While a couple of key players return, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ wide receivers corps looks a little bit different as a group than it did in 2020.
The Jaguars added reliable veteran Marvin Jones Jr., speedster Phillip Dorsett II and electric special teams ace Jamal Agnew through the initial free agency period. Additionally, Jacksonville selected Jalen Camp out of Georgia Tech in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, signed Josh Imatorbhebhe as an undrafted free agent out of Illinois, and added Laquon Treadwell and Pharoh Cooper as free agents in June.
Of course, Jacksonville also returns D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault and Collin Johnson from last season. Shenault led the team with 58 receptions, while Chark led the team with 706 receiving yards, and those two were tied with Keelan Cole for the most touchdown receptions on the team (five). Johnson finished his rookie year with 18 catches for 272 yards and two touchdowns.
Cole departed the team in the offseason and is now with the New York Jets. Chris Conley (now with the Houston Texans) and Dede Westbrook (still a free agent) were also not re-signed by the Jaguars. While Cole had a solid career during his time in Jacksonville, it is hard to argue against the wide receiver unit being a vastly improved group year-over-year. In fact, it may be the most improved group on offense (outside of quarterback), or on the team overall.
But in addition to just being an improved unit, it could be the team’s biggest strength during the 2021 season — depending of course on how rookie quarterback and No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence performs. With that said, Lawrence will undoubtedly have rookie struggles at points, but he will also stabilize a position for the Jaguars that saw a revolving door at quarterback last season with Gardner Minshew II, Mike Glennon and Jake Luton all drawing multiple starts in 2020. Lawrence is expected to be the next great franchise quarterback in Duval, possibly even the best ever if the hype is real, and for good reason. This alone should give the wide receivers a solid bump in production.
The sheer talent at the position is obviously another reason why the wide outs will likely be the key to Jacksonville’s success (or failure) in 2021, but it is also about the work ethic of the individuals within the group. With head coach Urban Meyer putting an emphasis on the “player-first” mentality, the players have bought in, and the work the wide receivers have put in this offseason has stood out. For example, Meyer was upfront with Chark about his inconsistent play last season, and Chark took that in stride, and has used the offseason to work on improving his body, strength and overall play. Chark is clearly focused and ready for the upcoming campaign.
Meanwhile, Shenault impressed during OTAs and minicamp this offseason, catching the attention of Meyer with how he plays and practices. Then there is Jones, the veteran presence and leader, who already has a great relationship with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell from their time together in Detroit. Chark, Shenault and Jones will likely be the three receivers on the field most often, but Johnson, Dorsett and Camp also all have the opportunity to make an impact. Agnew will most likely play primarily on special teams as a kick and punt returner, but could also be used in certain packages and gadget plays with the offense, as he has elite speed.
There should also be plenty of depth on the team. With that said, Treadwell, Cooper and Imatorbhebhe, along with Tim Jones and Josh Hammond, will all need to impress during training camp to earn a spot on the active roster or secure a spot on the practice squad — it is expected (although not yet finalized) that the NFL will keep the 2020 practice squad rules in 2021. Those rules from last season, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, allow for 16 players in total on the practice squad, and allow for up to two players from the practice squad to be elevated to the active roster on the day before a game. The 2020 rules also allows for as many as six veterans with more than two accrued seasons in the NFL. So, if these rules stand, any of these receivers would be eligible for the practice squad if they don’t make the active roster— it’s just a matter of how many the Jaguars want to keep.
So, with the talent from the expected starters, depth at the wide receiver position and (likely) better play from the quarterback (and hopefully from the offensive line in pass protection), it’s easy to see why this unit could be the team’s biggest strength. Yet, the perception of this group is that it is average or below average. For instance, Pro Football Focus ranked the Jaguars’ wide receivers corps 22nd in the NFL heading into the 2021 season.
The Jaguars are expected to show progress in 2021, but most analysts and fans don’t see a playoff run happening in Duval this season. However, one person who does think the team will “shock a lot of people” is Chark. He is very confident both in the team overall, and the wide receivers group.
Here is what Chark had to say on “NFL Total Access” in early July, via NFL.com.
“Just to go out there and compete, be better than what we were last year,” Chark told NFL Network’s Omar Ruiz. “The 1-15 season is somewhere that we don’t want to go back. Everyone that’s here understands that. The guys that came in came from a lot of winning programs so we’re trying to develop that winning culture and just that camaraderie here and I think we’re going to do really good. I think we’re gonna shock a lot of people. I’m not one of the people that’s huge on setting record goals or anything like that, or saying how many wins or losses we’re gonna have but we’re gonna be an exciting football team, for sure.
“We (the wide receivers) take a lot of responsibility and accountability when it comes to the passing game,” Chark added. “Marvin (Jones) coming in, (he’s) a dynamic player. Laviska (Shenault) being young and so dynamic, me still trying to reach new heights. I think we have a lot to prove, but I think it’s gonna come together real smooth. And definitely being able to have Trevor (Lawrence) back there, it’s crazy how that he’s so young and so talented. So, the sky is the limit, really, with us right now. We don’t know how great we can be but we know we can be great, for sure.”
At this point in the offseason, with training camp on the horizon, there is plenty of hope and optimism. We will see what happens on the field in a couple of months, but at least from what it looks like on paper, expect Jacksonville’s passing game to be much improved in 2021.