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. We started on the defensive side with the cornerback room, linebacker position and the safety unit.
Now, we finish with arguably the most important position group on the entire defense: The defensive line.
The Jaguars and Meyer made it clear from Meyer's first press conference that upgrading the defensive line was set to be an offseason priority. The Jaguars ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks and pressure % last season, with only one player recording more than 2.5 sacks.
Jacksonville didn't sit on their hands and wait for the defensive line to improve overnight. The Jaguars signed veteran defensive linemen Roy Robertson-Harris and Jihad Ward early in free agency before sending a seventh-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for veteran nose tackle Malcom Brown.
To add to the new faces in the middle, the Jaguars spent two fourth-round picks on the defensive line in interior lineman Jay Tufele and edge rusher Jordan Smith. All in all, Jacksonville now has a defensive line filled with speed, size, versatility, and what the Jaguars hope will eventually turn into production.
For the sake of context, it is worth noting the Jaguars' defensive front will be fluid in terms of the looks presented. Defensive coordinator Joe Cullen is a transplant from the Baltimore Ravens and will bring elements of their defensive scheme to Jacksonville. This is a scheme that hangs its hat on versatility, so this depth chart is more so for base personnel and to give an idea of how the rotations may look.
With this in mind, how do we see the Jaguars' defensive line currently shaking out? We take a look below.
No. 1 NT: Malcom Brown
One of the easiest projections on the Jaguars' entire depth chart is at nose tackle. Malcom Brown is a veteran nose tackle with 3-4 and 4-3 experience who has 80 regular-season starts and 14 playoff appearances under his belt. The Jaguars more or less know exactly what they can get out of him, which is strong run defense from the nose tackle position.
"Everything. I like the fact that we know him, [Jaguars Assistant Head Coach] Charlie Strong recruited him in Texas, he played for Coach Strong. We’ve had some great dialogue with people who knew him," Urban Meyer said in March after the Jaguars traded for Brown.
"I like the fact that he’s a family man, just a high, high character guy. And when you see his size, 320 [pounds], his bend, his athleticism, he’s been well-coached already at New Orleans. And we’re not supposed to have favorites yet, but he’s one of my favorites, I look forward to meeting him.”
Brown appeared and started in 29-of-32 regular season games during his Saints tenure, playing 46% of the defensive snaps in 2019 and 33% in 2020. His impact will be on base downs and in short-yardage situations since he has just 11.5 career sacks and 23 quarterback hits, with only three sacks and eight quarterback hits over the last three seasons. But Brown, 27, has recorded 23 tackles for loss in his career, including nine over the last two seasons. The Saints' run defense improved by leaps and bounds during Browns time in New Orleans and he is a big reason why.
No. 2 NT: DaVon Hamilton
A former pupil under Meyer at Ohio State, DaVon Hamilton was one of the Jaguars' best rookies last year despite not playing the entire season. The 2020 third-round pick appeared in 11 games and started six before a knee injury ended his season, but he was genuinely playing like an impactful down-to-down nose tackle by the time he was injured.
Hamilton was more of a run defender than pass-rusher (11 defensive stops compared to 11 pressures and one sack), but he had the looks of a long-term starter. It is unlikely he will unseat Brown as the starter at nose tackle anytime soon, but the Jaguars can feel comfortable knowing they have a young nose tackle in the wings to develop and eventually replace Brown.
No. 1 UT: Taven Bryan
We know, we know. Should Taven Bryan really be considered a potential starter after an offseason where it was more of a question whether he would be on the Week 1 roster? In theory, no, but that more or less seems to be the current situation along the Jaguars' interior.
The Jaguars' not officially signing Tyson Alualu negated Jacksonville from replacing Bryan with an established veteran, and rookie fourth-round pick Jay Tufele hasn't played in a game since 2019. Tufele is talented, but he likely needs more development before he is a starter.
That more or less leaves the role to Bryan or second-year defensive tackle Doug Costin. Costin was a better player than Bryan a year ago and showed legitimate potential as an impactful run-defender, but Bryan is more athletic with a higher-ceiling as a pass-rusher. The quest to unlock his potential has more or less been fool's gold to this point, but the Jaguars' current staff seems to be high on his talent.
"Taven is a dangerous combination of speed and power. He has [an] elite skillset and talent, we just have to channel that and focus that where we need to help us most. If we do that, he can make a major impact," defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi said in June.
"The guy’s got extreme explosive attributes to him from an athletic standpoint. That’s what we need to do is get him focused, confident of where he needs to align, assign, and execute. If we can put that together, he can be a great contributor this season.”
No. 2 UT: Jay Tufele
The Jaguars' first day three selection in this year's draft, Jay Tufele has all of the traits the Jaguars have emphasized along their defensive line. He has a non-stop motor, is strong against the run, active with his hands, and has the athletic upside to make a different as a pass-rusher on third-down. As of now though, it seems more likely the Jaguars let Tufele rotate onto the field and develop as a backup before he gets more on his plate.
“Jay, we’re fired up to have him. He brings great energy. He got dinged up early, had an awesome rookie minicamp, and then early on, just had a real minor leg issue that he treated and fixed up and responded really well to that," Lupoi said in June.
