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Jaguars look much-improved on the defensive side of the ball heading into 2022 season

On paper, Jacksonville’s defensive unit appears to be much stronger in 2022 compared to 2021. Will it translate to the field?

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

In 2021, the Jacksonville Jaguars ranked 20th in the NFL in total defense (353.1 yards per game allowed), 17th against the pass (227.9 yards allowed per game), 24th against the run (125.1 yards allowed per game) and 28th in points allowed per game (26.9).

Additionally, the Jaguars ranked 25th in the league in third-down defense (about 43 percent conversions allowed) and 30th in fourth-down defense (66.7 percent conversions allowed). Jacksonville also could not produce turnovers, as the Jaguars ranked dead last in the NFL with just nine takeaways (seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries).

While struggles on offense for the Jaguars were just as devastating, if not more so, the defense did not do much to help the team win games last year. Overall, a head coach in Urban Meyer who was not ready for the NFL (to say the least), an offense that could not score (14.9 points per game, which ranked last in the NFL) and a defense that allowed nearly 27 points per game to opponents was a recipe for disaster. Unsurprisingly, the Jaguars finished the 2021 season with a dismal 3-14 record.

With all of this in mind, the Jaguars have shown a clear plan to improve the defense this offseason. Newly-hired head coach Doug Pederson brought in Mike Caldwell from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to run the defense, and Pederson and Caldwell have greatly improved the personnel on that side of the ball — at least on paper.

Caldwell and his defensive staff will have an “aggressive mindset,” and will likely show some versatility in scheme. The players the Jaguars have added via free agency and through the NFL Draft should give Jacksonville more of a defensive identity.

As of right now, all signs point to a much-improved defense for the Jaguars during the 2022 season. While the Jaguars still need to prove that this fall, let’s examine why the unit is poised to take a big leap.

Several newcomer free agents could make an immediate impact

The Jaguars spent a lot of money in free agency on both sides of the ball, and added some instant-impact defenders in doing so.

The team signed linebacker Foye Oluokun to a three-year, $45 million deal. In an attempt to seemingly revamp the linebacker position, Jacksonville also let Damien Wilson walk in free agency and, shortly after agreeing to terms with Oluokun, released veteran linebacker Myles Jack. After a successful stint with the Atlanta Falcons, Oluokun projects to be an immediate starter in the middle of the defense for the Jaguars.

Jacksonville also used free agency to sign cornerback Darious Williams, defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi, defensive end Arden Key and cornerback Xavier Crawford. Additionally, the team re-signed cornerback Tre Herndon and defensive lineman Adam Gotsis.

Just like Oluokun, Williams and Fatukasi should be immediate starters, or at least heavy rotational players who will see a significant amount of snaps. Meanwhile, Key will likely rotate in as a pass rusher and could be used in a variety of ways in Caldwell’s defense.

Herndon, who has been with the Jaguars since 2018, has plenty of starting experience and will provide valuable depth for the Jaguars in the secondary. Crawford will likely need to fight for a roster spot, but also provides depth and special teams prowess.

The Jaguars used the 2022 NFL Draft to strengthen the defensive unit

Jacksonville used five of its seven selections in the 2022 NFL Draft on the defensive side of the football. While Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke stuck to their board, the theme was clear — improve the defense.

After much speculation and debate, Jacksonville opted to use the first overall pick on the draft on Georgia edge rusher Travon Walker. Pederson and Baalke simply couldn’t ignore Walker’s physical traits and raw athleticism, and will use him at the outside linebacker position.

The Jaguars weren’t done, however, as the team traded up to get back into the first round, and selected Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd with the 27th overall pick. Jacksonville had to give up picks No. 33 (second round), No. 106 (fourth round) and No. 180 (sixth round) in order to draft Lloyd.

The linebacker overhaul wasn’t done after Lloyd, though, as Jacksonville doubled-down at the position in the draft and took Wyoming linebacker Chad Muma in the third round (No. 70 overall).

The Jaguars also selected cornerbacks Gregory Junior (Ouachita Baptist, sixth round, No. 197 overall) and Montaric Brown (Arkansas, seventh round, No. 222 overall).

Several of these players will see meaningful snaps or start right away. Walker and Lloyd are essentially locks to start, barring an injury.

Muma has a chance to earn a rotational role early on, and it will be interesting to see if Caldwell could try to get creative with certain packages that see Muma, Lloyd and Oluokun all on the field at the same time. At the very least, Muma will make an immediate impact on special teams.

Meanwhile, Junior — who is looking to make a name for himself after coming out of a Division II college — will have a chance to earn a roster spot and become a special teams ace. Brown will also be fighting for a roster spot, but is confident in his ability to help the team.

Returning production and depth

Now entering his fourth season in the NFL, perhaps no returning Jaguar on the defensive side of the ball is more important than Josh Allen. Allen, who led the Jaguars with 7.5 sacks in 2021, and also recorded 71 tackles and an interception, has to be a leader for the unit, and the team as a whole.

Assuming the Jaguars still plan to operate primarily out of a 3-4 base defense, Walker will line up opposite of Allen as the outside linebackers/stand-up edge rushers. If Walker’s development remains on track, that could turn into a scary pass-rushing duo during the 2022 season, but Walker has a long way to go in terms of his technique. Key, and returners K’Lavon Chaisson and Jordan Smith, could also rotate in at the role.

However, more returning players outside of Allen will need to improve their efforts from the 2021 season if the Jaguars want to take a step in the right direction in 2021. Shaquill Griffin is entering his second season in Jacksonville and will need to have a more consistent 2022 campaign and help lead the secondary as the team’s No. 1 cornerback.

Staying with the secondary, cornerback Tyson Campbell put together a promising rookie campaign, where he really improved toward the end of the year. Griffin, Campbell and Williams provide a strong trio of cornerbacks for the Jaguars who may see plenty of snaps together in 2022. The depth in the cornerback room now with Herndon, Junior, Brown, Crawford and Chris Claybrooks seems solid.

At safety, Rayshawn Jenkins had his ups and downs in 2021. He returns after suffering a broken ankle injury late in the season, and if healthy, will likely start at one of the safeties spots. With OTAs now under way, Jenkins has been participating, but is still not cleared for contact.

The Jaguars also return Andrew Wingard, who also has had his struggles, but started 15 games last season. The player to watch at the safety position is Andre Cisco, who played in all 17 games as a rookie in 2021, which included three starts. Rudy Ford and Daniel Thomas are back as well

Along the defensive line, the Jaguars return several players who saw significant playing time last season. Dawuane Smoot ranked second on the team with six sacks, while Gotsis and Roy-Robertson Harris recorded three sacks each. Jacksonville also brings back interior defensive lineman Malcom Brown, DaVon Hamilton and Jay Tufele.

Obviously, when the roster is cut down to 53 players, not all of these players mentioned will remain on the team. With that said, there should be a lot of competition at many different positions.

Overall, with a strong mix of newcomers and returning players, things seem to be trending upward for Jacksonville’s defense. However, the play on the field this season will be what ultimately proves whether the unit has actually improved or not.