With less than one week until the 2022 NFL Draft and the Jacksonville Jaguars can officially fill out the card to make the first selection under head coach Doug Pederson, both Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke took to the stage to answer questions from the local media.
Baalke and Pederson answered a variety of questions pertaining to their decision-making process with the first pick, and more as they attempt to right the ship following a 3-14 season that saw the team end with the worst record in the National Football League for the second year in a row.
A pre-draft meeting with the media is never going to reveal too much about which way a team is leaning, one way or another. But, it can give you some insight into their thought process leading up to the event, and make it clear what their expectations are, how they feel about the team make-up, and their intensity levels just prior to making the selections.
One thing was made clear, Pederson expects whoever the team drafts to become an instant impact player, something that should be the expectation of any first-overall pick, past, present or future.
“You better be right and that person is going to come in and start,” said Pederson when asked about the first-overall pick being an impact player right away.
“That’s why you pick him at one. Whether you’re picking first overall, or in our case a couple years [in Philadelphia] ago second overall, we moved ourselves up in the draft to do that, there are going to be guys that are going to get in the mix right away.”
The Jaguars have an opportunity to greatly improve at least one aspect of their team with their selection, the pick will likely become a barometer for the rest of the regime itself, too.
Essentially, if the team misses this time, it could lead to the end of the regime as it stands today, and Baalke understands that to be the case especially if the team is selecting first-overall again during his tenure.
“I’m pretty confident that this will be the last time that I’ll be making the first pick,” he would later say with a laugh.”
But, what can we gather from the Jaguars brass comments made on Friday? And how much should we read into them, if at all?
Six observations from Trent Baalke and Doug Pederson’s presser:
There’s still evaluation ahead at No. 1 overall
The Jaguars haven’t made a decision as of today on who they’ll be selected with the first-overall pick. That’s the case, of course, if you are to believe what Baalke and Pederson stated during the press conference on Friday.
When asked whether or not they’ve come to a decision or if it was still a work in progress, Baalke deferred to the latter option, indicating that the team is still working through the evaluation phase, making certain who they are selecting will be the right pick.
“We still have several meetings to go through, a lot of discussion between the coaching staff, the personnel staff. We’re continuing to dig up [information] and do research on these guys,” Baalke indicated.
“The pick doesn’t have to be made today, so there's no sense in forcing it right now. We’ve got plenty of time. We’re ahead of last year’s schedule in terms of preparation. We’ve worked hard to get there. The decision doesn’t have to be made right now, so why make it?”
The Jaguars have had since the new staff was hired in February to decide who would be the best fit. That means multiple meetings have taken place, and the entire draft class is on their board for the taking.
Of course, the team has narrowed down the group of players they might choose from, to four, Baalke indicated, but they don’t have to make the pick today and certainly didn’t want to tip their hand to the local media.
This isn’t an issue unless there is a divide among the team, including coaches and the front office, on who the pick ought to be. To Pederson, though, that’s part of the process and coming to a consensus as a group has been something they’ve worked through.
“As a staff, we look at the film along with [General Manager] Trent [Baalke] and his guys, they look at the film and we come together and just have numerous conversations about everything,” said Pederson.
“That’s where we become more closely engrained on players at the talent level. That to me has been I think the number one thing that’s really [important] in this whole process is just that communication that we’ve had from my staff, the coaches and then obviously the personnel side.”
Ultimately, the team doesn’t want to “overthink” who they’ll select, and it’s something Pederson has reminded Baalke of multiple times.
“He tells me that every day, ‘Don’t overthink it.’ Yeah, I think you can. I think at some point you just have to get away from the board and I think we’re at that point right now,” Baalke said when asked about overthinking the first-overall pick.
“We’re at a good period and a good place I should say with it. We had our final meetings with the coaching staff. I wouldn’t say final meetings, but the offensive and the defensive staff has met with the personnel staff the last two days.”
Still, Baalke feels good about where the team is set at as of today.
“[I] feel good about where we’re at, probably get away from it for the weekend and come back to it on Monday and see if someone moved any cards around,” he said with a laugh.
Cam Robinson remains part of the team’s plans
It’s obvious that Robinson remains a big part of what the Jaguars want to do, but it was again reiterated during the press conference that the team plans to sign him to a long-term deal and are working to get that done over the coming weeks and months prior to the July 15 deadline.
