The dust has settled in the free agency sweepstakes of 2021. Now nearly two weeks into the official start of the league new year, there have officially been 288 players signed and $2.9 billion spent, with the Jacksonville Jaguars near the front of the race.
The team’s strategy of focusing on value and versatility, especially on the defensive line, was successfully executed as Jacksonville signed five players to its defensive front and gave a contract averaging over $9 million per year to just one signee.
The Jaguars can still add players free agents at any time, but with over a dozen new additions already and the NFL Draft quickly approaching, there may not be any other roster acquisitions until late April.
Here are Jacksonville’s biggest winners and losers following free agency as things stand today:
Winner: Joe Cullen
New defensive coordinator Joe Cullen was a defensive line coach for 13 straight years before joining Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, who clearly wanted to prioritize upgrading that position group.
“The number one need, regardless of what the statistics said, the number one need to me is always going to be [to] build your defensive front,” Meyer told media in his post-free agency press conference. “I expect the defensive line to be one of the strengths of our team.”
Last year’s Baltimore Ravens defense ranked fourth in pressure rate and second in quarterback knockdown rate with Cullen on staff in large part because it led the league in blitz rate. Since Don Martindale took over Baltimore’s defense in 2018, the Ravens have emphasized accumulating talent in the secondary while leaning on aggressive schemed pressure, as opposed to relying on the front four to consistently generate the pass rush (which is what Cover 3 defenses typically rely on).
Baltimore and other smart organizations like Buffalo, Miami and New England have prioritized pass coverage over pass rushing in terms of talent acquisition because they opt to generate pressure through stunts, mismatches and blitzes with versatile but cheaper players- Bills edge rusher Jerry Hughes and newly signed Patriot Matthew Judon are the only defensive linemen making more than $8 million annually on those four teams combined, but each team is paying multiple secondary players over $8 million per year.
That’s certainly not the only path to success, but it looks like the type of defense that the Jaguars are planning to run is one similar to Baltimore’s considering cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Rayshawn Jenkins were Jacksonville’s two highest-paid additions this offseason.
While the Jaguars didn’t break the bank this offseason in what was a strong edge free agency market, it added much-needed talent, depth and versatility to a team that ranked 24th in run defense DVOA and 28th in pressure rate last season. The defensive line was clearly Jacksonville’s biggest priority in free agency, and combined with former first round selections Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson on the edge and a strong off-ball duo of Myles Jack and Joe Schobert, Cullen now has enough tools in the shed for the first line of defense to be a strong unit in year one of Meyer’s reign.
Loser: Trevor Lawrence
Jacksonville signed six offensive players in free agency, but there isn’t nearly as much starter turnover as there was on the other side of the ball. After placing the franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson and re-signing backup Tyler Shatley, the Jaguars are keeping the entire 2020 unit together (including position coach George Warhop).
The tight end group is different but unexciting, as the team shipped off 2019 bust Josh Oliver to Baltimore for a conditional seventh-rounder and released Tyler Eifert in favor of re-signing James O’Shaughnessy and adding Chris Manhertz, who has 12 career receptions in five NFL seasons. Marvin Jones and Jamal Agnew were added to the receiver room from Detroit as Keelan Cole, Chris Conley and Dede Westbrook exited via free agency, 30-year-old Carlos Hyde will be on his fifth team in the past four years, and former Shanahan experiment C.J. Beathard will serve as QB2.
Jones was a great value signing and Meyer is excited about Manhertz, but the offensive roster is only slightly better than it was a year ago even after Jacksonville entered free agency with the most cap space in the league. The selection of Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick will be an immediate boost, but the Jaguars haven’t prioritized putting its potential franchise quarterback in the absolute best position to succeed.
The 2021 draft class will likely change that, as the Jaguars desperately need an F tight end and could use playmakers at wide receiver and running back- but for now, Lawrence is a loser of the free agency period due to Jacksonville not making any serious upgrades to an offense that’s ranked top-24 in scoring just twice in the past decade.
Winner: Linebacker Unit
The collection of defensive signings will benefit Cullen’s ability to call the type of defense he wants to, but on the field, it will benefit linebackers Jack and Schobert’s ability to fly around and make plays rather than needing to worry about cleaning up after the defensive line, which was a frequent occurrence last season.
