The Jacksonville Jaguars are slowly but surely marching along with the rest of the NFL to the start of the 2021 season, arguably the most anticipated season in franchise history. As fans count down the seconds until the debuts of Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence, the Jaguars are putting in time, energy and sweat to prepare for the season.
From now up until the start of Week 1, we will see the Jaguars grow as a team in Meyer's vision. The 90-man roster will be cut down as position battles take place throughout the roster.
As this offseason progresses, we will take a look at each position and give our best guess as to what the depth chart will look like come Week 1 -- at least based off the information we currently have.
We have already hit the quarterback room and the running back and tight end positions, along with the offensive line and wide receiver units. Now we move onto the defensive side, taking a look first at the cornerback room.
Jacksonville spent considerable resources on reshaping their cornerback depth chart this offseason, but at the same time they also kept the team's top three corners from a year ago in their short-term plans. The Jaguars are just one year removed from one of the worst pass defense performances in recent NFL history, though, and the cornerback room was a major part of that failure. To improve in 2021, the Jaguars will need big performances from both old and new faces.
“I think you have to cover in this league and our secondary coaches have done a great job," defensive coordinator Joe Cullen said during OTAs. "Tim Walton and I were together 20 years ago. Joe Danna and Chris Ash have done a great job bringing that unit together. But it was critical in finding guys either through the free agent acquisitions and through the draft, so we’ve kind of remade that whole room.
"Rayshawn Jenkins and Shaq[uill] Griffin, those were two key guys, plus keeping Josh [Jones]. Being able to keep guys, Tre [Herndon] has done a great job, and then the two draft picks. So, the competition went up and then the skill set went up in that room.”
So, how do we see the cornerback room shaking out in terms of starters and role players? We give our early educated guess here.
No. 1 CB: Shaquill Griffin
The Jaguars didn't sign Shaquill Griffin to a three-year, $40 million ($23.5 million guaranteed) contract in March for him to not be their alpha dog in the cornerback room. The Jaguars are cognizant of the prior regime's investment in CJ Henderson, but the Jaguars needed an established starter who has a track record of success to lead their remade cornerback room. That player is clearly Griffin, who will likely draw the opposing team's top receiver week in and week out as the Jaguars transition to a new defensive scheme.
Griffin has appeared in 57 games since being drafted in the third round in 2016, starting 53 games for the Seahawks in the process and recording six career interceptions and 48 pass deflections. No other cornerback on the Jaguars roster has Griffin's blend of experience and production, making him a safe bet to be the team's top cornerback this season.
"Shaq has been great. He’s got a leadership personality, every day [he has] worked his tail off and [he’s] very talented, obviously, I couldn’t be [happier]," Meyer said during minicamp.
No. 2 CB: CJ Henderson
One of the wildcards of the group solely because it has been an extended period of time since we have seen him completely healthy, CJ Henderson was the Jaguars' biggest defensive investment a year ago. The Jaguars drafted Henderson at No. 9 out of Florida, placing high expectations on the athletically gifted cornerback. Henderson exceeded those expectations in Week 1 when he dominated T.Y. Hilton and Philip Rivers in his NFL debut, but the rest of his rookie season was marred by injuries and inconsistent play.
Now, Henderson should still be expected to land a starting role as long as he proves to be healthy by Week 1. Meyer has given Henderson a few different votes of confidence throughout the offseason, and the drafting of Tyson Campbell at No. 33 likely doesn't impact Henderson unless he is injured.
"My gosh, is he talented. I know Dan Mullen very well who’s coached him in college. He’s an integral part of this," Meyer said about Henderson on March 9. "Obviously, you spend a high draft pick on him and [he’s] a wonderful young man that dealt with some injury situations and missed some games near the end of the season. He did have labrum surgery by the way, and everything came out fine. He’s actually in here rehabbing today, so we’re counting on him."
The Jaguars know Henderson has the talent to be arguably their best cornerback, but they have been wise to build depth behind him in any scenario in which he can't stay on the field. As of now, though, expect him to start Week 1 across from Griffin.
No. 1 Nickel CB: Tyson Campbell
While Tyson Campbell primarily projected as an outside cornerback after his career at Georgia, but the former five-star prospect looks to be the Jaguars' favorite to be their starting nickel/slot corner as a rookie. The Jaguars needed to address this position following D.J. Hayden's contract expiring at the conclusion of 2020, and spending the No. 33 pick on Campbell gives them a high-upside player at the position who the team believes can also play on the outside if required.
“No, I wouldn’t say insurance policy. It’s an insurance policy in the fact that guys get dinged up at that position. Last year was a tough year for us; we had a lot of injuries back there," Meyer said after drafting Campbell.
"The thing Tyson Campbell gave is flexibility at something other — he was a safety in high school and he’s a very physical player, great blitzer. Those are all qualities of the nickel. They’re very hard to find. I go back to Florida days, a Will Hill or an Ahmad Black, but they’re hard to find, the guys that can go inside and outside, and that’s the reason when we saw him sitting there — I didn’t know he’d make it there — we were worried he’d be gone before then.”
Campbell is an unknown at this point since he is a rookie and since he had limited reps in the slot at Georgia, but the Jaguars appear to be confident in his skill set as their third cornerback when offenses spread out and attempt to pass the ball.
No. 4 CB: Sidney Jones
The Jaguars' best cornerback in 2020, Jacksonville's new regime re-signed Sidney Jones in March to see if they could continue to tap into the former second-rounder's skill set. Jones is an ideal fit for the team's new defensive scheme thanks to his success in man coverage last year, a year in which he recorded nine pass deflections and two interceptions in nine games (six starts). Jones struggled with injuries toward the second half of the year, which has been his problem throughout his career, but when healthy he had flashes of a legitimate starting cornerback.
It is hard to see Jones opening the season as a starter due to the presence of Griffin and Henderson, along with Campbell's outside flexibility. In the event the Jaguars see any injuries to Griffin or Henderson during the season, however, then Jones makes perfect sense as the next man up. A year ago he was the team's top cornerback in terms of performance, and now he may be cornerback No. 4. While that seems like a step back, it speaks volumes to the Jaguars' improvement of depth at cornerback.
No. 5 CB/No. 2 Nickel: Tre Herndon
Jacksonville's best nickel cornerback from a year ago, former undrafted free agent Tre Herndon is another veteran cornerback with experience on the outside and inside. Herndon projects best now as the team's top backup nickel and as a backup on the outside, which means any injuries to Campbell would likely mean a big increase in snaps for the veteran cornerback.
Herndon has started 26 games over the last two years, recording three interceptions and 18 pass deflections during that period. His numbers took a dip along with the rest of the defense in 2020, but the prevailing thought is a change in scheme and an improved pass-rush could make the entire cornerback room's job easier, including Herndon's.
No. 6 CB: Chris Claybrooks
A seventh-round selection last season, Chris Claybrooks was drafted to primarily be a return man but ended up seeing more time at cornerback than on the return team. The former Memphis cornerback appeared in 13 games and started four, playing 374 (33%) defensive snaps after entering the year as a backup. Claybrooks had some impressive flashes, but he also allowed a passer rating of 144.0 and four touchdowns according to Pro Football Reference.
This will likely be the most hotly contested spot in the Jaguars' cornerback room. DJ Daniel and Luq Barcoo are two other options for the top backup spot behind the team's top-five cornerbacks, but Claybrooks' elite speed and experience and flashes in 2020 could earn him a second crack at being a contributor at cornerback. This spot could change, but Claybrooks makes the most sense as a favorite as of today.