Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Jaguars, who are out of excuses as far as resources go and desperate to start showing progress in the win-loss column. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
C Stefen Wisniewski, TE Marcedes Lewis, WR Bryan Walters, DE Andre Branch, P Bryan Anger, DT Abry Jones, QB Chad Henne
Players that must be re-signed
Wisniewski, Lewis, Walters, Jones: On an offensive line that struggled mightily with inconsistency, Wisniewski proved to be a highly valuable pickup. The former Raiders center was the strongest member of the front five, and the team has more than enough cap space—up to $88 million, by some estimates—to easily re-sign him. Walters was one of Jacksonville’s two primary slot receivers, along with Allen Hurns, and he would be a good re-signing as Jacksonville’s passing game continues to expand. Jones and Lewis are rotational players who should be able to be brought back on the cheap. Lewis’s blocking ability makes him particularly valuable to this team.
Most important position(s) to improve
Defensive backfield: Jacksonville has had issues up and down the defense, and it would have helped this secondary if first-round pick Dante Fowler wasn’t lost for the year before the season even started, or if tackle Sen’Derrick Marks hadn’t missed 12 games due to injury. But the defensive backs must take primary responsibility for a pass defense that ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics. The Jaguars ranked no higher than 25th against any type of receiver. Davon House was the only one of Jacksonville’s primary cornerbacks with an interception last season (he had four), but he also gave up a team-high six touchdowns, and neither Aaron Colvin nor Dwayne Gratz proved to be equal to the challenges of the NFL. Colvin allowed nearly 70% of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed, and Gratz allowed a 111.7 opponent passer rating—one of the NFL’s worst totals.
Jacksonville’s safeties were torched in deep coverage, and Jonathan Cyprien, once thought to be the team’s centerfield defender of the future, had a fairly disastrous third season. Right now, the back end is the primary thing keeping the Jags from taking the next step from rebuilding team to legitimate contender.
Other positions to improve
Offensive line, linebacker, pass rusher. The release of left guard Zane Beadles, who struggled through plantar fasciitis in 2015, adds yet another question to a line full of them. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 pick in 2013, allowed seven sacks last season, though five of them came in one complete disaster of a game against the Texans. In three seasons, he has struggled to maintain league-average performance. Right tackle Jeremy Parnell was better, and third-round rookie A.J. Cann looks like he could be a real find, but if Wisniewski gets away, the team will have exactly one lineman it can trust. Not a good situation for Blake Bortles, anyone else in the backfield, or any of Bortles’s receivers.
At linebacker, Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith played pretty well last season—Posluszny was particularly productive, but he’s also 30, and younger reinforcements will be needed soon. Gus Bradley wants to run a Cover-1/Cover-3 defense in which the linebackers are able to roam their halves of the field seamlessly and be just as stout against the run as they are against the pass. With Fowler and Marks injured, it was veteran Jared Odrick who led the team in sacks with 5.5. Recently-released end Chris Clemons led the team in total pressures. Someone is going to have to bump up that total. Maybe it’s Fowler. Marks has already proven himself to be a great inside pass rusher, but more will be needed.
Overall priority this off-season
Fix the defense, so the offense can thrive. In Bortles’s second season, the Jaguars developed a dynamic, if inconsistent, deep passing attack that could become a benchmark over the next few seasons. Hurns and Allen Robinson each topped 1,000 yards receiving, and each averaged more than 16 yards per catch. Bortles led the league with 97 passing attempts of 20 or more yards in the air and 40 completions on those deep throws, with 10 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Rookie halfback T.J. Yeldon showed tremendous potential. All those performances happened with an offensive line that was piecemeal at best.
Bradley and general manager David Caldwell have done an admirable job of building things up in the last few years, given what they walked into when they were both hired in 2013. But with a 12–36 record in three years, patience will soon run thin, and the key to sustained improvement for this team now lies on the defensive side of the ball. This draft and free agency period must be about getting defensive playmakers on the roster. With the fifth pick in the draft and nearly $90 million in cap space, the franchise has all the resources it could possibly ask for. It’s time for the Jaguars to take bold steps forward into real contention for the first time in a decade.