Every team will harp on competition this fall as they have both new additions and old faces fight for roles on the depth chart and in the starting lineups. This is no different for the Jaguars, who brought a sea of change to their roster this offseason with over a dozen free-agent additions and nine draft picks.
But which battles will be the most important to watch in Jacksonville later this month and into August? Which will help determine how far the Jaguars can go in year one of a new era? We have picked five to evaluate and will do so individually over the course of the pre-training camp period.
We started with the kicker competition between Josh Lambo and Aldrick Rosas. Second, we looked at the backup quarterback battle between Gardner Minshew and C.J. Beathard, and then the three-way battle at running back between James Robinson, Travis Etienne and Carlos Hyde. Wrapping up on the offensive side of the ball was the battle for the No. 4 wide receiver role between Phillip Dorsett and Collin Johnson.
The first look on defense was at three-technique with Doug Costin, Jay Tufele and Taven Bryan. Now we take it to the secondary and examine the outside cornerback spot across from Shaquill Griffin.
The Jaguars weren't shy to add to the cornerback position in 2021. The team's biggest free-agent signing was Shaquill Griffin on a three-year, $40 million deal with $29 million guaranteed, while they also drafted Tyson Campbell at No. 33 overall and re-signed top 2020 cornerback Sidney Jones during the offseason.
But for all of the investments in 2021 and prior, the only real clarity at cornerback ahead of training camp is Griffin as a starter on the outside. The Jaguars didn't pay Griffin to not be their top cornerback, but what about across from him? And what about in the slot following the departure of D.J. Hayden?
These are the questions the Jaguars will have to answer during training camp. Ultimately there will be two starting roles up for grabs among four players and how the battles finalize will be a major deciding factor in the success of the Jaguars' defense.
“I think you have to cover in this league and our secondary coaches have done a great job. 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," defensive coordinator Joe Cullen said in June.
"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.”
The battle for the starting outside job opposite of Griffin will come down to Jones, who was the team's best cornerback last season, and CJ Henderson, the No. 9 overall pick in 2020 who started and ended his rookie season with a bang before injuries sidelined him.
Jones was an unlikely standout during the Jaguars' lost 2020 season. The former Eagles' second-round selection had several of the team's best individual performances throughout the course of nine games and six starts in his first year with Jacksonville. If not for late-season injuries, he likely would have been a coveted free agent.
While Jones doesn't have the draft pedigree of Henderson, he has the talent to be a starter or at least a top backup who still sees time in certain packages. He led the cornerback room in lowest catch percentage allowed (57.9%), passer rating allowed (103.2), interceptions (two), and pass deflections (nine).
But for as often as Jones was around the ball in 2020, he also had a penchant for allowing big plays. He allowed 21.8 yards per catch according to Pro Football Focus, by far the highest among the Jaguars' cornerbacks -- though this is skewed by a 78-yard score he allowed against the Packers. But even with this in mind, he was more consistent from week to week than the other corners on the roster, even with a few big scores allowed.
Then there is Henderson, who is likely the favorite to start the season opposite Griffin as long as he is healthy. Henderson has the athleticism, physicality and size to be a premier cornerback if he puts it all together, and nobody likely knows this better than Meyer considering his close relationship with Dan Mullen, Henderson's head coach at Florida.
“I spent some time with CJ. 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 in March before free agency.
"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 other spots, we’re still evaluating what you have and what’s available and that’s a big part of where we’re at right now.”
Henderson was drafted No. 9 overall by the previous regime a season ago, but he played in just eight games and recorded one interception as a rookie due to injuries, which later required labrum surgery. Henderson finished his rookie season with 36 tackles, six passes defended, one forced fumble and one interception, albeit while giving up four touchdowns in eight games.
Ultimately, Henderson didn't exactly score well in any stat category outside of his 8.7 yards allowed per target, recording most of his pass breakups and positive plays in coverage in Week 1.
Still, Week 1 was a truly dominant performance. The rookie corner shut down T.Y. Hilton in his NFL debut, including a game-clinching pass breakup and his first-career interception. Henderson became the third player in NFL history to post at least five tackles, three passes defensed and an INT in their NFL debut, joining CBs Marcus Peters (Sept. 13, 2015) and Denzel Ward (Sept. 9, 2018).
The question with Henderson will primarily be his availability. After a rookie year in which Henderson spend a good amount of his time on the sidelines, the Jaguars will need to feel confident in his ability to stay on the field if they are to name him a starter ahead of Jones, who has had injury issues in his own right.
“CJ’s a very talented young man, he just has to get healthy. When he does, I think you saw last year what he can do," Trent Baalke said following the 2021 draft.
"Coming in as a rookie, his first game, [he] made some very good plays both against the run and the pass. He’s a talented young guy. Now when you look across the board, you have six-foot, six-foot, six-foot plus across the board. That’s what you’re looking for: height, length and speed.”
Henderson has the talent to be the Jaguars' best cornerback, even factoring in Griffin. And because of that talent, he should be the favorite to win the starting job on the outside.
But it will be a battle he has to win on the field first, especially considering his competition is a more than capable defender.