In more ways than can properly be described, 2020 is a transitional year for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team has undergone massive changes in the locker room, along with tweaks to the coaching staff and front office.
But perhaps the part of the Jaguars' young roster that is undergoing the most important transition is the same unit which nearly took the Jaguars to their first-ever Super Bowl in 2017. What once stood tall as 'Sacksonville', the lifeblood of Jacksonville's identity as a franchise, now looks nothing like it did just three years ago.
In 2017, Jacksonville sent multiple players to the Pro Bowl in cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive lineman Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell. Ramsey and Campbell were First-Team All-Pro selections, while Smith and Bouye were Second-Team All-Pros.
Those six were the nucleus of a dominant Jaguars' defense, one that propelled the team to a 10-6 record and an AFC Championship appearance. Jacksonville ranked first in passing defense and turnovers and second in total defense, sacks and points per game. Week in and week out, the Jaguars' brash defense helped fuel the Jaguars and set them up for success which they had not found in over a decade.
But fast forward three years, and most pieces are gone. Dante Fowler Jr., Bouye, Campbell and Ramsey have all been traded. Jackson was released along with other key players such as Marcell Dareus and Tashaun Gipson. Smith retired, as did 2017 middle linebacker and team captain Paul Posluszny. And of course, everyone knows the drama and uncertainty which has surrounded the Jaguars and Ngakoue this offseason.
Only a handful of players from the vaunted 2017 defense remain. Linebacker Myles Jack is the lone starter, while reserves from that season such as Abry Jones, Dawuane Smoot, Jarrod Wilson, Lerentee McCray are still on the roster.
So while the Jaguars enter a transitional year in 2020 in terms of the coaching staff, quarterback and other personnel, no unit is transitioning more than a defense that has seen the Jaguars continue to pour investments into it. Simply put, 2020 is a hard reset for the unit, though it is still led by defensive coordinator Todd Wash.
From personnel overhauls to scheme changes, the unit of the Jaguars that was once the identity and set to be a long-term fixture is no more. For better or worse, gone is "Sacksonville".
Jacksonville, to their credit, has been preparing for this scenario in recent years. Each of the Jaguars' last four first-round picks has come on defense, with the Jaguars opting to build the offense via day two picks and free agents. To say Jacksonville has focused more on rebuilding their defense than their offense would be an understatement.
In the last three years, the Jaguars drafted Taven Bryan No. 29 overall in 2018 to replace Jackson, Josh Allen at No. 7 overall in 2019 to replace Fowler, CJ Henderson at No. 9 in 2020 to replace Ramsey and Chaisson at No. 20 overall to replace Ngakoue.
The Jaguars have said, and will likely continue to say these picks were not direct replacements and were instead the best players available, but the fact of the matter is the Jaguars have only poured so many resources into the defense via first-round picks since 2017 because they knew themselves that a reset was on the way.
It hasn't been just the draft that the Jaguars have attempted to rebuild their defense, either. This offseason they signed defensive lineman Rodney Gunter to a three-year, $18 million deal to replace Campbell, in addition to signing veterans such as Al Woods, Cassius Marsh and Aaron Lynch to short-term deals.
But the biggest investment on the defensive side of the ball through free agency for Jacksonville was signing middle linebacker Joe Schobert. Schobert agreed to terms with the Jaguars in March for a five-year, $53.75 million contract which included $12 million signing bonus and $21.5 million guaranteed, making him the team's most significant free agent addition.
Not only will Schobert be the newest attempt to replace Posluszny at inside linebacker, but his addition also moves Jack to weak side linebacker after he had spent his first four seasons with the team playing strong side and middle linebacker.
With all of these additions, both via the draft and free agency, it is fair to wonder if the Jaguars' defense will resemble the 2017 unit in any way, shape or form. Chances are it won't because it lacks to top-tier talent and star power of that 2017 squad, but the Jaguars will hope the reset on defense at least brings them closer to 2017 than last year's defensive unit did.
But what about the scheme? Are the Jaguars going to continue with the same relatively basic 4-3 under, Cover 3 scheme Wash deployed in 2017? While there will be some wrinkles, the scheme may be the only part of the 2020 defense that resembles 2017, even though the personnel today reflects much more of a 3-4 type roster than a 4-3.
“Everybody’s saying a 3-4 but if you look at our system in the last two years, we’ve had three different front’s based out of a 3-4 but nobody considered us a 3-4 because we ran so much over front. You might not see as much over front out of us now because of the makeup of our personnel so everybody will say ‘well you’re a 3-4.’ No, we’re just a 50 front and we’re based out of under," Wash emphasized in June.
“We’re not built to be a two-gap team. If you're looking at the two, three, four stuff that you see in our league. That’s not the way we’re built. So we’re still gonna be gap accountability, one gap, single high, it’s just gonna be leverages and alignments are gonna be a little bit different within our scheme. But we’re not a true 3-4, two-gap team. That’s not how we’re built upfront or the sides of our unit to do that.”
Jacksonville's defense has fallen on hard and strange times since the elite 2017 season. The hope was that defense would remain together, but the reality was always that the Jaguars had caught lightning in a bottle and would eventually need to pivot to more of a long-term plan to rebuild the defense.
That long-term plan was put in motion several offseasons ago, and it ramped up this offseason more than in any other year. Now, it is time for the Jaguars' once elite defense to finally reset and find itself again.