The Jacksonville Jaguars will at last officially kick off the Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer era this Sunday. After months of preparation and steeped anticipation, the Jaguars will face off against the Houston Texans on the road to open the regular season.
Whether the Jaguars can win their first game since Week 1 of the 2020 season will be key to determining how Meyer and Lawrence's first season will play out. As far as season-opening games go, this is a fairly significant one considering the Jaguars' desire to create positive momentum out of the gate.
So, which players will be the most important toward determining Week 1's result? Whose performances will decide the game? We break down five names below.
QB Trevor Lawrence
This is pointing out the obvious, but there is no player more important to Jacksonville's chances of winning on Sunday than No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence can always be considered the most important player entering each Jaguars' game since, well, he is the starting quarterback, but his performance will be even more paramount in Week 1 since it is his first taste of regular-season NFL action. Lawrence luckily won't be going against a fierce defense in his debut, but he will still have to power through his first NFL start against looks he has never seen before.
Lawrence will become the first-ever Jaguars' rookie quarterback to start a season opener, with the former Clemson star being the key to the Jaguars' offensive success vs. Texans' defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and his unit, which features a potentially underrated secondary. Whether Lawrence can avoid looking like a rookie who is still transitioning to the NFL and instead look like a playmaker at the quarterback position is what will determine Jacksonville's success on Sunday, at least on offense. Lawrence is more talented both physically and from a technical standpoint than most rookie quarterbacks, but at the end of the day, he is still a rookie quarterback. How much he plays like one will help tell Sunday's result.
CB Shaquill Griffin
After an uneven preseason followed an immensely impressive training camp, more of a focus has been put on Jaguars' No. 1 cornerback Shaquill Griffin, the team's top free agent addition from March. Griffin made his fair share of plays in the preseason but the Jaguars' defensive scheme asks the cornerbacks to play on an island, which means essentially every deep target is a one-on-one where a loss by the cornerback could mean a touchdown. Griffin saw this happen quite a bit vs. the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 of the preseason, which means how he defends vertical routes downfield will be key to Jacksonville's success in Week 1.
Houston doesn't have a deep or established receiving core, but they do have the speed to stretch the field. Brandin Cooks was top-25 in yards per route run last season according to Pro Football Focus, while finishing No. 27 in yards per route run against man coverage (2.14). He is an explosive playmaker who can beat a defensive over the top, while Chris Conley (4.35 40-yard dash) and rookie receiver Nico Collins (4.43) have the speed to threaten Griffin as well. Griffin will be tasked with shutting down receivers in one-on-one situations on Sunday, making his impact all the more important.
DE/OLB Josh Allen
After a year in which the Jaguars finished among the bottom of the entire NFL in sacks, pressure rate and quarterback hits in 2020, the burden has been put onto this year's defensive staff and its group of pass-rushers to prove 2021 can be different. There is no player more important to defensive coordinator Joe Cullen's quest to double the team's sack total than third-year pass-rusher Josh Allen, the former No. 7 overall pick who burst onto the scene with a Pro Bowl rookie season in 2019.
Allen and the Jaguars' pass rush haven't performed well against Houston in recent years due to Deshaun Watson's mobility, but the Jaguars will now play Tyrod Taylor behind a spotty offensive line. Taylor has great athleticism and mobility for the position, of course, but he doesn't have the ability to maneuver a pocket and make plays off-schedule like Watson does, making him more prone to pressure affecting him. The pressure is now on Allen, who will need to make plays against Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard (or whoever the Texans start at right tackle in the event Howard plays guard) to make the decline in Houston's quarterback play evident.
RT Jawaan Taylor
If there are any two Houston defenders who are capable of wrecking Jacksonville's offensive game plan, it is edge rushers Whitney Mercilus and Jacob Martin. Both have given the Jaguars fits in recent years, which is notable considering the Jaguars have started the same two offensive tackles (Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor) in the vast majority of those bouts. The Texans' edge rushers have won the battles in the past, making it paramount for Robinson and Taylor to perform well on Sunday.
Robinson missed most of the preseason with an ankle injury, but the Jaguars can likely trust their fifth-year left tackle a bit more than Taylor at this point. Robinson has been more consistent, putting the onus on Taylor to be the deciding factor among the Jaguars' offensive linemen on Sunday. With a rookie quarterback behind him in Lawrence, Taylor's play against the Texans is going to go a long way toward determining Week 1's result.
WR DJ Chark
The NFL is all about explosive plays. It is hard to be a winning offense week in and week out without consistently creating big plays and ripping off huge gains of yardage. This is something the Jaguars have learned the hard way in recent years, as well as during the preseason when the Jaguars failed to put together drives or avoid third-and-longs because of their inability to find explosive plays in the passing game. A big reason the Jaguars failed to stretch the field or pick up big gains on individual plays was due to wide receiver DJ Chark's absence as a result of his hand injury.
With Chark expected to be back from his injury in Week 1, the Jaguars will surely look to him to provide an explosive element to the offense. With Travis Etienne out for the season, Chark is one of the Jaguars' few truly explosive skill players who have the speed to stretch the field. Laviska Shenault and Marvin Jones are good receivers, but Chark (and Tyron Johnson) are different players because they have the speed to get behind defenses. Whether the Jaguars can harness Chark's speed and generate big plays with it will be key to Sunday's result.