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With Blake Bortles Benched, Jaguars Are Stuck in a Self-Inflicted Quarterback Quandary

Jacksonville clearly stood behind Blake Bortles for too long—and now it’s too late. What could the team have done in order to avoid this sticky situation, and where should it go from here?

The Jacksonville Jaguars have been committing quarterback malpractice dating back to August 2017. During that preseason, the Jags were dubious that Blake Bortles could be their Week 1 starter, so head coach Doug Marrone started Chad Henne against the Panthers in that all-important dress rehearsal. However the veteran didn’t seize the opportunity and Blake Bortles outplayed him with the second-string offense to “earn” the Week 1 starting job.

Since then (and really before but in the interest of being conservative) it’s been obvious that Jacksonville cannot reach its potential with Bortles as the starter—but the franchise has done little to offer much competition. The Jaguars got to the AFC title game last year by taking the ball out of his hands, and now they’re 3–8 this season in no small part because they kept the ball in his hands.

Before being benched in favor of Cody Kessler on Monday, Bortles was on track to throw his most interceptions since leading the league in 2015 with 18. Though he has an average of 2.79 seconds to throw (good for ninth-best in the league), his 5.1 average completed air yards is seventh-worst. His 81.9 passer rating is fifth-worst in the league among all quarterbacks, and he’s behind three rookies (Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen) and second-year backup-turned-starter C.J. Beathard in that category.

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You can argue the malpractice began well before last summer, though, like when Jacksonville picked up Bortles’s fifth-year option after the 2016 season—when he followed up an 18-interception season with 16 picks. Or when they passed on both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft to take Leonard Fournette at No. 4 overall.

But of course, hindsight is 20/20—so here are some moves the Jaguars could have made when the team came face-to-face with incontrovertible evidence in late August 2017 that Bortles couldn’t get the job done. Could these moves have helped avoid the QB abyss they’re in today? We like to think so.

• On Sept. 2, realizing that Scott Tolzien would not win them games, the Colts traded Philip Dorsett to the Patriots in exchange for Jacoby Brissett. But what if it had been Jacksonville who traded for Brissett? At the time, the Jags had a then-healthy Allen Robinson or Marqise Lee they could have dangled as trade bait.

• At any time between then and Nov. 13, the Jaguars could have signed Matt Barkley, who had just been cut by the 49ers. Earlier this month, with just 12 days in the Buffalo Bills’ system, Barkley led the Bills to a 41–10 win against the Jets.

• I won’t insult your intelligence by saying the Jaguars could have made an in-season trade for Jimmy Garoppolo knowing what we know about how that deal went down. Similarly, I won’t pretend the Jags had much of a chance to sign Kirk Cousins in the offseason or even devote $84 million in guaranteed money to that position with all the investments on defense. But the Chiefs managed to trade Alex Smith during Super Bowl week to Washington in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a 2018 third-round pick. Case Keenum signed a two-year, $36 million deal with Denver to reunite with Gary Kubiak when Jacksonville had a better defense, offensive line and running game.

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• Sam Bradford signed an incentive-laced deal with the Cardinals—why weren’t the Jaguars in the discussion to sign him? Sure Bradford has dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career, but a team with strong protection for a quarterback who’s known for his accuracy would only help with the offense’s stated mission of ball and clock control.

• Tyrod Taylor was entering the last year of his extension with Buffalo and everyone knew he wouldn’t be a Bill in 2018. The Browns got him for a third-round pick. The Jets signed Teddy Bridgewater to a one-year, $6 million deal and then dealt him to the Saints—who famously never pay for backup quarterbacks but believed very much in championship windows like the Jags should—for a future third-round pick.

And that list doesn’t include guys would have offered more competition to Bortles than Kessler. It seemingly took forever for A.J. McCarron to land in Buffalo on a two-year, $10 million contract. Chase Daniel signed a similar deal to be Mitch Trubisky’s backup after not re-signing in New Orleans, and he just beat the Lions on a short week.

Of course, there’s always been Colin Kaepernick, who has been available for hire every day for more than a year and a half, including nearly two full months before the Jaguars signed Bortles to his extension. To put a bow on it, the Jaguars could have drafted Lamar Jackson in the spring and, at the very least, done exactly what the Ravens have done with the former Heisman winner.

You’d think Bortles being benched after seven straight losses would signal the quarterback’s end in Duval County. You’d be wrong.

Because of the three-year, $54 million extension the Jags gave him in February after the playoff run fueled by a great defense and strong ground game—a contract that seemed reasonable when simply looking at the $18 million per year average—the Jaguars essentially can’t cut Bortles after this season. A pre-June 1 cut would count $16.5 million in dead money, the largest in NFL history according to Spotrac. Per Overthecap, a post-June 1 cut would incur $11.5 million in dead money. And since no team will likely trade for Bortles, the Jaguars are stuck with him unless they want a financially painful break.

So what to do now? If the NFL draft was tomorrow, the Jags would have the No. 5 overall pick, which would give them seven top-five picks in the past eight years. Fearing they’d never reach a long-term deal, Jacksonville reportedly could move All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the offseason, giving them the draft position to select the best quarterback and they have the capital to trade for one.

Our old pal Peter King posited the Jaguars should offer a first- and fourth-round pick to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. If the Bengals—destined to once again not win in January—opt for a fresh start, might Andy Dalton be available? It’s unclear how much Jon Gruden likes Derek Carr and we know the Raiders are willing to deal. There’s a question of what the Titans do with the enigmatic Marcus Mariota, though it would seem unlikely they would deal him within the division if he goes anywhere. Might Eli Manning, with enough pressure from the Giants organization, waive his no-trade clause and reunite with Coughlin as a stable bridge to the next era in Jacksonville? Perhaps Ryan Tannehill will look to stay in tax-free Florida with a reworked contract if his time in Miami is up.

For nearly two years now, which is an eternity in the NFL, the Jaguars have ignored—almost defiantly—to bolster the most important position in sports. For as many options as they’ve left out there, they have just as many moving forward. But the Jaguars are out of excuses.