"He’s a guy that attacks everything, the weight room, the treatment, the field, the same way. I think as he gets more comfortable in the system and he continues to get his body to where it needs to be, he could be a dangerous addition for us.”
Tufele was a Freshman All-American and Second-Team All-Pac 12 as a redshirt freshman at USC in 2018, recording 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 12 games and five starts. Tufele once again earned All-Pac 12 honors in 2019, this time on the first team after a season in which he recorded 42 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and one pass deflection as a redshirt sophomore.
No. 1 5T: Roy Robertson-Harris
Whether lining up head-up on guards or tackles or shading them, Roy Robertson-Harris did it all for the Bears. He was Chicago's moveable chess piece across the defensive line, having the size and strength to hold up inside but the speed and explosion to threaten off the edge. He is the Jaguars' clearest current fit as the starting five-technique because, like Chicago, Cullen's scheme asks for the defensive linemen to be flexible in terms of their potential alignments.
Robertson-Harris agreed to a three-year, $23.4 million deal contract with $14 million guaranteed on the first day of this year's legal tampering period, so it is clear the Jaguars seem him as not only a starter but as a major piece to their entire defensive line rotation. He has limited production (7.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, 30 quarterback hits in 52 games) and is coming off a shoulder injury in 2020, but it is clear the Jaguars will ask a lot of Robertson-Harris in his first year with the team.
No. 2 5T: Adam Gotsis
An underrated piece of Jacksonville's defensive line, Adam Gotsis was arguably the team's top run-defender a year ago and should be even better in 2021 in a scheme in which he is an even better fit for. The physical Gotsis recorded just three quarterback hits last season but he frequently made plays in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage, finishing the year with four tackles for loss and 22 defensive stops, according to Pro Football Focus.
Considering Gotsis' ability to play up and down the defensive line and set a physical edge, he is an ideal fit at five-technique in the Jaguars' new 3-4 hybrid scheme. Gotsis should be one of the players the Jaguars should feel the best about in terms of their transition to a new defense, because what he will now be asked to do will be what he does best.
No. 1 Edge Rusher: Josh Allen
There is no player the Jaguars need to rebound more in 2021 than Josh Allen, with the hopes of the pass-rush more or less relying on Allen's ability to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines. Allen did special things as a rookie, becoming the first Jaguars rookie to make the Pro Bowl and setting the franchise rookie sack record at 10.5. Allen also recorded 44 tackles, 23 quarterback hits, 11 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and 49 pressures as a rookie.
Allen's rookie year showed the talent is there, but his numbers dipped across the board in 2020 as injuries limited him to just eight games and 2.5 sacks. The Jaguars will now need a bounce-back performance from Allen, but there is no player more capable of providing exactly that than Allen is. The switch to a 3-4 defense should help Allen as well considering he was at his best at Kentucky when in a two-point stance.
No. 2 Edge Rusher: Dawuane Smoot
The Jaguars' best defensive lineman a year ago, Dawuane Smoot has stacked two good seasons on top of each other and earned a new contract with the team this offseason. Smoot is fresh off a career season, recording 5.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, and 17 quarterback hits in a rotational role. He has produced as a backup pass-rusher in the last two seasons, recording six sacks the year before as a backup interior sub-package defender.
Smoot makes sense for the Jaguars in the Pernell McPhee role the Ravens utilized last season. McPhee is a larger edge defender who wins more with power and effort as opposed to speed. He offers more as a run-defender and edge setter, which is likely what the Jaguars will need out of Smoot, who is the team's largest edge defender. Smoot has the size, strength and ability to pass-rush from the inside to the outside to play all over the defensive line and he will likely play a bigger role this year than many anticipate.
No. 3 Edge Rusher: Jihad Ward
Jihad Ward has been everything Joe Cullen told the Jaguars he would be to this point. The veteran edge defender spent the last few years as an edge rusher in Baltimore's defense, giving him a chance to be coached up by Cullen as he recorded four sacks and 12 quarterback hits in 21 games in Baltimore. Ward was signed by the Jaguars in part due to his scheme fit and in part due to his fire and ability to lead, traits that have shown up time and time again throughout the offseason.
"Well, Joe Cullen, that was a guy from the start, Joe wanted him. And I remembered him from his college days and Joe, his comments were spot on with what kind of worker he is, what kind of teammate he is and what kind of competitor he is. And so far, he’s been fantastic, so he’s been a great addition," Meyer said in June.
No. 4 Edge Rusher: Jordan Smith
A player who Meyer more or less called a long-term developmental player after they drafted him, fourth-round pass-rusher Jordan Smith has some intriguing skills thanks to his length and natural edge rush ability. He is thin-framed and likely a year in an NFL weight room away from seeing significant snaps, but he is a player the Jaguars were high enough on to trade up for in this year's draft.
Smith is a former four-star recruit who originally joined the Florida Gators but spent the past two years at UAB, during which time he posted 14.5 sacks and 27 tackles for loss. Smith also played at Butler Community College (Kansas) where he recorded 77 tackles, 22.5 for loss, and 11 sacks.