“We’re continuing to work and have had some great discussions with Cam [Robinson] and his agent, so I think that’s moving in the right direction. We’re going to continue to move down that road and see what we can get done,” Baalke said.
That has, however, brought into question whether or not the team would be fine with selecting an offensive tackle at the top of the draft, even while being fully invested in Robinson as the team’s starting tackle this season. To Baalke, it is part of the discussion but would not preclude the team from leaning in that direction.
“As far as preparing, we’re looking at who can help this football team the most. Some people have said we have Cam tagged so we’re not looking at the tackle position, I wouldn’t go down that road,” he indicated. “Right now, everybody’s fair game as far as this draft is concerned and every position.”
There are two tackles that appear virtually in lockstep near the top of the board for teams, Alabama OL Evan Neal and North Carolina State OL Ickey Ekownu. Both players have had 30-visits with the Jaguars during the process, and it’s likely one of those players are within the expected “four” that the team is currently slated to choose between.
The lack of “big bodies” within draft could force Jaguars hand
Jacksonville is in serious need of big bodies on both sides of the football, but particularly on its offensive line. While the defensive line has been talked in circles for months on in now, Jacksonville is still missing a piece or two along its OL that would help QB Trevor Lawrence and the offense gel.
For Baalke, the opportunity to select one of the top offensive linemen this year might need to happen sooner rather than later due to a lack of depth at the position, he explained, at least for the starting-caliber players.
“[I] like some of the players at that position obviously,” Baalke said when asked about the depth at guard this year. “Again, I don’t think it’s a particularly deep draft at offensive guard or really big bodies. I think there’s some guys at the upper end of the curve, there’s a few in the middle, and then you're taking developmental guys from that point forward. I wouldn’t call it an extremely deep draft for the interior line.”
The Jaguars have met with several offensive linemen through this cycle, including Ekownu, Neal, Tulsa OL Tyler Smith, Penn State OL Rasheed Walker and interior OL Dylan Parham. Those are the names of the OL prospects the team has met with on 30-visits that have been reported.
With left guard Andrew Norwell now with the Washington Commanders, the team has a hole at the left guard position. While it can be filled by third-year player Ben Bartch, it’s clearly an upgradable spot and the Jaguars might have to find themselves picking a player sooner rather than later due to a lack of depth at the position.
No decision on Josh Allen’s 5th-year option is puzzling
The Jaguars will have until May 2. to pick up defensive end Josh Allen’s fifth-year option, an extra year tacked on to the original four-year agreement teams have with first-round selections. Still, the Jaguars have yet to make a decision with the deadline quickly approaching.
“We haven’t had that discussion yet,” Baalke said when asked whether or not the team would pick Allen’s option up.
Though the Jaguars have time to pick up the option, there’s also no reason not to commit to picking up the option on the former seventh-overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. If the Jaguars opt to exercise the fifth-year option on Allen, they’d be on the hook for a guaranteed salary of $11.5 million. Though Allen made the Pro Bowl in 2019, he needed to be on the original ballot in order to account for a price increase.
Though that’s a high number, it would be worth it for Jacksonville if the team wants extra time to work out a long-term contract, while keeping the player around for an extra season outside of the four-year agreement they originally planned.
Allen, 24, has accounted for 20.5 sacks since entering the league in 2019. He accounted for 7.5 sacks in 2021 but posted a career-high 10.5 sacks during his rookie season. Though he had just 2.5 sacks during his second year, Allen would only play in eight games due to various injuries.
There shouldn’t be much question about whether or not Allen is worthy; a player that has done everything the right way since entering the league as a top-10 pick. Though it’s always a gamble, given Jacksonville’s history of not rewarding its top-tier player, this ought to be an easy decision by May 2.
Options at running back, Receiver might be thin
Jacksonville will likely be in the market for a skill position player or two with one of their 12 selections in this month’s draft, but the options could be limited.
Both Baalke and Pederson were asked specifically about the depth within the receiver and RB class as they head into the week. The team enters this week with question marks within both position groups, though they did their best to upgrade WR during free agency by signing WR Christian Kirk and Zay Jones.