With Schobert entering his second season in Duval county, Jack (assumingly) fully recovered from his midseason ankle injury, a new coaching staff and scheme, and now more talent on the defensive line, the off-ball linebacker unit could be trending towards something of a breakout season in 2021.
Josh Allen and especially K’Lavon Chaisson are also winners of the free agency period after the only former Raven Jihad Ward was signed to compete for snaps on the edge, though Ward will play inside as well. According to PFF, he played 168 snaps at outside linebacker compared to 128 snaps on the defensive line last year in Baltimore.
Joe Giles-Harris impressed in three starts at strongside linebacker in 2020 and is also in line to keep some playing time. Minimal lost snaps and added help up front makes the offseason to this point a win for the entire linebacker core.
Loser: Taven Bryan
Unlike the linebackers, the retained defensive linemen in Jacksonville are likely to see fewer snaps following three new signings, two re-signs and one trade to bolster the unit. Former first-rounder Taven Bryan seems like the odd man, as the team currently has ten defensive linemen on its roster and Bryan saw fewer snaps as the 2020 season went on due to underwhelming and inconsistent performances.
Bryan is currently on the last year of his rookie contract and has a 2021 cap hit of $3.2 million. Depending on his performance this season, the Jaguars can either release him or look at his future past 2021 (his fifth-year option will likely be declined in May), but it could prove difficult for Bryan to prove his worth in a part-time role.
Fortunately for Bryan, he’s already shown in the past that he can excel in limited snaps, as he led the 2019 Jaguars in ‘plays made’ per defensive snap.
The draft pedigree and athleticism are there, and similar to Jack/Schobert more talent on the defense might benefit Bryan. But given the vast volume of new faces on the defensive line and the disappointment that his career has been to this point, the Jaguars’ recent transactions may be the beginning of the end of Bryan’s employment in Jacksonville.
Winner: Laviska Shenault Jr.
Jacksonville’s biggest moves in the wide receiver room this month have been signing Darrell Bevell’s former receiver Marvin Jones and letting Keelan Cole (who played the most offensive snaps among skill position players last year) walk in free agency. That’s good news for rising sophomore Laviska Shenault Jr., not just because he is unlikely to lose snaps, but also because he could gain snaps lined up in the slot.
Cole ran from the slot on 69.3% of his routes last season (per PFF), and Jones had a slot snap rate between 30-35% in each of his two seasons with Bevell. Shenault got slot work on just 27.3% of his 2020 snaps, but since Jones is chiefly a perimeter threat, Shenault could be in line for the majority of slot snaps for Jacksonville in 2021.
While he has the ability to play well outside, Shenault’s body type and skillset make him an ideal candidate to run from the slot. He refuses to be tackled and has strong hands- he ranked first in forced missed tackles and fourth in contested catch rate among all qualifying wide receivers last season per PFF- which could make him a force over the middle of the field.
With Meyer now in town, who happened to excel at drawing up schemed plays for Percy Harvin and Curtis Samuel in college, Shenault might just have the highest breakout potential of any player on the Jaguars roster- and the team’s decision to not sign a top-end receiver in free agency helped that case. It would be a surprise for Jacksonville to not exit April’s draft with another wideout, but for now, Shenault is clear winner of the free agency period with sights on a strong second season in the NFL.
Loser: Gardner Minshew
Jacksonville’s plans to draft a first-round quarterback have long been solidified (hug a Jets fan), which will send former starter Gardner Minshew right back down the depth chart that he climbed after being drafted in the sixth round in 2019. However, with the recent signing of CJ Beathard, Minshew’s future gets a little murkier.
Beathard was assumingly added to backup Lawrence, which would fill the final two quarterback roster spots. Despite Lawrence not technically being on the team at this point, Minshew is still a loser of the offseason at this point.
San Francisco was a rumored potential trade partner for Minshew, but following its recent trade up in the draft to the third overall pick, that doesn’t seem like a logical destination for Minshew at the moment. Rumors could re-emerge if/when the Niners trade Jimmy Garoppolo, but given both San Francisco’s verbal commitments to Garoppolo and Jacksonville’s verbal denial of trade interest, an eventual transaction is hopeful at best.
Similar to 2019, injuries will be the biggest path to playing time for Minshew in 2021. If he’s traded, he’ll be a winner as he’d assumingly join a quarterback condition, but as long as he remains in Jacksonville Minshew is a loser of this year’s offseason.