5 Options for the Jaguars to Replace Al Woods in 2020
When it came to priorities for the Jacksonville Jaguars' brass in terms of team-building this past offseason, it was clear that finding dependable run defenders was near the very top of the list. Now, the Jaguars will once again have to mull options for the interior of the defensive line.
The Jaguars made a number of investments into the interior defensive line this offseason, such as signing Rodney Gunter to a three-year deal and drafting DaVon Hamilton in the third-round. But perhaps the biggest move, both literally and figuratively, was signing 11th-year nose tackle Al Woods.
Jacksonville's defensive tackle depth chart was shaken up last week, however, when the team announced Friday that Woods would be opting out of the 2020 season, creating a void along the defensive front for Jacksonville.
“While I was excited to join the Jaguars, I have made the tough decision, given the current status of COVID-19, to opt out for the 2020 season," Woods said in a statement released by the team. "The health and safety of my family has always been the most important thing in my life. I love the game of football and will be rooting hard for my teammates this season, and I look forward to re-joining the Jaguars in 2021.”
With Woods no longer in the picture, at least in 2020, the Jaguars will have to mull their options. Considering they are a team that badly needs to take a major step forward from their putrid run defense of a year ago, the Jaguars will likely have to ponder both external and internal options to replace Woods' spot at nose tackle.
Jacksonville did sign Adam Gotsis on Sunday, but he is more of a strong side defensive end or three-technique than he is a nose tackle.
So, who could be some of those options to replace Woods? We narrow it down to five and make arguments for each.
Former second-round pick Timmy Jernigan originally agreed to a one-year deal with the Houston Texans earlier this offseason, but the deal fell apart before it could become official, meaning the talented defensive tackle is still looking for a team. In terms of pure talent, the 27-year-old may be the most enticing option on this list considering the impact he has made for the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles dating back to 2014.
Jernigan's career has been derailed by injuries in recent years and he has only played 13 games over the last two seasons. But in Jernigan's last fully healthy season in 2017, he was a key piece to the Eagles' Super Bowl run. That year, he recorded 2.5 sacks, a career-high nine tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits. In the three years before then, Jernigan recorded 13 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and 35 quarterback hits. As long as he is healthy, he is a high-ceiling option who shouldn't be expensive.
Another free agent who has dealt with injury issues in recent seasons, Damon 'Snacks' Harrison is one of the biggest names still on the free agency market. In his prime, Harrison was one of the truly elite run defenders in the NFL. He was a stalwart in the middle of each defense he played in and made life considerably easier for the linebackers who played behind him. While his play may no longer be at that level, he still makes sense as a stop-gap option.
Since 2012, Harrison has recorded 11 sacks, 37 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles, all solid numbers for a non-penetrating defensive tackle. Harrison won't get much push in the pocket on third down, but Jacksonville needs solid run defense at the nose tackle spot and pass-rushing shouldn't be a priority at this point, and Harrison's track record indicates he could provide that. In terms of scheme fit, he has excelled as both a 3-4 and 4-3 nose tackle and would give the Jaguars some flexibility in that regard.
Jacksonville's primary nose tackle the last three seasons, Marcell Dareus departed the team this offseason after the Jaguars declined to pick up his expensive 2020 option. Dareus' season ended early last year after he sustained a core muscle injury vs. the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 7.
In the 10 games without Dareus (Week 1, then Weeks 8 through 17) Jacksonville allowed 1,522 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. This is an average of 152.2 rushing yards per game and 1.7 rushing scores allowed each week. Dareus' play has slipped in each of the last two years and it remains to be seen how much interest there is in bringing him back since he has been a free agent all offseason, but he knows the Jaguars' scheme and he is a known commodity.
If Jacksonville doesn't want to sign a free agent nose tackle, they could look to expand the role of second-year nose tackle Dontavius Russell. A seventh-round selection out of Auburn in 2019, Russell didn't get many snaps for the Jaguars during his rookie season even though the team had issues up and down the defensive line, but perhaps he takes a step in his development in 2020.
As a rookie, Russell appeared in three games and recorded four tackles. More often than not he looked to struggle to adjust to the speed of NFL offenses, but his size and strength are obvious even before the ball is snapped. If Jacksonville wants to keep their options to replace Woods in-house, then Russell is the most logical option to join Hamilton and Abry Jones at nose tackle.
The oldest player on this list at 35-years-old, veteran nose tackle Brandon Mebane is a behemoth of a man who could instantly give the Jaguars a hulking presence at nose tackle. He would likely be just a one-year rental due to the stage he is at in his career, but he has the size and veteran experience to possibly interest the Jaguars.
Mebane also makes sense as a schematic fit for the Jaguars. In all 13 of his NFL seasons, he has played nose tackle for the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers. The Seahawks ran a similar scheme to the one Todd Wash and the Jaguars run now, while Mebane played for former Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley's defense with the Chargers -- another scheme that is similar to Jacksonville's. He isn't a high-ceiling player but he could step into a role in the defense right away.