It’s officially the offseason in the NFL, and the NFL Combine has kicked off, showcasing the upcoming talent for the 2022 NFL Draft. Along with that, free agency is just over two weeks away, and NFL General Managers, Head Coaches and the like are hard at work evaluating talent to better their teams.
That much is true for the Jaguars as well, who will be incredibly involved in the process, holding the No. 1 overall pick and the second-most cap space in the NFL. That gives the team plenty of options to move forward with its new regime under GM Trent Baalke and HC Doug Pederson, who was hired early last month.
On Tuesday, both Baalke and Pederson met with the media in Indianapolis (Indi.) at the combine to answer all things Jaguars football in the lead up to perhaps the most important draft of his tenure as the team’s GM.
Here are six things we learned from Baalke’s presser:
Jaguars don’t want to move on from Laviska Shenault
One of the focal points of the offseason for the Jaguars this year has the question of what they’ll do at the receiver position.
Last season, Jacksonville struggled mightily in that area, with one of the worst drop rates among all groups across the NFL. The team also didn’t net a 1,000-yard receiver with veteran Marvin Jones leading the pack with 73 receptions for 832 yards and four touchdowns.
Behind him, though, there were serious questions, especially in regards to second-year WR Laviska Shenault, who struggled throughout the year with drops.
On the year, Shenault accounted for 63 receptions for 619 yards and 0 touchdowns. He was credited with 10 drops, according to Pro Football Focus, tied for the third-most in the NFL.
Still, Baalke was asked on Tuesday whether or not the team would be moving on from the young, tough receiver and the GM made it known the team - at least for right now - had no plans to do so.
“Not at all – I don’t know where that would come from,” Baalke said when asked if the team planned to move on from Shenault.
“We are very high on Laviska. He does a lot of good things. He is an interesting ... Obviously, at his size and his speed and the things that he can do, we have to find ways to get him the ball. That is not my job – that is Coach [Pederson’s] job.
“That would be a great question for [Coach Pederson], but by no means has the ship sailed on Laviska.”
Though Baalke’s comments on Shenault are encouraging for the young receiver and his chances of staying in Jacksonville on the surface, there’s also no reason for the team’s GM to say anything otherwise.
His trade value can only be lowered if the team planned to do so, and with Shenault remaining under contract for at least two more years there’s no need to do that.
Jaguars don’t know yet if franchise tag will be used
Jacksonville will be presented with an intriguing option over the next week as the franchise tag deadline quickly approaches (March 8). The two primary candidates for the tag are receiver DJ Chark Jr. and left tackle Cam Robinson.
Robinson was tagged last season, but it appears the team has yet to make a decision as of yesterday on whether or not they will ultimately decide to do it again.
Local reporters were able to ask Baalke about the decision yesterday, with him indicating that the team is “not sure” yet if they will exercise the option.
#Jaguars not sure if they will exercise franchise tag.— John Reid (@JohnReid64) March 1, 2022
For the Jaguars, this is a tricky situation. While the team does have an in-house replacement for Robinson already with Walker Little, they lack depth at other positions on the line, including at right tackle. With Will Richardson likely to test free agency as a swing tackle, it leaves the team with a serious need.
Jacksonville is also likely to lose left guard Andrew Norwell to free agency, while they’ve already re-signed backup center/guard Tyler Shatley to a new two-year deal.
As for Chark, the team likely will allow him to test free agency. Though a transition tag seems like it would do well for both parties, the price tag will ultimately be too high to go that route. Re-signing Chark should be a priority, but as of right now he’s expected to hit the market.
Travis Etienne is ahead of schedule
Jacksonville heads into the season with huge question marks at multiple key positions, but right near the top of them is the running backs group. The group is led by third-year veteran James Robinson and second-year RB Travis Etienne.
Both are coming back from season-ending injuries, with Etienne suffering a Lisfranc injury during the 2021 preseason. When asked about the former first-round pick, Baalke appeared encouraged, indicating that he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery.
“Currently right now with Travis, he was on the grass for a little bit in the offseason program and then he got hurt. His development in terms of where he is at physically right now – he’s ahead of schedule,” said Baalke.
“He looks really good. He took the year to really transform his body and learn how to be a pro in his development. We are really excited to get him back on the grass and he is a little bit ahead of schedule right now.”
Getting Etienne back to where he was during his years at Clemson seems to be a pipe dream on the surface, but something the Jaguars can certainly use as the team has now put an emphasis on adding explosive players to its roster.
