The most influential offseason in franchise history is underway for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team has finalized its front office, led by general manager Trent Baalke, and its coaching staff, led by head coach Urban Meyer. The attention now shifts to the players, with free agency beginning in less than a month and the NFL Draft scheduled for April 29th.
The official start of the 2021 NFL season is set for March 17, but before that, teams have from February 23 to March 9 to apply a franchise or transitional tag to one player. Last year, the Jaguars placed its tag on edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue before eventually trading him to the Minnesota Vikings for draft compensation- this year, the most likely tagged player in Jacksonville may be left tackle Cam Robinson.
Robinson was the 34th overall pick in the 2017 draft after the Jaguars traded up to select him and has started 50 of 67 possible games since (including postseason). He missed the 2017 regular season finale with an abdomen injury; 14 games in 2018 due to a torn ACL in his left knee; and the first two weeks of the 2019 season with a right knee sprain before playing all 16 games in 2020.
Offensive line analyst Brandon Thorn, owner of the Trench Warfare Newsletter, spoke to Jaguar Report about Robinson’s performance to date.
“I think he’s an average starter with the ability to be above average if he gets better with his technique,” Thorn said. “Part of the reason that I think he loses outside [in pass protection] is because he undersets rushers too often which creates a short corner.”
That last point shows up on film plenty. According to former All Pac-10 tackle Ben Muth in a Football Outsiders column, an underset is “when you don’t get much width on your set because you’re afraid of either an inside move or a twist with the tackle.” In 2020, Robinson allowed 40 quarterback pressures (ninth-most in the league, per Pro Football Focus), most of which came on outside rushes.
Thorn broke it down: “His strike timing is a little late and when he uses his outside hand to initiate contact that makes it impossible to recover when he is late... If he could expand his set points and get to his spot more consistently it would go a long way but it’s not something he’s been able to do consistently and I’m not sure if he will.”
Beyond technique, another reason that Robinson has disappointed at times in pass protection is scheme. Thorn pointed out that Jaguars offensive line coach George Warhop teaches his tackles to use vertical sets, which makes them more vulnerable to being beaten outside. Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz wrote for SB Nation that “the vertical set is hard to master... by the nature of your set, you’re close to the quarterback.”
It’s unclear at this point what type of offense the Jaguars will run in 2021, but Meyer has mentioned that “there is a vision I have about the style of offense.” If Jacksonville ultimately uses a spread system like Meyer implemented at the collegiate level, that could benefit the offensive line, especially the tackles.
Heavy usage of screens, play-action and run-pass options (RPOs) all work in favor of the blockers up front as opposed to ‘true dropbacks.’ Chiefs All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz told Thorn that “defenses have to respect anything and can’t really pin their ears back” when playing against on offense like Kansas City’s that regularly utilizes these types of plays. Defenders have to be wary of where the ball might be going, which consequently slows down the pass rush.
On RPOs specifically, offensive linemen are able to be aggressive and run block, which is typically much favorable than traditional pass-protection sets. “Tackles aren’t on islands or blocking for extensive periods of time,” Thorn added. “Their jobs are obviously much easier when the quarterback gets the ball out of his hands quickly.”
The quarterback who will be executing Meyer’s scheme will likely be Trevor Lawrence, the projected first overall pick in this year’s draft. Lawrence has been likened to former Indianapolis Colts first overall pick Andrew Luck as a once-in-a-lifetime prospect, and while it would be a major success for Lawrence to perform as well as Luck ever did in the pros, Jacksonville wouldn’t want him to follow the exact same career arc.
Luck abruptly retired just before the 2019 season, citing a loss of joy from the game due to an endless cycle of rehab from various injuries sustained throughout his career. As NFL analyst Warren Sharp illuminated, faint personnel decisions (or lack thereof) resulted in a porous offensive line that wasn’t able to protect Luck from the injuries that ultimately ended his career.
So, while the 25-year-old Robinson could theoretically make strides in his technique in his second season under Warhop, benefit from a spread offense, and enjoy playing with a quarterback prospect in Lawrence who raises the level of play of those around him, it’s fair to question whether the Jaguars would be settling at a position that has a massive role in protecting the future face of the franchise.
Robinson’s advanced statistics have been underwhelming throughout his career- among all offensive tackles across his three full seasons in the league (2017, 2019, and 2020, respectively), he’s ranked 13th, 7th, and 8th in pressures allowed; 46th, 48th, and 56th in Sports Info Solution’s Total Points Earned metric; and 79th, 75th, and 65th in PFF grade (minimum of 250 snaps, roughly 90 players).
PFF notes that pass rushing/blocking is “one of the most straightforward and well-defined areas of our grading system. It’s also been the most consistently predictive.” However, its grades are obviously aren’t perfect, and Thorn suggested that the company doesn’t factor opponent strength into its evaluations enough.
Robinson did face a tough schedule of opposing pass rushers in 2020. The defenders whom he faced most often included premier players like Trey Flowers, Melvin Ingram III, and Bud Dupree as well as overlooked players like Harold Landry III, Carl Lawson, and Adrian Clayborn.
For added context, here’s all of Robinson’s pass-blocking reps (on true dropbacks) against Flowers, who had the highest cap hit and PFF grade among Robinson’s opponents last year, and Lawson, who Thorn ranked as the most underrated edge rusher in the league in 2020.
While pass protection will take precedent in a league that is more pass-happy every year and on a team that is prepared to draft a potential long-term quarterback, Robinson’s run blocking capabilities are underwhelming to say the least. He’s ranked bottom-15 among all offensive tackles with 250-plus snaps in each of his full three seasons in both blown run blocks (per SIS) and run-blocking grade (per PFF).
Beyond re-signing Robinson (which Spotrac estimated would cost $11.3 million per year, making him the 16th-highest-paid left tackle in the league), Jacksonville could place its franchise tag on him (which would cost $14.5 million per Over The Cap's projections) and perhaps draft his eventual replacement in this year’s draft, or look elsewhere for an answer at left tackle (which could result in a compensatory pick for the Jaguars depending on how much Robinson signs for elsewhere).
The two external candidates who make the most sense are Trent Williams, which would require Jacksonville to spend a considerate amount of its league-leading cap space for an elite albeit 32-year-old blindside protector, or Orlando Brown Jr., which would require Jacksonville to send a considerate amount of its league-leading draft capital to the Baltimore Ravens in a trade for a 24-year-old who made his first NFL starts at left tackle last season.
Both players would be upgrades in pass protection but especially provide massive reinforcements in the run game, as Williams earned the highest PFF run-blocking grade and Brown earned the most Run Block Points Earned among all offensive tackles last season.
At the end of the day, it will come down to Urban Meyer’s comfort level with last year’s starters to perform at a satisfactory level in 2021 and beyond. Meyer told NFL Network following Lawrence’s recent pro day that “our offensive line is pretty good. You know, it's not a blow up offensive line. You know, we got some other areas we got to fix. So I have a vision of what it looks like. Coach Schottenheimer and Bevell, we've had those conversations, but it's going to be built around what we have, and there's some good pieces there but we're gonna make it even better."
Meyer seems content with the current offensive line (assuming Robinson is brought back), but actions speak louder than words, and the Jaguars’ actions in the next month will likely either result in Robinson returning as the starting left tackle or an expensive upgrade.
As Thorn said, Robinson has the potential to become an above-average starter, and a one-year ‘prove it’ opportunity on the franchise tag would be passable. But considering Robinson’s tape and advanced statistics, the number of resources Jacksonville has available to spend, and especially the importance of protecting a potential franchise quarterback, Jacksonville would be wise to pursue the latter option.