The Jacksonville Jaguars will have a new general manager in the coming weeks and months. For the first time in almost a decade, a new set of eyes will be on the organization and determining which moves the team makes.
The Jaguars have faced nothing but losing since around 2010, but the last eight years have been especially rough. Those eight years have been managed in large part by former general manager Dave Caldwell, who was fired by owner Shad Khan last Sunday.
We say largely because there was a three-year period where Caldwell wasn't the only cook in the kitchen: from 2017-2019 he was joined by Tom Coughlin, who had the final say on all things Jaguars as the team's executive vice president of football operations.
With a 39-87 record as general manager, which included seven seasons with double-digit losses, it is hard to say his tenure was much of a success. In an effort to pinpoint where everything went wrong, we are going to turn the clock back and look at the team's greatest missteps during Caldwell's tenure.
But we want to make an important distinction first: we are going to primarily look at 2013-2016 and the 2020 season. Caldwell was still the team's general manager from 2017-2019, but Coughlin had the final say. He was the voice of the front office and his influence can't be understated. As a result, three obvious bad moves will not be included due to the Coughlin factor: picking Leonard Fournette, picking Taven Bryan, and signing Nick Foles. All of those moves were disastrous for the Jaguars, especially Fournette, but those were moves made by a Coughlin front office.
With that in mind, here are the 10 greatest mistakes we believe Caldwell made in his time as the team's sole leader in the front office.
Letting Daryl Smith leave for Baltimore
This may not seem like a huge deal in the long run, but what exactly did the Jaguars gain from letting Daryl Smith walk before the Dave Caldwell-led team of 2013 ever stepped foot on the field? Smith was a carryover from past teams and played only two games due to injury in 2012, but this meant the impending free agent could have been retained for cheap. After all, the Baltimore Ravens signed Smith to a one-year deal worth just over $1 million that very offseason.
Smith went on to fill the inside linebacker role in the middle of Baltimore's defense and thrived. The veteran linebacker collected 123 tackles, five sacks, eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions for the Ravens. Meanwhile, the Jaguars allowed the fifth-most yards in the league and had no answers at linebacker for Gus Bradley to attempt to win with during his first season. Smith still had a lot of good football left in him and his veteran experience would have been incredible for the young Jaguars during the transition to Bradley, but it just didn't happen.
Drafting K'Lavon Chaisson to replace Yannick Ngakoue
It is hard to blame Caldwell for the Yannick Ngakoue debacle. After all, Caldwell is the general manager who made the terrific move to draft Ngakoue in the third round in 2016. We know by now that Ngakoue's beef with the Jaguars, which eventually resulted in Caldwell trading him to the Vikings, was due to Coughlin. Coughlin cut off contract talks with Ngakoue shortly after they started and ruined the team's relationship with the Pro Bowler, not Caldwell.
With that said, Caldwell still made a mistake in his attempt to fix the Ngakoue situation by taking K'Lavon Chaisson with the No. 20 overall pick. It is obviously much too early to call Chaisson a bust, but the signs were always there for him to struggle as a rookie. He was raw coming out of LSU and needs to add size and strength to beat NFL tackles. He has recorded one sack and 10 pressures as a rookie, failing to step into the giant shoes Ngakoue left behind. Chaisson's inability to generate pressure is a big reason Jacksonville is last in the league in sacks with just 11. This isn't to say Chaisson doesn't have a chance to develop for the Jaguars beyond this season, but the mistake here was banking on him to be an impact player right away.
Whiffs on major free agency signings pre-2017
Jacksonville's 2017 free agency class is the biggest reason the Jaguars went 10-6 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye were terrific signings, while Barry Church provided stability at strong safety for one season. With that in mind, Caldwell's splash signings before 2017 never really worked out.
Just listing some of Jacksonville's big free agency signings before 2017 gives an example of how the Jaguars spent big but failed to stabilize the roster: Julius Thomas, Zane Beadles, Chris Ivory, Toby Gerhart, Jared Odrick, Davon House. The Jaguars either still have issues at all of these positions or have had to use significant assets to plug the holes. Caldwell found gems in free agency at times, but his pre-2017 classes were filled with miss after miss.
Not having a better organizational plan for the 2014 season
Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference in Blake Bortles' career if he wasn't thrown to the fire on arguably the league's worst roster early in his rookie year. After all, this is a quarterback who once told a broadcast crew that he wasn't "a natural thrower of the football." But still, the Jaguars didn't set him up for much success as a rookie in large part because it just seemed like they had zero plan for how to develop a rookie quarterback after taking one at No. 3 overall. The entire talking point from the night they drafted Bortles was they would let him sit behind Chad Henne in 2014, but that barely happened.
"That's the plan that Chad is going to be the guy," Caldwell said after the Bortles pick. "I like what Chad's been doing in this offseason stuff. He will probably give us the best chance of winning this year and Blake will be the guy of the future."
"I just think that my number one mission right now is to provide this environment where he has a chance to improve. I think if we can and we stay strict to it he'll get a chance to improve at a faster pace. That's what we're really looking for," Gus Bradley said after the pick. "There's a lot of comments that it might take him a year, might take them a half of a season, might take them some time but that's okay. We're going to provide so it does take place in that period of time or even faster. I think we've got to be patient."
