The AFC South is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing divisions in the NFL. Matt Danely begins a four-part series breaking down each team to explain how that team has been developing and their expected impact on the division. Next up is the 2016 Jacksonville Jaguars; read his previous articles on the Indianapolis Colts here and the Houston Texas here.
The current state of the AFC South is the topic of much conversation, and for good reason: All four teams in the division have their quarterback; the roster-wide talent gap is shrinking; and none of the coaching staffs should reasonably feel as if their jobs are safe. Each team has built their rosters differently over the past five years, each paving a different road to their present-day status in the division.
The AFC South is considered by some to be developing into one of the more competitive divisions in the league, though others take a more measured approach to the recent influx of talent, seeing the teams as still a year or two away heading into the 2016 season. Compared to where the division was just a handful of years ago, however, there’s reason to believe that a massive improvement across the board is a very real possibility.
With that in mind, let’s dig in to how this team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have built their roster and how that has, in turn, affected the coaching staff. Together – through this series – we’ll see if we can find which team used the best approach, which of them have set themselves up for failure, and who is still missing some key pieces in their quest to build a perennial division champion. We’ve covered the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts; now we dive into the Jaguars.
How the Jaguars Got Here
As the Jaguars prepare for training camp, they head into the 2016 season as the only team of the four yet to wear the AFC South crown. While their success has been limited to wild card berths (2005, 2007) in the first 14 seasons in the division, their history has been marred by really bad teams with very poor results for the overwhelming majority of their existence. Many forget, however, that prior to the divisional realignments which sent the organization to the AFC South from the AFC Central, the team was uncommonly successful for an expansion team in its infancy.
Under first-time head coach, Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars improved from a 4-12 inaugural season to squeezing out a wild card berth with a 9-7 record in their second season as a franchise. Not only did they wriggle into the postseason, the Jaguars took out the Buffalo Bills (30-27) and Denver Broncos (30-27) as major underdogs and earned a trip to the AFC Championship Game. Quarterback Mark Brunell threw for over 4,000 yards in that 1996 season, a great passing season even by today’s NFL standards, with the help of his duo of 1,000-yard receivers – Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.
Over the next three seasons, the Jaguars put up fantastic records, combining for a 36-12 regular season output, three more trips to the playoffs, two division titles, another trip to the AFC title game which included one of the largest margins of victory in the playoffs over the 1999 Miami Dolphins.
It’s the following 16 seasons that most of us associate with the franchise though. Including the final two seasons with Coughlin at the helm. SInce then Jack Del Rio, Mike Mularkey, and now Gus Bradley have combined for a 101-155 (.394) record and only two playoff appearances.
Since the 2012 season that saw a change in ownership from Wayne Weaver to Shahid Khan and Mularkey’s lame-duck season, the organization has featured a massive influx of talent attempting to alter the direction of the team for the foreseeable future under Bradley. A dynamic offense now exists in Duval County with Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas along with a more complete backfield – one that has been no better than 21st in the league DVOA since 2011 – with T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory.
Defensively the Jaguars have only managed to field one top-10 defense in DVOA since the 2007 season, with six of those seasons landing at 24th in the league or worse. Theoretically, the landscape has changed drastically as they look ahead to the future. Bradley is a defensive coach who has yet to hit his stride in game planning or success. The linebacking corps has veteran leadership with Paul Posluszny in the back end of his career, and also has one of the most exciting young stars with Telvin Smith appearing to hit his stride as he moves into his third season.
Recent draft selections such as Dante Fowler, Michael Bennett, James Sample, Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue, and Sheldon Day will be expected to complete this defense in the vision of Bradley, as well as to the expectations of Khan and the Jaguars’ fan base. Additionally, the offseason’s free agent spending spree and maneuvers with the coaching staff further enhance the expectations for this unit after adding Malik Jackson (DT), Tashaun Gipson (S), and Prince Amukamara (CB) while making Todd Wash defensive coordinator and adding Monte Kiffin as an assistant to the staff as well.
Across the board, the Jaguars may just have the most talented defensive unit, as well as an ascending offense in the division. Pulling it all together is obviously the name of the game but, if they can get all of their talent on the same page as their coaching staff, a great season reminiscent to those of the late ‘90s teams may be on the horizon.
Where Are They Struggling?
