Now that the 2023 NFL draft and pre-draft free agency has concluded, the Jacksonville Jaguars' depth chart and front-end roster has begun to take shape. While, the main portion of free agency has concluded, there are still a few veteran free agents that may benefit the home team in their quest to repeat as AFC South Division Champions. And, as my social media following constantly has reminded me, the Jags still have a few key roster holes they can fill in 2023 prior to facing off against the Bills, Chiefs, Bengals, Ravens, 49ers, and potentially other NFL elite in the post-season. Let's dive into it.
The initial depth charts available at Ourlads and ESPN both reflect the Jaguars' starting edges (SLB & WLB in the Jaguars' 3-4 defense) as Travon Walker & Josh Allen, as expected by most observers of Jacksonville Jaguars football. As many Jags fans identified throughout the 2022 season, the Jags were moderately successful in "pressuring" the QB throughout the year while also struggling for a significant portion of the season to sack the QB. As a reminder, QB pressures are a combination stat that includes when a defender
- Forces the QB to move off his initial drop back point to avoid contact or contacts the QB in the act of throwing (hurry),
- Knocks down the QB (knockdown), or
- Sacks the QB
For the Jags team to take a step forward this must prove in 2023. The more optimistic Jaguars fans might point out the addition of Yasir Abdullah in this year's draft, plus the untapped potential of K'Lavon Chaisson or potentially Jordan Smith. They might also argue for an improved 2nd season for both Josh Allen and Travon Walker in Mike Caldwell's defense. While all of these hopes could come to pass, I am not historically a "traits", hope, or a "he's got potential" guy. I carry a "always hedge your bets" type of team builder personality. My preference is to never fully bet on someone to do something they've never shown you they can do & to always have a reasonable contingency.
With Jacksonville losing Arden Key & Dawuane Smoot this off season one could argue the pass rush rotation may currently be worse than the 2022 roster earlier in the season. The need for a multitude of pass rush rotation options became immediately evident last season after the 2022 late season Trayvon Walker & Dawuane Smoot injuries that opened up more pass rush opportunities for others. Additionally, against the best teams in the postseason, the pass rush without blitzing was a glaring opportunity area (0 sacks vs KC & only 1 sack without blitzing vs LAC). With the Jags still having Trevor Lawrence on a rookie contract and Josh Allen currently on his 5th year option, I believe this would be an ideal time to bring in an outside edge veteran free agent to assist this defense both in the short term and to allow the younger players more time to raise their play level.
There are multiple quality edge options currently available on the market that possibly won't even break the bank at this point in free agency. Frank Clark, Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram, Yannick Ngakoue, Leonard Floyd, Robert Quinn, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, or even bringing back hometown favorite Dawuane Smoot could be considered reasonable options with the Jaguar's current $13.8 million in cap space. I wouldn't be surprised if Jaguars management didn't have one of these guys on their radar to potentially add to the rotation prior to the end of pre-season.
This has been pretty much my stance since the draft...
It's official. The Jaguars must truly believe in their pass rushers taking a leap in year 3.— Travis D. Holmes (@TravLikesBacon) April 29, 2023
That, or they're signing a Frank Clark, Yannick Ngakoue, etc after the draft...
"Linebacker?! You must be kidding, right?!" I know, I know.... "But haven't we drafted like 22 linebackers over the last 4 years?!"
It does feel slightly weird for a team who just drafted 2 inside linebackers within the first 3 rounds in the 2022 draft (Lloyd & Muma) AND another in the 4th round in 2023 (Miller) to now list linebacker as anything but a team strength, but here we are. Foyesade Oluokun has been an incredible free agent signing, holding down his role. Additionally, Chad Muma gave the defense some level of consistency, with Devin Lloyd struggling at ILB earlier into the 2022 season. Even with the addition of Ventrell Miller, that second ILB role still seems to have more questions than answers heading into training camp. Additionally, there is something to be said for injury fall-off or depth.
When the Jaguars double-dipped at LB instead of taking skill-player/CB, they mentioned the need for LB depth due to potential injuries. Now you are turning to the backup despite zero injuries at all— John Shipley (@_John_Shipley) November 23, 2022
If Muma finishes strong, what is the plan for 2023? They enter camp in a battle?
