Should the Jaguars Have Reservations About Drafting a Defensive Lineman in the First Round for the Third Consecutive Year?
In the last several years, the Jacksonville Jaguars have become as well known for their defensive line play as for anything else. From Calais Campbell to Yannick Ngakoue to Malik Jackson to Marcell Dareus to Josh Allen, Sacksonville has been the Jaguars' calling card under head coach Doug Marrone.
The Jaguars' defensive identity has a lot to do with spending big money on veterans (Campbell and Jackson), but the draft capital the team has invested in its defensive line has played just as large of a role. In 2015, general manager Dave Caldwell drafted defensive end Dante Fowler with the third overall selection, and then he spent the 69th overall pick on Ngakoue the next year.
The team took an even more significant approach to its front four investment when Tom Coughlin entered the scene as the team's executive vice president of football operations in 2017. Coughlin was known for his affinity for taking defensive linemen high in the draft during his time with the New York Giants, and this continued during his three-year stint in Jacksonville.
In Coughlin's second year leading the Jaguars' personnel moves, he selected Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan with the 29th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, despite the team already being deep at defensive tackle with Jackson, Campbell, and Dareus all taking snaps at the position. Coughlin took Bryan as insurance for the post-Jackson life for the Jaguars, as the team would cut Jackson following the 2018 season. Jacksonville was fresh off the best season in team history in terms of pass-rushing in 2017 and returned every single player, but they still opted to invest in the defensive line.
Coughlin made a similar move in the 2019 NFL Draft, once again investing in the defensive line with the team's first pick despite needs elsewhere (tight end, offensive line). With the seventh overall selection, the Jaguars brought in defensive end Josh Allen, despite having Ngakoue and Campbell already on the roster. This move ended up paying off as Allen led the team, and all rookies, in sacks with 10.5, a Jaguars' rookie record.
Now, the Jaguars are once again facing the question of taking a defensive lineman in the first round. Coughlin and his influence are no longer in Jacksonville, but Caldwell, a advocate for investing in the defensive line, is once again in charge of the front office.
Jacksonville owns the No. 9 and 20 picks in this year's first round, and most mock drafts have projected Caldwell and the Jaguars taking a defensive tackle with the first pick, whether it be Auburn's Derrick Brown or South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw.
But after using each of the last two first round picks on the front four, should the Jaguars have concerns about going back to the well for a third time?
The short answer is no, though it is understandable that some may consider it overkill considering all of the other needs the Jaguars have (offensive line, tight end, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, safety).
Why should the Jaguars not have any reservations about once again taking a defensive lineman on day one of the draft? There are several reasons, but two are especially significant ones to consider.
First of all, the Jaguars still have a massive need on the defensive line despite the Bryan and Allen picks. After nose tackle Marcell Dareus was placed on injured reserve last year, the Jaguars were among the worst teams in the NFL against the run. There was no depth at defensive tackle and no consistent run stuffing defensive lineman on the roster aside from Dareus.
Dareus may not return to the Jaguars next season due to his high cap figure and the team's salary cap issues, so the outlook at defensive tackle is murky at best right now. Veteran nose tackle Abry Jones was below-average last season, while Bryan has failed to make a large impact. Bryan was better in 2019 than he was as a rookie in 2018, but he still has only produced three sacks, eight tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits, and one forced fumble through two seasons.
Secondly, some of the best defenses in the NFL the past several seasons have been ones who have made major investments in the defensive line. Pass-rushers are the second most valuable players on most teams, behind only quarterbacks, and elite units have led their teams deep into the postseason.
The San Francisco 49ers' elite defense in 2019 was spearheaded by a defensive line that featured five former first-round draft picks, with four of those being selected by the 49ers in recent years. The dominant Seattle Seahawks' defenses during the Legion of Boom era had players like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett playing major roles. Last year, Green Bay had two first-round picks (Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary) on the defensive line, with two pass-rushers who were major free agent additions (Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith). And these are just a few recent examples.
And of course, the Jaguars themselves had their best team in the last plus-decade when they poured an abundance of resources into the front four. It is reasonable to argue that if Jacksonville wants to get back to its former version of dominant defense, it needs to start by rebuilding the trenches.
Jacksonville needs to hit on its first two picks in April. There is zero question about that. But when it comes to having concerns about one of those picks being a defensive lineman, it would be wise to consider the Jaguars' needs, as well as what recent history indicates in terms of how important a stocked defensive line is.