Are the Jaguars Better Off Releasing Marcell Dareus or Finding a Way to Retain Him?
One of the primary questions surrounding the Jacksonville Jaguars as they reshape their roster this offseason is what the team will decide to do with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
The situation revolving Dareus is a perplex one considering all of the layers involved. He is one of the defense's most important players, but he is also set to be the most expensive member of the team in 2020 — even more expensive than Nick Foles, who was given the largest guaranteed contract in team history last March.
While this would be an easy pill to swallow for a team flush with cap space, the Jaguars are currently projected to have negative cap space next season. Moves will have to be made to give them some financial relief, and Dareus may become a cap-casualty as a result.
But would cutting Dareus actually improve the Jaguars? Should they instead look for a way to keep the veteran nose tackle on a restructured deal? These are the options general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Doug Marrone will have to weigh as free agency approaches.
Which option makes more sense? We examine, looking at Dareus' impact, health, and financial ramifications.
Why the Jaguars should try to retain Dareus
After Dareus was placed on injured reserve following Jacksonville's Week 7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jaguars' run defense completely fell off a cliff. Veterans Abry Jones, Akeem Spence, Carl Davis, and rookie Dontavious Russell tried to fill the void, but none provided the consistent run-stuffing ability and the natural tendency to draw double teams Dareus has.
In the 10 games without Dareus (Week 1, then Weeks 9 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. With numbers and performances like these, defenses are going to find themselves at the mercy of the offenses more often times than not.
In comparison, Jacksonville allowed 707 rushing yards (117.83 yards per game) and six rushing touchdowns (one per game) in the six games Dareus played in 2019. The run defense wasn't good with him in the lineup, but it was infinitely better than it was when he was sidelined.
“Obviously, a year ago, we went out and got Marcell, two years ago, to really sturdy up our run defense. And he came in, and he’s done a really nice job," defensive coordinator Todd Wash said about Dareus in November. "When he played earlier in the year, he wasn’t a great disrupter of the quarterback, but he did a nice job of stopping the run for us."
If the Jaguars could find a way to seriously restructure Dareus' deal, it could be an enticing option since it would bring back their best interior run defender and the only one on the roster who has shown he can stuff the run at a high level. Dareus isn't the elite defensive tackle he used to be, or even the player he was when Jacksonville traded for him in 2017, but he still makes a big impact on the Jaguars' defense.
Why the Jaguars should move on from Dareus
The obvious answers to this come down to two factors: price and health.
Dareus is set to have a $22.5 million cap hit in 2020, the highest on the entire roster. With the Jaguars already low on cap space due to Dareus, Foles, and other big-money contracts on the roster, it would make zero sense for the Jaguars to bring Dareus back on his current deal. Cutting Dareus would save the Jaguars $20 million in 2020, also the highest figure on the roster. In short, no player would cost as much to keep as Dareus, and no player saves the Jaguars as much money by being cut.
In addition, the Jaguars need to free up as much cap room as possible if they want any chance of signing star defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to a long-term deal. Dareus' contract still being on the books in 2020 would be detrimental to this plan.
Dareus, who will be 30 in March, has missed 13 games in the past three seasons and his health moving forward has to be factored in when considering if the Jaguars should retain him. While his current core muscle injury isn't expected to sideline him long-term, the Jaguars need to know that Dareus can be a mainstay in their defense if he returns.
Jacksonville owns the No. 9 and 20 overall picks in the 2020 NFL Draft and could realistically use either pick to find a cheaper, long-term replacement for Dareus, such as Auburn's Derrick Brown or South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw. Using a rookie to fill Dareus' role on the defense would provide the Jaguars with a ton of short- and long-term cap flexibility.
Overall, the Jaguars likely have an easy decision to make on Dareus despite his importance to the defense. His teammates have talked on several occasions about how he makes everybody else's job easier, and it is clear to see this when Dareus is healthy. When he is available and on his game, he makes a difference.
But Dareus simply costs too much for a cap-strapped team like Jacksonville to consider bringing back on his current deal, even if it could make the defense worse at a key position in the short-term.
Jacksonville could instead opt to restructure Dareus' deal to try to keep him on the roster, but this was already done before the 2019 season. It is unlikely that it would happen for the second consecutive offseason, especially when considering the Jaguars need for money to pay Ngakoue.