The team also brought in tight end Evan Engram who figures to become a big-body target for Lawrence as a big-slot receiver option, along with outside at times.
Still, the team might want to address the position as a whole to offer more depth and competition. The same can be said about the RB position as the team still learns what they have in Travis Etienne, who is coming off of a season-ending Lisfranc injury and James Robinson who continues to rehab from a late-season Achilles injury.
Pederson made mention of the receiver group as a “good” group, but perhaps not as deep as it has been in years past.
“The top of the list is pretty good. There are some guys that have obviously been nicked up coming out of the college season and whatnot,” Pederson said, likely referencing players such as USC WR Drake London, Alabama’s John Metchie and Jameson Williams, among others.
“Again, it just goes back to us evaluating them as a player, their talent, and not so much how can they fit us, but where are they from a talent standpoint. Once you get down the road a little bit, there’s a little bit of a drop-off, but there’s still guys that can come in and compete and compete for roster spots, play special teams.”
Competing for roster spots and special teams aren’t exactly major offensive impact players early on in their careers. That could force the team’s hand if they agree with the perceived need at the position early.
Baalke spoke specifically about the RB group this year, and even singled out a couple of players that have impressed him. But, similar to Pederson and the RB position, Baalke doesn’t feel as though this year’s RB class is “necessarily” deep.
“I think both those backs, talking about the Michigan State [RB Kenneth Walker III], Iowa State [RB Breece Hall], both those guys are good football players,” Baalke admitted.
“There’s some quality depth in the middle of the draft we feel. I don't know if it’s necessarily a deep draft at the running back position, but I do think there’s going to be some quality backs that come out of especially the middle rounds of this draft.”
Look for the Jaguars to likely target a RB in the middle of the draft, but certainly not early.
Jaguars view Travon Walker as a productive player
The ongoing topic of discussion within the draft community in regards to the top pick of the draft has been regarding production and potential, specifically when talking about edge rushers Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson and Georgia’s Travon Walker.
Hutchinson finished his career off on a high note, a Heisman Trophy finalist and a team-high 14.5 sacks in 2021. He has the tools necessary to take the league by storm and has been heralded as perhaps the best player in this year’s draft. His production and measurables match up, though there are some questions regarding his physical traits, specifically his arm length - just 32 inches.
Walker, however, has been heralded as perhaps the most physically imposing defensive lineman in the draft, and put up staggering results at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, confirming some of what has been seen on tape in terms of his “freak” physicality.
Travon Walker is a DE prospect in the 2022 draft class. He scored an unofficial 9.99 RAS at the Combine out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 3 out of 1389 DE from 1987 to 2022. https://t.co/CzmPz94xEF #RAS via @Mathbomb pic.twitter.com/tEtciwiJOK— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 6, 2022
Still, his production came into question, tallying just six sacks as a junior last season with 9.5 sacks overall in his 29 games played during his collegiate career.
The Jaguars, however, are looking beyond the numbers when it comes to Walker and still view him as a productive player. Both players, Hutchinson and Walker, are productive in their various schemes, Baalke said.
“[They’re] used differently, totally different schemes, used differently within those schemes,” said Baalke. “Again, you’re looking at them, you’re looking at how they made their plays, how they were used, and then you have a vision for how you can use them. All of that plays a part, but traits are important, production is important. You weigh it all.”
It was made clear that Walker isn’t simply a player to marvel at due to his size, speed and athleticism as a 6-foot-5, 272 defensive lineman, at least not in the eyes of the Jaguars. He’s a scheme-versatile player and when given the opportunity to thrive in a particular defense, could be plenty productive.
Though the Jaguars are likely leaning one way or another, don’t be surprised to hear Walker’s name called, especially if the team does have them graded similarly for the production they put on the gridiron in college.
Bonus: Hutchinson “fits” what the Jaguars look for off the field
Given what the Jaguars went through last year, their first-overall pick must be a player that can grow into a leader and exhibits a high work ethic and drive to be a player that fits culturally, especially with what Pederson wants to build.
Hutchinson fits that, Pederson said, along with plenty of other prospects.
“He [DE Aidan Hutchinson] is a person that would fit culturally, good person and a great leader. All of that stuff really fits the makeup and chemistry that we’re looking for.”
Time will tell if he fits in all aspects of the team’s process.