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Can the Jaguars afford to swing for the fences in the NFL Draft?

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When the clock strikes 8 o’clock tonight, the Jacksonville Jaguars will officially usher in a new era of football under head coach Doug Pederson and second-year general manager Trent Baalke. Gone is the suspense and guesswork that is the lead up to the 2022 NFL Draft, and in will be the No. 1 overall pick—someone who will be expected to be part of the change in a franchise that desperately needs it.

Last Friday, during the team’s annual pre-draft luncheon, Baalke stated the team was down to four potential selections at No. 1 overall. Those players have been speculated as being Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, N.C. State offensive lineman Ikem ‘Ickey’ Ewkonu and Alabama’s Evan Neal.

But, at least one of those prospects—namely Walker—presents a serious question mark in terms of whether or not the club will be getting a player that is ready to roll right away in terms of production on the field. Walker, for all of his incredible traits as a football player, listed at 6-foot-5 270 pounds, his shortfalls come in the production department.

At this point, all signs point to Walker ultimately being the pick however, with Baalke being impressed not only by his size in terms of weight, but also his measurables in all others areas; Walker posted an impressive 4.51 40-yard dash at the combine, has 35.5-inch arms, a 6.89 three-cone shuttle and a 36-inch vertical jump.

Simply put, he checks off all of the boxes for what one would want to find in an edge rusher, one that is expected to at some point in his career become a multi-year Pro Bowl player, or perhaps even an All-Pro player. Where he fails, however, is with his actual play on the field, particularly in the pass-rush department. Walker posted just 13 career quarterback hits, 9.5 sacks and just 60 total pressures in his career (34 would come last season).

He’s a project, and not one that perhaps the team ought to be making with the first-overall pick. Not with so many failed projects during the previous few years alone—selecting defensive tackle Taven Bryan in 2018 and linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson in 2020. The team hasn’t nailed its picks, and that’s part of the reason why they’ve failed for all these years.

Enter a guy like Hutchinson, however, and not only is the athleticism there—Hutchinson posted the best three-cone of any player at his position at 6.73 seconds, but the production is there, too. Though he is not a perfect prospect, just 32-inch arms, his numbers make it seem like an afterthought. At Michigan last season, Hutchinson posted 74 pressures, 14 sacks, nine quarterback hits and 51 hurries.

He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ best overall defender, and easily the draft’s best pass rusher. Nearly everything is there, aside from perhaps some hip flexibility and his overall length.

Though he is not a perfect prospect, there might not be one in this year’s draft, and the argument could be made that he’s more of a sure-thing than Walker, something the team may want to think about.

The same can be said for Ewkonu and Neal. Though both are not perfect, they’ve both just come off of the best seasons of their careers, and would be an opportunity for the club to solidify the offensive line, whether that be at right tackle or guard (the Jaguars extended left tackle Cam Robinson on Wednesday).

Both players are thought to be near-perfect prospects, but of course, there are some limitations and reasons for concern if Jacksonville does go in that direction. They’ve already invested over $100M in their offensive line this offseason by extending Robinson and signing right guard Brandon Scherff to a three-year $49.5 million contract. So, can the team afford to invest heavily yet again?

That’s a question both Baalke and Pederson will need to ask themselves. Is it worth perhaps gaining a potentially elite player at guard or tackle, or should they invest in an oft-forgotten position within the franchise at edge? There’s not a certain answer to that question, but it’s perhaps the most important one.

Jacksonville has gone years without an absolute home-run pick, and they might be choosing between a sure-fire double and a potential swing and a miss later tonight.