The Jacksonville Jaguars Are Building a Fun and Potentially Great Defense
We’re going to do this again, aren’t we? NFL free agency opens, the Jacksonville Jaguars bring in some big names, and we talk ourselves into how this could be the year everything comes together for them only to be disappointed by the on-field product.
It’s been a cycle over the past few seasons.
The Jaguars kicked off this season’s cycle by again striking big on the opening day of the new league year.
They convinced Calais Campbell it was better to take more money than it was to take a discount from his hometown Denver Broncos. They not only got one of the top cornerbacks on the market, but they also took him away from a division rival by signing A.J. Bouye from the Houston Texans. Jacksonville also brought in Barry Church of the Dallas Cowboys to replace Jonathan Cyprien, who was a free agent and signed with the Tennessee Titans.
So with all that talent coming to the Jaguars, what if this is the year?
A Better Foundation
What makes this season different from ones in the past is the layer of some success already in place.
It went somewhat unnoticed due to the 3-13 record and defensive head coach Gus Bradley getting fired, but the Jaguars’ defense showed some promise last season. By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, it was an above-average unit.
In 2016, the Jaguars ranked 14th in overall Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, 13th against the pass, and 12th against the run. This was not a bad defense.
And while Bradley is gone, there weren’t many major changes to the Jaguars’ coaching staff. Interim coach Doug Marrone was promoted to full-time head coach, and he kept many of the coaches already employed, including Todd Walsh, who was a first-year defensive coordinator for the Jaguars last season.
Some of the scheme may change slightly in Walsh’s second season -- he won’t have to be beholden to the Seahawks-style of defense established by Bradley -- but not enough to suggest the pieces currently in place will be asked to have wildly different assignments than how they succeeded in 2016.
One thing that makes these three signings so intriguing is how they build on top of the three positions Jacksonville sought to improve last season.
Bouye will play opposite Jalen Ramsey, who the Jaguars spent the fifth overall pick in the draft on last season. Campbell will be placed on the line next to Malik Jackson, Jacksonville’s 2016 big-ticket free agent, and Church will take his place in the defensive backfield with Tashaun Gipson, Jacksonville’s other free-agent splash last season.
With Bouye and Ramsey together in the secondary, the Jaguars potentially -- on paper -- jumped into the conversation with the Denver Broncos and New York Giants for the best cornerback tandems in the league.
In Ramsey’s rookie season, he showed the potential as a future number-one corner. Per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, Ramsey ranked 17th in yards allowed per pass among 83 cornerbacks with 40 or more targets. Bouye, in his breakout season for the Texans, ranked eighth. Only the Broncos and Giants bring back two starters for 2017 who performed better.
It’s fair to be skeptical of Bouye’s performance in 2016 because it did come from nowhere in his fourth NFL season. He impressed many during training camp, but opened the season playing 25 or fewer defensive snaps in three of Houston’s first four games before taking over as a starter. Bouye won’t have to be asked to defend the opposing number-one receiver, a job Ramsey took over last season, though he does appear willing to do so if needed.
On the defensive line, Campbell adds a gigantic body wherever the Jaguars need him to line up. When Arizona ran a 3-4 base, Campbell was the end, usually considered the 5-technique, but with the Cardinals’ shifting fronts, he lined up closer to the guard as a 3-technique -- more akin to a 4-3 defensive tackle -- quite often.
No matter where Campbell lines up, he has the ability to stop the run and get interior pressure -- one of the most sought after skills on defense. Campbell can even line up on the edge and successfully dominate on passing downs.
Campbell will turn 31 years old in September, but he’s shown no signs of age slowing him down. For your enjoyment, take a look at this clip of Campbell wreaking havoc in the backfield last season (video courtesy: NFL Game Pass):
Alongside Campbell at defensive tackle for most snaps will be Malik Jackson, who is also a skilled pass rusher from the inside and a good run defender.
It’s not this simple, but after the loss of Jackson in the middle, the Broncos’ run defense went from 5th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play in 2015 to 28th in 2016. Jacksonville went from 21st to 12th.
While the Jaguars might need another full-time edge rusher, we might not see a more dominant interior on a defensive line this season.
At safety, Church brings some versatility to the position after playing multiple roles for Dallas over the past seven seasons. The plan does not appear to label Church and Gipson as free and strong safeties but instead use them interchangeably.
Add these new players to Telvin Smith, who has become a star at linebacker, and the plan to integrate Myles Jack into a full-time role on the defense and there’s the foundation of what could be a great defense in the next few seasons.
Of course, what could stop the Jaguars from reaching their full potential on defense is the offense. The controlling powers that be in Jacksonville appear set on giving Blake Bortles at least one more year at quarterback, a move that instantly lowers the ceiling for the offense in 2017.
Bortles was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last season, ranking 30th of 39 quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back. With his performance unlikely to improve suddenly in his fourth season -- the last guaranteed year of his contract -- the front office decided to build up the defense. Basically, the 2017 Jaguars are purposely building from the blueprint of the 2016 Houston Texans.
That's not an ideal plan, but it might just be crazy enough to work in the AFC South. It did last season, after all.
For now, the Jaguars are banking on the defense to be the unit that breaks through. They’ve hoped before, but this could finally be the year it happens.