I don’t think that it’s any secret that the Jaguars have had issues with both running the ball and scoring on the ground, as well as stopping the opposition from running all over them and scoring heavily in kind. Under Bradley, the Jaguars have been ranked no higher than 21st in rush yards throughout a season and have topped out at 15th in the league in rush yards allowed. Not exactly locking it down.
Throughout Bradley’s first three seasons at the helm, they’re also allowing 16.7 rushing touchdowns per season (never climbing above 16th in the league), and are only running it in the end zone seven times a season on their own behalf, which at their best under Bradley was 24th against the NFL in 2014.
Recent additions of Jack (Round 2, pick 5, 36th overall), Ngakoue (Round 3, pick 6, 69th overall), Day (Round 4, pick 5, 103rd overall), and Malik Jackson (FA) will be expected to assist in clogging the middle to keep opposing rushing attacks under wraps moving forward.
On the other hand, Ivory (FA) was brought in to assist Yeldon in getting the team’s proverbial legs going in those short-yardage and red zone opportunities – so as not to have to rely on Bortles, who connected on just 10 of 26 throws for touchdowns inside the red zone in the fourth quarter or OT. So if the Jaguars can get consistent scoring from their running backs, that could help Bortles’s growth as a quarterback by reducing pressure.
It’ll be no small task to rejuvenate the trenches on both sides of the ball, but it is as pertinent an area in their game for some major improvements.
Can the Coaching Staff Find Their Legs?
Not only is this the most important conclusion left to be determined, it’s the most widely disputed amongst fans. Bradley was brought in with the hopes of turning the Jaguars defense into the Seahawks of the southeast. Despite the assumption that the Seahawks’ defense made an overnight meteoric rise to the top of the NFL, the truth is somewhat to the contrary.
Bradley was a holdover in the transition from Jim Mora to Pete Carroll from 2009 to 2010, and the defense actually took a step backward, allowing more yards and points per game despite drafting Kam Chancellor, Walter Thurmond, and Earl Thomas. However, in Carroll’s second season at the helm, things came together nicely.
The three aforementioned DBs turned out to be as good as advertised, and they turned out a couple of very solid linebackers in K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith as well as one of the best cornerbacks in the game (Richard Sherman); they found some immediate depth at the position as well with Byron Maxwell. The 2012 draft was similar in that it produced quality starters, with depth defenders getting mixed in with highly productive free agent additions.
A large measure of luck has been attached to the perception of success of that 2010 season, and taking the next step in 2011 came primarily through hitting on more than five draft picks in the fourth-round or later in back-to-back drafts – something of a rarity. The scheme which the Seahawks, and now the Jaguars, use is highly dependent upon having the right talent in the right positions with a large serving of chemistry and intelligence.
This is where the differences come in between the two processes and how the rosters matured.
Bradley did attempt drafting similarly to the template used in Seattle. He went heavy on defensive backs and linebackers in his first two drafts while trying to complement those selections with free agents along the line and attempting to find stop-gap edge players or LEOs in his system. The problem is that very few were the right scheme fits and most failed to live up to their projections, while still others simply weren’t talented enough. The roster needed so much help offensively that it could not go ignored.
Bradley did nail a fifth-round pick in Telvin Smith and found some solid contributors with Ryan Davis and Aaron Colvin in that heavy offensive draft of 2014. In 2015 Bradley had the opportunity to get back to the defense, taking Dante Fowler in the first round, who was lost early in minicamp to injury, but pulled in James Sample and Michael Bennett who look to be better fits than their predecessors. While the 2016 class has yet to show what it can contribute, Bradley did manage to get two first-round talents in the haul of a virtual all defensive draft.
As of now the Jaguars ultimately have three first-round talents starting out their careers together on a defense that has been taking baby steps early in Bradley’s tenure; it now has a far better supporting free agent cast to assist in taking the next step. For such a young, talented group, pure chemistry and coaching will be absolutely paramount to the growth of the unit. The addition of Kiffin to the defensive staff could expedite the learning curve for the young defenders.
When all is said and done, the offense needs to continue to improve in all aspects of the game and the defense will have to show real steps toward being a top-10 defense in order to be taken seriously. The talent is there, that part isn’t debatable. Now, can the coaching mold that talent into what is needed to compile the top-to-bottom roster, similar to that of which Bradley left to take on for his own team in Jacksonville?
For Bradley’s sake, he better hope it can, because if this roster doesn’t at least find itself at .500 or above by Week 12, Bradley will spend the remainder of the season coaching for his job regardless of his offseason extension.