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 and the safety spot opposite Rayshawn Jenkins, along with a look at middle linebacker's battle between Joe Schobert and Damien Wilson.
Now, we close out the series with the final piece of the puzzle: Who will be the defense's unofficial third starting cornerback?
The Jaguars have more flexibility at cornerback in general compared to where they were 12 months ago. Last year, the Jaguars essentially entered camp with determined starters along the outside in Tre Herndon and CJ Henderson and at the nickel spot with D.J. Hayden.
The course of the 2020 season changed things, with Sidney Jones eventually stepping up to start on the outside and Herndon shining at the nickel role as the season drew to a close. The Jaguars brought even more change this offseason with the additions of Griffin and second-round rookie cornerback Tyson Campbell, the first defensive rookie the Jaguars drafted this year at No. 33 overall.
Jones and Henderson are the clear options to battle for the outside spot across from Griffin (though Campbell could factor in there as well), leaving Herndon and Campbell to fight for reps inside.
Nickel cornerbacks are essentially starters in today's NFL. Nobody would have called Hayden or Aaron Colvin "backups" during their Jaguars' tenures. Defenses typically operate with at least three cornerbacks on the field, and the Ravens led the entire NFL in dime packages last season. With defensive coordinator Joe Cullen bringing over aspects of the Ravens' scheme, there is no reason to think the nickel corner won't be just as important as who starts on the outside.
The early thought is that a healthy Campbell would have the inside track to winning the job. The Jaguars invested a high draft pick in Campbell and Urban Meyer has gone out of his way since selecting Campbell to reiterate that the team thinks he can play in the slot, even if he sparingly played in the role at Georgia.
"Last year was a tough year for us; we had a lot of injuries back there. 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," Meyer said the night the Jaguars drafted Campbell.
"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.”
While Campbell's size and length would lead to conventional thinking stating that he is more of a fit on the outside than the inside, the Jaguars will likely take advantage of what they see as true versatility. Campbell is a terrific tackler and is physical near the line of scrimmage, so it isn't out of the question to play in the slot. He would just be bucking some trends.
With that in mind, Campbell feels like the favorite to eventually get the nod to start at the position. He missed the bulk of offseason practices with a hamstring injury but was healthy toward the end of OTAs and the start of minicamp.
“I think it depends on the style that you’re playing, and we feel that the scheme that we’re playing and what we’re trying to do and in the division we’re playing in, that you can never have enough of them. [We] feel really good about his versatility," Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke said about Campbell's potential in the slot following the draft.
"Unusual for a six foot plus corner to go inside, but if you watch the film, and we’ve spent a lot of time watching it, Coach [Urban Meyer] and I and the rest of the staff, personnel and coaching. We feel really good about his flexibility and versatility.
With this in mind, Herndon has been a player who the Jaguars' new regime re-signed this offseason and who has been singled out multiple times by both the coaching staff and Griffin as standouts at cornerback.
“The main one that jumped out to me has to be Tre [Herndon]. He’s just different, it’s the technique. That’s the person that I go to a lot about different things," Griffin said in June.
"I don’t know if it’s plays, or the press technique that I’m learning for the first time this year. That’s a guy that’s just always, day-in, day-out, doesn’t matter what it is. Like I said, playing this game, some days it’s like, ‘Phew, I don’t know I’m going to get through.’ Not Tre. Tre is not that guy. Every single day, he’s going to find a way to get better and that’s what motivates me."
Herndon was the Jaguars' top slot cornerback last year, allowing the team's lowest passer rating when defending in the slot (93.4) and had the NFL's sixth-best snaps per reception allowed in the slot (11.0) according to Pro Football Focus.
While Campbell's draft pedigree would imply he will see snaps, Herndon very well could still carve out a role in the Jaguars' secondary. At the very least, he gives the Jaguars options as opposed to just having to hand a job to a rookie.