The hype train has officially left the station. And there doesn’t appear to be any brakes.
During a recent appearance on The Rich Eisen Show, ESPN analyst Louis Riddick was asked for an AFC team nobody was talking about that is an ‘under the radar’ Super Bowl contender. The former safety and front office executive wasted no time in naming the Jaguars as ones to watch:
“The team I would be looking at would be Jacksonville... for sure, they’re the team in the South that will be the best overall, but they’ve got dudes man. Doug Pederson is a fantastic coach, their defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell is gonna be an up and coming head coaching candidate that will get some interviews this year. And Calvin Ridley; what Ridley is going to do for Trevor Lawrence, and what Lawrence is going to do for him… Calvin Ridley is going to burst back on to the scene as being that guy that, before he was suspended - I thought he was the best route runner in the NFL. Period. He can run any route, break your ankles, tear your ACL’s; this guy is a route-running genius. He’s going to do wonders for this outside passing game for Jacksonville.”
Almost across the board, Riddick couldn’t hide his enthusiasm for the Jaguars’ chances in 2023. He was particularly excited for how this offense was coming together - and not just at receiver:
“Now. It really does, it comes down to, for me, how this offensive line continues to evolve. Particularly at the tackle positon. Because now, they’re going to have star rookie Anton Harrison at tackle with Walker Little because of Cam Robinson’s suspension. But the running backs: Travis Etienne is a stud, and Tank Bigsby from Auburn, the rookie running back they got in the third? I thought Tank was one of the best running backs in the draft. He’ll be one of those guys that we’ll look back and go ‘how did he last until the third round?’ He’s that kind of guy. Brenton Strange, the tight end they drafted from Penn State, him and Evan Engram? They’ll be as good a pass catching duo as there is in the NFL.”
The praise for Bigsby and Strange will be welcomed by Jacksonville fans, many of whom questioned the pair’s selections on day two of the NFL Draft. Knowing Doug Pederson’s penchant for 2-TE sets, and appreciating that getting the most out of Travis Etienne requires greater depth in the backfield, at the very least there is an obvious plan in place - and now, it appears, the talent to go with it.
Perhaps worried some might think he’d been drinking the Kool-Aid a little too much, Riddick doubled down on his assertion that the Jags are legitimate contenders for a ring this upcoming season:
“I know that everyone will be like ‘damn Louis, you’re always so positive! Not everyone can be this good!’ But you know me - if I don’t like guys, I’ll say it. I like this team. They’ll be explosive on offense, and on defense they’ve got athletes galore… …and this is where I think it’s going to all come together. Mike is an up and coming DC, he’s got a bunch of guys that side of the football that are fantastic freakin’ athletes, young, and still figuring how to play together and make plays in the biggest of moments. I think that is all gonna come together because Doug Pederson as a person, as a leader? I couldn’t be higher on any coach in the NFL as I am on him - as a coach that has already won a Super Bowl. Now he’s trying to put his name back up there in the higher echelon of coaches again.”
The growth of the defense in year two under Mike Caldwell is likely a defining factor in just how successful the Jags can be in 2023. Concerns about pass rush production and depth in the secondary remain. But with young stars like Travon Walker, Devin Lloyd, and Andre Cisco looking to take that next step, it’s hard to argue with Riddick’s assertion that this unit is primed for a big jump.
It wasn’t long though, before attention returned to the offense - and predictably, the man under center:
“Here’s really what makes it all go. End of story: When we went over to London last year before they played Denver… …I talked to Doug about Trevor Lawrence’s maturation as a quarterback. And he almost had to be rehabilitated, be enthused with confidence after the struggles as a rookie. Not just on the field, but the way he was not supported and how he had to be the adult in the organization in his rookie year, which was unfair to him. You could see as the season went on, how he played in the postseason, he was making huge strides week after week with his maturation, and how he was starting to play like that ‘can’t miss’ guy.”
In a stacked AFC, suggesting any team will challenge the established big guns in the conference is bold. Fans in Buffalo, Kansas City, and Cincinnati will already be circling Super Bowl weekend in their calendars. And teams like the Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, and Chargers will also have dreams of gatecrashing the party. Considering where they were just eighteen months ago, including the Jaguars in the conversation is wild. And yet here we are.
Signing off with a flourish, Riddick delivered his final verdict:
“Year two in Doug’s system, what do you think Lawrence is gonna do? He’s got the best route runner in Calvin Ridley. All those receivers, tight ends. A young, up and coming offensive line that’s a little green on the edges but they’ll get better. And those running backs? What do you think is gonna happen with this football team? They’re gonna explode.”