This position looks to be one that will be fought out in training camp, as help does not seem to be on the way based on the current available free agents in this position. Only someone like a Deion Jones or Zach Cunningham would be worth a look & I would not expect that type of signing at this point with the investment already made by this team into that position. I highly expect and hope for either Chad Muma to continue his late season improvement in getting acclimated to the role, or for Devin Lloyd to rise to the occasion with another offseason under his belt. Miller may need some time for acclimation and also time to allow himself to fully heal his prior injury.
This position was one of the more shocking positions for me to not see addressed this offseason. With the longtime coming offseason jettison of Shaquill "Shaq" Griffin, the Jaguars secondary improved with moving Darius Williams to the outside corner role opposite of Tyson Campbell & shifting Tre Herndon to the slot. And while this overall improvement was a positive net, it was still plainly obvious to most that more improvement would be required from the nickel for this defense to take the next step.
Heading into the offseason I was 110% sure that the Jaguars were going to draft one of Brian Branch, Jartavius Martin, Darius Rush, etc (fill in the blank favorite nickel/slot option from this incredibly deep secondary in the 2023 NFL Draft. But alas, here we stand running it back with the same late season 2022 options. As we all saw throughout much of the 2022 season, crossing routes from the slot were a major issue for this unit. No matter if Paris Campbell, Keenan Allen, or anyone in between lined up in the slot, that was the week when they magically found the Super Mario Bros "invincible star". This position was legitimately the position that gave me lemon booty Sunday mornings before kickoff.
Many Jag fans seem to be of the belief that Antonio Johnson was drafted to fill this role, however the team has seemed to hint that that may not be the case, as Trent Baalke hinted to in his post-draft comments.
"He's in the slot a lot, but he's a safety in how they play the defense. He wasn't man covering a lot of people in the slot. He dropped down, more of a box-type guy." - Trent Baalke
Antonio should be looked at as more Rayshon Jenkins depth/potential future competition, less our nickel or slot coverage solution. Christian Braswell may also end up as a solid, developmental slot option. However, for the 2023 season I believe a team leaning on a 6th round draft pick to immediately win a starting nickel spot in year one is asking a tall task. Moreso, we would likely expect significant growing pains nevertheless (ala Tyson Campbell's rookie season).
Finally, I would be remiss not to bring attention to the Jaguars' incredible injury fortune throughout the 2022 season. Last year the Jaguars had the least games missed due to injury of all NFL teams. Understanding the fickle nature of NFL injuries may actually help explain why the Jaguars went so heavily in free agency and the draft in searching for depth pieces at all positions (even ones that didnt seem to be immediate areas of need). Jax could truly use both improvement at the slot role and could benefit from depth behind Darius Williams and Tyson Campbell on the outside for if the injury fortune is no longer as fortunate. It would be wise for Jax to take a look at some of the available slot free agent options prior to it becoming a dire need through an in-season injury. Some of the primary slot options currently available are Casey Hayward Jr (CB), Lamarcus Joyner (S), Kareem Jackson (S), & Budda Baker (S) who is potentially available via trade).
In case you haven't identified a trend above, it seems that the vasy majority of the Jaguars' team questions currently lie on the defensive side of the ball. As such, 2nd year Defensive Coordinator Mike Caldwell may be faced with a Hell's Kitchen-level challenge. He may just be facing off against the NFL's elite QBs (Burrow, Mahomes, Josh Allen, & Lamar) with a few questionable ingredients in his pantry. If the Jaguars are going to open the checkbook to spend some of that $13.8 million in available cap space, maybe they should take a stroll down the edge rusher or nickel back aisles? They may be fortunate enough to get a few of the available options on rollback pricing at this time of the year.
- Defensive Tackle: Ndamukong Suh (to assist in the rotational pass rush role from the DT position).
- Offensive Guard: Justin Pugh, Gabe Jackson, Rodger Saffold, Trai Turner, etc (with Ben Bartch coming back from injury & not being available prior to camp & Tyler Shatley being the only other completion available)
What say you BCC? Where do you think the team should focus their resources in post-draft free agency? Or, do you believe we're good as is and let's just kick the season off now? Let me know in the comments....