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What Jaguars players improved the most during the 2021 season?

The standouts from last year, giving reason for optimism moving forward in Jacksonville due to their play on the gridiron.

Houston Texans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The 2021 season for the Jaguars didn’t go as expected. The team never grew together as a whole, and they faced their fair share of adversity throughout the year under head coach Urban Meyer.

While their play on the field left plenty to be desired after a 3-14 season, there were still some bright spots as players developed in spite of the ineptitude across all facets of the organization as a whole.

Though the list is brief, the Jaguars didn’t have much to look forward to on Sundays and the players mentioned are a result of that. There weren’t very many opportunities to showcase talent whether due to the play around certain players, or the score at the time in any given game.

Listed below are players that improved, whether from the 2020 season or throughout the 2021 season as a whole, and should be intriguing to watch moving forward.

Here are the players we felt improved the most in 2021:

CB Tyson Campbell

Campbell, the franchise's first pick in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft began the season with plenty of hiccups. After starting the year playing in the slot corner position, Campbell quickly transitioned back to his more natural position outside following the draft of CB CJ Henderson to the Carolina Panthers.

That, in turn, showed some marketed improvement out of Campbell, who was able to get back to the basics of being a cover corner in the NFL. Still, he would struggle out of the gate as a man-to-man corner in Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen’s scheme, unable to find the football at times.

The improvement could be seen via his stats, too. Through the first seven games Campbell played, he allowed a completion percentage of 73.04%, according to Pro Football Focus. Over his final eight games played, he allowed just 58.83% of passes to be completed.

Plenty of criticism regarding Campbell’s ability to not allow big plays were brought into question, too. During his first seven games played, he allowed 15.65 yards per reception, per PFF. Over his final eight games, however, he allowed just 8.43 yards per reception.

For further context, Campbell’s 15.6 yards/reception allowed over his first seven games would rank 86th in the NFL among players with at least 50% of 749 snaps. He would rank fourth in the NFL over his final eight games of the season at 8.43 yards/reception, a huge jump for the young player.

His play as a tackler was noted too, with 73 tackles during his rookie year. He came up big plenty, especially during the team’s final game of the season against the Indianapolis Colts.

Overall, Campbell’s improvements shouldn’t be understated, he finished the year with 73 tackles 10 pass breakups and two interceptions, becoming the first Jaguars player since 2009 to record at least 70 tackles and two INTs in their rookie year. His 10 pass deflections were the fourth-most among all rookies in the NFL.

OT Cam Robinson

An impending free agent, Robinson had perhaps his best season since his rookie year as the Jaguars left tackle in 2021. His stoutness in pass protection was seen on a game-by-game basis, and his ability to play as Trevor Lawrence’s blind-side protector was clear.

Though the offensive line was ridiculed throughout the season, Robinson showed that he has elevated his play since his rookie season, grading out as the team’s top starting pass protector. In 14 games played, Robinson allowed just one sack, according to PFF, while allowing just eight hits and 31 total pressures.

For reference, Robinson allowed 40 pressures in 2020, and 45 pressures in 2019, per PFF. He was injured in 2018 for all but 43 snaps on the year, and was coming back from an injury the following year, still hampered by his previous ACL tear.

He was graded as the 20h best offensive tackle in pass blocking with players that took at least 646 snaps last season while coming in at No. 22 overall in efficiency behind just Orlando Brown Jr. For reference, Robinson ranked at No. 38 overall in 2020.

The growth Robinson has shown throughout his years as a Jaguars left tackle is impressive. He’s quickly become one of the cornerstone players for the team and its offense. However, he will be headed into free agency this year and nothing is certain as to whether he will remain in Jacksonville for the long haul or not.

Robinson may be coming off of his best season as a Jaguars offensive lineman, but second-round selection Walker Little is waiting in the wings to take over in some capacity as a starter on the team’s OL.