Jaguars weighing their options with the first-overall pick
Every team is “open for business” this time around prior to the NFL Draft. To not be, would be ridiculous as it only hurts to say otherwise. But for Jacksonville, holding the No. 1 overall pick and without a clear-cut player to be selected at that position, it might be something worth monitoring.
Baalke indicated that the team is willing to trade, but is also willing to just stand pat and make the selection as is.
“You are always open for business. Now, whether we’re going to be able to move it or not [we don’t know], but we’re very comfortable taking the pick as well,” he indicated.
“You have to be prepared for anything in this league so to say we won’t shop it is probably not 100 percent correct, but to say we will is not [100 percent correct] either. We’re going to see what comes and if something comes our way and makes sense to us, we’ll make that decision at that time.”
The Jaguars haven’t traded down in the first round of the draft, but Baalke has done so at times in his career, including in 2015 when the San Francisco 49ers moved back from pick No. 15 to pick No. 17 with the San Diego Chargers.
Baalke is not foreign to trading on draft day as he moved up in the fourth round to acquire outside linebacker Jordan Smith in last year's draft and has made 22 other draft-day trades in his career with the 49ers.
Protecting Lawrence, adding weapons is a clear priority
When the Jaguars made the decision to draft Lawrence last year, it was to be the team’s franchise QB for years to come. That sort of investment comes with other responsibilities, too, including adding players and pieces around him in order to succeed.
Last season, the team struggled in that department. While it added Jones in free agency at receiver, there wasn’t much else done aside from a couple of additions in free agency in Jamal Agnew (signed as a returner specialist) and via trade in tight end Dan Arnold.
This offseason will be all about adding pieces, especially when it comes to protecting perhaps the organization’s most-prized asset. That was part of what Baalke emphasized when asked how the team can help Lawrence improve.
“Well we have to protect him better and we have to get more explosive players around him – guys that can make explosive plays,” Baalke said candidly. “It is tough in the National Football League to move the ball 14 plays, 15 plays, 16 plays and score. It just doesn’t happen that often. You have to be able to throw a 7-yard dig and turn it into an 80-yard touchdown. You have to have players that can do that.”
The team will have plenty of opportunities to do so. With the second-most cap space in the league, they’re ready to pounce on impending free agents that can add great value to their team. Off to the side, Baalke told reporters that that’s their intention, to be aggressive in free agency, something that likely will bring a breath of fresh air to Jaguars fans.
That’s where you win or lose games, Baalke said of explosive players.
“That is the mission this offseason in free agency and the draft – to get more explosive players on both sides of the ball, guys that can change games.”
Tight end position will be an emphasis
Part of the team’s plan moving forward will not only be adding players to the wide receivers room, but also to the tight end room.
During his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pederson was known for his heavy usage of the position group. In fact, from 2018-20, Pederson’s Eagles teams led the NFL in 12 personal groupings, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Makes sense: from 2018-2020 Doug Pederson’s Philly teams led the NFL in 12 personnel grouping frequency(Sharp Football Stats). The Jaguars liked using multiple TE’s last year, but if you don’t have a legit receiving threat at the spot then it’s a run tip-off https://t.co/dIN6eUyFLd— JP Acosta (@acosta32_jp) March 2, 2022
Last season, the Jaguars signed a TE in free agency in Chris Manhertz, but his primary responsibility was as a ‘Y’ or blocking TE, not as a pass-catcher. The team also invested a late-round selection in TE Luke Farrell.
And then, the team traded for Arnold, who quickly became the team’s best pass-catcher by default after an injury to impending free agent James O’Shaughnessy.
With only three options on the roster currently, that position group will be added to. Baalke indicated that the team has already had initial discussions relative to the idea of going after a tight end, something to address.
“The tight end position is a focal point. It always is,” he said. “It has been with Doug’soffense as you mentioned. It is going to be a position that we certainly look to address, but we feel very good about the room that we have there currently right now.
“A young guy that we drafted in Luke Farrell out of Ohio State, we picked up Dan Arnold last year in a trade and obviously with Chris Manhertz, we feel very good about that room. Will we add to it? There is a chance we do.”
Though he said in the end that there’s a “chance,” Baalke already in a way played his hand indicating that it’s something they’ll “certainly” look to address. And that shouldn’t come as any surprise, either.