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. Then we moved on to the secondary to examine the outside cornerback spot across from Shaquill Griffin.
Now, we look at a spot that wasn't up for question a year ago but very well may be today: Inside linebacker.
It is a foregone conclusion that Myles Jack will start at one linebacker spot in defensive coordinator Joe Cullen's scheme. Jack has been described as one of the team's core pieces by head coach Urban Meyer and is fresh off the best year of his career. Whether Jack will start isn't a question.
What could be a question -- and a somewhat surprising one at that -- is the inside linebacker spot next to Jack.
The safe bet is for Joe Schobert to once again start at middle linebacker, reprising the role he had in 2020 as the quarterback of the defense. But while Schobert should be the favorite entering camp, it should be remembered the Jaguars are under new leadership, a new coaching staff, and a brand new scheme.
Ultimately, all old arrangements are now null and void for the Jaguars. This is especially true on the defense and includes the scenario that would have made Schobert a guaranteed starter if he was still under the regime that signed him to a big-money deal last offseason.
Meyer, Cullen and assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Charlie Strong have all made it clear how important the linebacker position will be within the Jaguars' defensive structure. And with the defensive struggles the Jaguars' new staff has inherited, there is little reason for the Jaguars to just hand out starting jobs due to contracts.
"Yeah, Coach [Charlie] Strong has a real good relationship with him now and we’ve got Damien [Wilson], Myles Jack and Joe [Schobert] are the top three guys at the linebackers and hopefully we’ll get a little bit of rotation going for those three, Mike and Will," Meyer said about Schobert and the linebacker position in June.
"So, he’s been—he’s one of the strongest guys on the team, powerful, he had a great offseason with our strength staff and he’s all in. So, we’re anxious to see him have a good year.”
With that in mind, Schobert is the Jaguars' best and most likely option to start in the middle. He will enter 2021 with the chemistry he built with Myles Jack in 2020, and Schobert was as much of a playmaker in coverage as any Jaguars' defense, an asset the Jaguars would be wise to keep on the field.
While there were lapses at times in 2020, Schobert's play greatly improved over the second half as he became more comfortable in the defensive scheme. He ended the year with 141 tackles, six tackles for loss, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks, one pick-six, and four pass deflections, giving the Jaguars a playmaker at the second level against the pass.
Ultimately, Schobert should be the far and away favorite to see snaps next to Jack because of this. The Jaguars' scheme is built around effort, athleticism, and playmaking ability, and for Schobert's previous struggles, he brings all three of those traits in bunches.
"You’re looking at two ‘backers that are kind of in the prime of their career because the length of time that they have been in the NFL, but guys that can make plays and guys that will become the staple of our defense," Strong said in March about Schobert and Jack.
"If you’re not good at linebacker, then you really don’t have much of a chance to play really good defense. [I’m] really, really looking forward to coaching both of them because they want to learn. You can tell they’re learners, they want to learn, and they want to get better. It’s all about creating value and those guys want to create value for themselves and they want to become the best.”
But the Jaguars are moving in a new direction and that should not be discredited, especially when that direction involves a coach like Meyer who isn't afraid to make bold moves. While Schobert should be expected to start the season at middle linebacker, Wilson gives the Jaguars an experienced option who is strong against the run and has 3-4 experience.
While Schobert and Jack are two active and athletic linebackers, Wilson is more of a downhill presence. He plays with a thumping physicality and is much different in terms of skill set than his counterparts in the linebacker room.
Considering how much the Jaguars struggled against the run last season, it wouldn't be a shock to see the team want to emphasize physicality at the linebacker position. Wilson is the most natural fit as a run-defending linebacker among the group, so he does give the Jaguars an experienced option who can potentially fulfill a different area of need.
In 93 games played (51 starts), Wilson has notched 249 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles. In 2020, Wilson recorded 70 tackles in 13 games (all starts) with the Chiefs. He has seen the ins and outs of the middle linebacker role in a 3-4 defense and he brings a firm veteran presence.
Overall, Wilson gives the Jaguars options and even a chance to push Schobert. With that in mind, this is one battle that is likely already nearly decided and it would take a noteworthy upset to see the end result change.
Perhaps no linebacker other than Jack is officially yet a starter, but the safe money is on Schobert. And regardless of who starts, the Jaguars will likely be able to find value in their trio all the same.
“It’s been really great because when you look at veterans, when you talk about Joe [Schobert], you talk about Myles [Jack], you talk about Damien [Wilson], they’re three guys that have been in the league for six plus years and they have a ton of plays under their belt," Strong said in June.
"When you watch them work, it’s been good because they work and they go about it the right way."