrone’s comments that getting rid of Fournette is “best for the team” on the field. A group of Ryquell Armstead (who missed time during training camp while being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list), an unproven Devine Ozigbo, an aging Chris Thompson (though I do think Thompson will make a difference in the passing game), and an undrafted rookie James Robinson is not striking fear into any opposing defenses.

Look at just about any “way too early mock draft” for 2021. Just about every single one you will read has Jacksonville picking first, and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence coming to Duval. Here is a quick list of recent mock draft with that scenario (there are plenty of others not listed as well):

ESPN Stats and Info also gave the Jaguars the best chance of landing the top overall pick in 2021, with a 23.8 percent chance. The second-best chance is the Washington Football Team, which is far less at 13 percent. The only recent mock draft I looked up where the Jaguars weren’t picking first, was from The Sporting News — in which Jacksonville picked second behind Washington and selected fellow quarterback Justin Fields out of Ohio State. Basically, just about everybody out there in the national media expects the Jags to be amongst the very worst teams in the league.

Earlier this summer, Pro Football Focus ranked Jacksonville’s roster dead last in the NFL. I argued against this in my post back in June, but now, with even more attrition since then, a depleted defensive line, a rebuilt secondary (that includes several rookies), an unproven running back group, question marks about how quarterback Gardner Minshew will fare as a full-time starter, and many other issues, it is hard to disagree with PFF as things currently stand.

While this team has a lot of young talent, in which the Jags actually need to develop and keep in Duval, Jacksonville doesn’t appear to be a contender this season. It’s possible that with the 2020 draft class and a lot of ammunition in the 2021 NFL Draft, that in two years or so this franchise can turn things around and complete the rebuild at a much faster pace than usual, but that remains to be seen.