Well, Henne would be benched at halftime of a Week 3 blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts. What changed exactly? Why did the Jaguars put Bortles behind the league's worst offensive lines with nothing but rookie weapons? Because they didn't have a plan. And if they did, they did a bad job of sticking to it.
The consistent misses in the second round
Caldwell has an extremely underrated record as a drafter after the first two rounds. Picks like Brandon Linder, Telvin Smith, Yannick Ngaoue, DaVon Hamilton and others are all home runs considering where the Jaguars picked them. But where the Jaguars struggled under Caldwell during the drafts was during the first two rounds, aside from 2016 when they were lucky enough to have Jalen Ramsey fall to them and bold enough to trade up for Myles Jack.
Here are Caldwell's second-round picks before 2016: Johnathan Cyprien, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, and T.J. Yeldon. Robinson was the only one of these four who justified Caldwell's major investment, with the other three all failing to meet expectations due to either injuries or poor play. None of the four even signed a second contract with the team. Jack was a good pick and Laviska Shenault looks to be one as well, but those other three misses hurt the roster greatly.
Luke Joeckel and a trend of bad offensive lines
Caldwell's first-ever draft pick with the Jaguars was supposed to be one that would set the foundation of his and Bradley's tenures. Holding the No. 2 pick in 2013, which is tied for the highest the Jaguars have ever picked in the draft, Caldwell and the Jaguars took the safe choice in Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel. Joeckel was supposed to be a plug-and-play left tackle, but injuries limited him to just 39 games with the Jaguars over four seasons, and only 31 of those came at left tackle. And when Joeckel was healthy, he wasn't very good.
Missing on Joeckel would set the tone for Caldwell's offensive lines before 2017. Caldwell struggled to make proper upgrades to the trenches even with a rookie quarterback and young pieces on offense, and the failure of Joeckel to develop was a big part of that. Moving Joeckel inside and starting Kelvin Beachum at left tackle in 2016 didn't exactly work, either. From 2013-2016 the Jaguars allowed 206 sacks (including 71 in 2014). Jacksonville didn't protect its quarterbacks or offensive pieces enough under Caldwell, and it started with the Joeckel pick.
Dante Fowler Jr.
Dante Fowler's 11.5 sack season in 2019 had many thinking the Jaguars were just the wrong scheme and situation for him, but every other season of his career (18 sacks in 56 games) suggest that he just isn't a very impactful defensive end and that Aaron Donald was the biggest reason he found success. Couple this with Fowler's usage in 2017 when many of his sacks were the results of Jacksonville's strong supporting defensive line, and it is hard to say Fowler has ever been a dominant defensive end.
But when the Jaguars took Fowler at No. 3 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, a dominant defensive end is exactly what the Jaguars needed him to be. He got dealt a bad hand by an ACL injury during rookie minicamp that took his rookie year away from him. But otherwise Fowler proved to be a lackluster pick by Caldwell, his second consecutive whiff at No. 3 overall and third consetuve miss in the top-3.
The Jaguars were far from an attractive landing spot for any head coach in 2013. They had the NFL's worst roster and literally needed to hit on two to three years of draft picks and free agency signings to have a team that was able to actually compete on Sundays. But the dire circumstances the Jaguars were in still don't really excuse hiring Gus Bradley, who went on the be one of the least successful head coaches in NFL history.
Only three head coaches in the entire history of the NFL have a worse career winning % than Gus Bradley's woeful .226%, which was the result of a 14-48 record. Bradley was just far, far in over his head as a head coach, especially on a roster that could have been described as expansion level in 2013 and 2014. Bradley's hiring can't all be blamed on Caldwell, but the four years they spent together resulted in nothing but losing and last place finishes.
Constant belief in Blake Bortles
Most general managers are tied to the quarterback they invest in. For Caldwell, that meant UCF's Blake Bortles. Caldwell took the raw passer No. 3 overall in what was considered a weak quarterback class. Caldwell had to take a quarterback high eventually, but you don't get credit for taking the wrong quarterback. And while Bortles was along for the ride for the magical 2017 season, they won in spite of him that year, not because of him. This came after perhaps the worst three-year stretch of any recent long-time starter from 2014-2016. But despite this, Caldwell's believe in Bortles never really wavered.
To put into context just how poor of a pick it was, two other quarterbacks taken in the draft's first two rounds are still starters today (Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater) while Bortles is Denver's quaratined emergency quarterback. Bortles wasn't even on a roster until a few weeks into this season, and he has spent time on Denver's practice squad. Six years after Caldwell took Bortles No. 3, Bortles can't even get on an active roster. That says it all.
Never finding a quarterback
This seems like a continuation of the last point, but it goes deeper than that. While Caldwell standing by Bortles for too long was obviously detrimental to the team because it meant Bortles started every Sunday, it hurt them even more in the long-term. Caldwell was never able to find the Jaguars a true franchise quarterback during his tenure. Until they really do find that quarterback, Caldwell's inability to do so will be the biggest negative of his regime.
Caldwell did a lot of good things in Jacksonville. He cleaned up the cap and stiockpiled draft picks in 2020. He found great talent on both sides of the ball in the draft and free agency. But the team's personnel missteps during his tenure eventually outweighed the good, leading to the team's decade of losing and eventually his firing.