With right tackle Jawaan Taylor still under contract for another season, and the draft top-heavy at the offensive tackle position, it will be interesting to see what direction the team goes.

RB James Robinson

Thought Robinson would rupture his Achilles tendon with just two games remaining in the regular season, his play on the gridiron was impressive and even an improvement in efficiency over his rookie season in 2020.

His yards per attempt would improve from 4.5 YPA to 4.7 YPA, he also recorded eight touchdowns compared to seven his previous year.

Robinson’s yards after contact per attempt also improved, coming in at 3.29 YCO/A ahead of his 3.18 YCO/A. Though Robinson would finish with just 767 yards, he led the team in rushing for a second-straight year and was frequently perceived as the best player on the team’s offense. His importance couldn’t be understated.

Perhaps Robinson’s best improvement was away from the gridiron, having to deal with the multitude of controversies that arrived even while he played injured for much of the season following the team’s loss against the Seattle Seahawks.

Former head coach Urban Meyer routinely put his foot in his mouth when asked about Robinson’s usage, but the RB never relented, staying within his role and controlling only what he could control.

Robinson’s continued efficiency and consistency bode well moving forward, though it will be difficult to gauge how he may return from his injury.

OT Walker Little

Little, the team’s other second-round selection from last year’s draft, entered the season on the bench as the team’s primary swing tackle. Though he was only able to start three games this year, while playing significant snaps in one other contest, he showed plenty of progress from training camp and to the end of the year.

In three starts against the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts last season, Little allowed just three pressures and two sacks (both coming in his first start vs. Buffalo). He surrendered no pressure against the Patriots, a 100% efficiency game.

His high-level play has been well-documented as eye-opening and he was praised by passing-game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer near the end of the season as a result. This, especially considering Little hadn’t played much football since early in 2019 due to injuries and opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.

Here is Shottenheiemer’s glowing review of Little in its entirety:

Yeah, I think you’re talking about a very talented young prospect that has played well. Really, I believe it was the Bills. He played very well against that group which had a very, very good pass rush,” Schottenheimer said prior to the team’s final game of the season vs. the Colts.

The group last week (against the Patriots), they didn’t present as many problems from a match-up standpoint, but certainly with gains and some of the exotics that they had. What you love about Walker [Little] is he goes out there and he just does his job. He does a great job with his fundamentals and techniques. You watch some of the steps that he takes, his body position, his hand placement with his punch.

And you’re talking about a guy that probably if he doesn’t opt-out with the COVID, the talent that we all saw on film was very evident. So, any time a young player can go in and be thrown into duty, I mean, he wasn’t expecting to play against the Bills and he played well in that game. That always gives you the confidence as a coach when a player can do that, have their number called at the last minute and go out there and perform at a high level.

Moving forward, expect for Little to become a starter within the Jaguars’ offense into next season. What that means for both Robinson and Taylor remains to be seen, but he’s certainly earned an opportunity to compete for a starting role.

DE Dawaune Smoot

The Jaguars needed a lot of help in the pass-rush department in 2021 and they would get it at times, thanks to players such as Smoot who has improved since earning a two-year deal from the franchise in March of last year.

This year, Smoot tied with Josh Allen for the most pressures on the team with 50. He added seven sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 33 total hurries. He posted a win percentage of 16.1, according to PFF, the highest win percentage on the team.

Last season, for example, Smoot graded out with just 32 total pressures, though he equaled the same number of sacks this season with seven. His win % was just 13.8% as well, lower than this season by a significant amount. His improvement in this area was noted weekly as he was praised by defensive coordinator Joe Cullen quite often.

In terms of how he ranks among all EDGE rushers in the league, Smoot graded out as the 19th-best pass rusher in the league behind just John Franklin-Myers of the New York Jets. He ranked six spots ahead of Allen, who fell in at No. 25.

Last season, Smoot earned the 26th best pass-rushing grade, for reference.

