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2023 NFL Draft: Jaguars end-of-season mock

Who could Jacksonville target in the first three rounds next April?

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NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Kansas State at Alabama Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve fully processed the past two months of Jacksonville Jaguars football.

Coach of the Year finalist Doug Pederson led his team to six straight victories, including home wins against the Titans and Chargers to capture the AFC South and advance in the playoffs, respectively. Then Pederson’s former mentor got the best of him in the divisional round as Andy Reid and the Chiefs beat the Jaguars 27-20.

The NFL postseason is still playing out, but with the Jaguars’ 2022 season coming to an end, it is officially mock draft season in Jacksonville.

First round (24th overall): Alabama Crimson Tide S Brian Branch

The Jaguars need some help covering the middle of the field. Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma had underwhelming rookie campaigns at weakside linebacker, while strongside defenders Foye Oluokun and Rayshawn Jenkins aren’t nearly as adept against the pass as they are vs. the run. Following Darious Williams’ move to outside cornerback, the Jaguars will likely be looking to acquire a slot corner this offseason.

Enter Brian Branch.

Diante Lee of The Athletic wrote a tremendous scouting report on Alabama’s ‘Star’ player. Branch “looks like the most talented off-ball defender in the 2023 class” by Lee’s admission.

Here’s a briefer synopsis from Matt Miller of ESPN:

Branch was the do-it-all Swiss Army knife for Nick Saban’s defense, and he should have an easy transition to the NFL as the league moves toward more versatile safeties. At 6-0 and 193 pounds, Branch has the size to make an impact in the run game from the box but also the burst and change-of-direction skills to lock up receivers and tight ends from the slot. Scouts rave about his instincts and ability to step into the pros right away, which showed on tape with seven pass breakups and only 19 completions allowed in 2022. It’s easy to see him being the next Tyrann Mathieu-like defender to make a splash in an NFL secondary.

Branch is a standout coverage player and plays the run masterfully to boot. He’s “the best tackling defensive back PFF has graded, with only four career misses on 174 attempts” per Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus.

Realistically, Branch falls in the category of prospects who are simply too talented to fall very far in the draft. But if he makes it to the 24th pick, there are few players who would be a better immediate fit in Jacksonville. Let’s dream a little in January before we start ruling anyone out in April (same thing applies to these next two dudes).

Second round (56th overall): Georgia Bulldogs TE Darnell Washington

General manager Trent Baalke has drafted a defender in seven of his nine career first-round selections. I’m assuming the Jaguars will add to its secondary room or pass rush unit at 24th overall, but Jacksonville could go any number of directions for the remainder of the draft. Baalke and the front office seem to be big “best player available” guys, and obviously we don’t know how the board will shake out on draft weekend, so this is a long way of saying I don’t know what’s going to happen.

With that said -- it’d be surprising if Jacksonville left the draft without a tight end. There appears to be mutual interest between the team and Evan Engram on a contract extension, but even if Engram does return, he’s more of a big slot receiver. The Jaguars need a true inline tight end with Chris Manhertz’s contract also set to expire.

I’d argue that pairing a bit of thunder with Engram’s lightning, thus allowing Pederson to cook with different personnel groupings, would have as big of an impact on Jacksonville’s ‘offensive ceiling’ as the addition of a star receiver like Calvin Ridley. Tight end also happens to be one of the stronger position groups in this draft class. The writing is on the wall.

Enter Darnell Washington.

From Damian Parson of The Draft Network:

Washington projects as an in-line traditional Y tight end. He’s an outstanding asset on running downs due to his blocking prowess. Washington works in both gap and zone-blocking schemes. He possesses upside as a pass-catcher with more opportunities and targets. I believe to get the best out of him, his routes should be attacking the seams and across the middle of the field off hard play-action. He is a zone-beater that can find soft spots to settle into. Washington does bring outstanding potential in the red zone as a blocker and receiver. He has the potential to develop into a reliable passing option and TE1 for an offense, but a TE2 at worst.

Third round (88th overall): Ohio State Buckeyes DE Zach Harrison

One of the biggest offseason storylines will be how the Jaguars addresses its edge rush unit. Arden Key and Dawuane Smoot are currently unrestricted free agents, and Josh Allen will be playing on the fifth and final year of his rookie contract next season. Travon Walker is Jacksonville’s only worthwhile edge defender locked in long-term, albeit last year’s first overall pick may benefit from more snaps with a hand in the dirt.

Enter Zach Harrison.

From Marcus Mosher of Pro Football Focus:

Harrison was a big-time recruit coming out of high school but never quite put together one dominant statistical season. Despite playing four seasons at Ohio State, he totaled just 11 sacks. However, that just makes him even more underrated.

Despite low sack totals, Harrison has three-straight seasons with 82.0-plus grades. His ability to win in obvious passing situations helps him stand out in this year’s class, finishing the 2022 season with a 91.1 pass-rush grade against true pass sets — the sixth-highest in the country. Harrison also graded out very well against the run (78.4), showing he can do it all.

With freaky size and athleticism (6-foot-6, 272 pounds), Harrison still has an incredibly high ceiling. If he can join the right team with the right coaching staff, he could be a disruptive defensive end from Day 1.