Smoot finished the year with 36 combined tackles, the most of his career, along with seven tackles for loss, also the most of his career.

Next season, he will have an opportunity to play for another contract, perhaps much more than the two-year deal worth $10M and $5.25M guaranteed that he signed last offseason.

OG Ben Bartch

Though his play tapered off near the end of the season, Bartch impressed during the first five games since he was inserted into the team’s starting lineup following an injury to A.J. Cann in Week 4 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

In those fives games, Bartch surrendered zero sacks and just five total pressures as one of the more stout linemen on the team in Jacksonville. His play would improve from last season, perceived as a player that needed plenty more development to continue his career as a starting offensive lineman.

However, due to Bartch’s final games of the season in Jacksonville, there might be some cause for concern moving forward. He surrendered three total sacks on the year and 17 total pressures, 12 of them coming in the final six games of the season. His play, still appeared to be better than last season, making him one of the more improved players on the team.

It should also be noted that a majority of the season starting center Brandon Linder was forced to miss time due to injury, along with struggles beside him with Taylor at right tackle. There could be more room to improve as Bartch looks to become the team’s starting RG next year if Cann is allowed to walk in free agency and no other options are acquired for competition.

WR Laquon Treadwell

There’s no question that the Jaguars struggled at the receiver position all season. But, the team did see some improvement from at least one of its reserves in Treadwell, who was finally able to receiver snaps after an injury occurred to Jamal Agnew, forcing the team to dip into its backup players with DJ Chark already out for the year.

Since the 11th game of the season, Treadwell received at least five targets each week, hauling in 31 receptions for 405 yards and a touchdown on the year. He quickly became one of the more reliable receivers for Lawrence, dropping just two passes over that timespan.

While Treadwell has caught more touchdowns in a given year, it would be the best season for Treadwell in his career in terms of receiving yards, entering the year with 434 total yards. He was targetted 51 times, good for the second-most ever in his career while starting seven games, tied for the most in his career.

Moving forward, the team must upgrade this position, but Treadwell’s work as a reliable target could pay dividends for him to earn a contract in the offseason, potentially competing yet again for a roster spot during training camp.

LB Damien Wilson

Wilson entered the year, signed to a one-year deal in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent after spending the past two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs as a starting middle linebacker.

Competing with Joe Schobert during training camp it was expected for Wilson to have a role on defense. But, after the team traded Schobert to the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to the season starting, it became clear that Wilson’s role would be much larger.

While at times Wilson struggled in pass coverage, his ability to perform in the run game and as a pass rusher (accounting for 13 total pressures, the most among non-defensive linemen), were bright spots on the year. Wilson also routinely made plays in short-yardage situations, preventing teams from converting precious first downs.

Wilson’s ascension as one of the top defenders in the Jacksonville front seven could lead him to receive another contract in Jacksonville. He finished the year with a team-high 41 stops, according to PFF, something that ought to impress whomever the defensive coordinator is in Jacksonville next year.

S Andre Cisco

Cisco is listed in a similar boat to Little. He didn’t play much of his final collegiate season and was battling back from an injury that drew some uncertainty as to whether or not he could return to his play-making ways as he did at Syracuse for two seasons and some change.

With an injury to starter Rayshawn Jenkins and other starting safety Andrew Wingard placed on the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list to close out the season, Cisco finally earned his opportunity to start and play meaningful snaps for Jacksonville. He showed during that time he has an ability to make plays through the air and as a tackler in space.

Cisco finished the year earning positive grades from PFF in run defense and coverage. He would close out the final two games of the season with positive grades in tackling as well, finishing the year with 18 tackles and two stops. He also finished with a pass breakup on the year, nearly securing an interception against the New York Jets in Week 16.

Cisco’s play only got better as the season went on, marking the final game of the season as his best. Playing just 247 total snaps on the year, the team’s third-round pick from this past draft has a ways to go but certainly impressed and showed why he ought to be in the starting lineup next year.