Donald Payne Flashes in Encouraging First Career Start

John Shipley

When the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) listed starting middle linebacker Myles Jack inactive with a knee injury before Week 13's game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they announced third-year linebacker Donald Payne would be the man in the middle of the defense. 

But before Sunday, Payne had only played 10 career defensive snaps since entering the league as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2017. The Stetson University alum had never once been asked to play a large role on the Jaguars' defense, but all of that changed in Sunday's 28-11 loss to the Buccaneers.

Payne ended up playing 75 of the defense's 76 snaps and wore the defense's green dot on his helmet, which gives him the playcall from the coaching staff. Thus, in his first-ever start, he was given the responsibility to align the defense and be the primary communicator.

Despite his inexperience, Payne didn't look out of place. He led the team in tackles with 13 and also recorded a key 3rd down sack in the second half off of a blitz, the first of his career. His play was a large reason Jacksonville's defense held Tampa Bay's rushing offense to only 74 yards on 31 carries, a 2.4 yard per carry average. 

Payne's performance, both vs. the run and as the defense's primary contributor, left an impression on the Jaguars' coaching staff, a good sign for a player who went several weeks without being on a roster to start the 2019 season.

“Yeah, he did. And I give Donald a lot of credit. He played a lot of snaps yesterday. He only missed one snap. He was battling his butt off," Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone told JaguarMaven during a conference call with media on Monday. 

"He really prepared all week and it showed. He had 13 tackles. I thought he did a really good job and especially with the green dot and his communication which is also as equally important to make sure everyone gets the call. So, he did a nice job yesterday, he really stepped up.”

Payne also left a mark on the teammates he shared the field with, including rookie defensive end Josh Allen. When Allen was asked after the game what he saw in Payne and other backups who had to see the field out of necessity, his answer was automatic.

"Playmaking skills," Allen said. "Payne came in making a lot of plays and getting us into the right situations, but it’s football and everybody will make mistakes. He took that role pretty seriously, and I appreciate him for that. That goes for Andrew [Wingard] as well, came in and made a lot of big plays. Hopefully we can see that grow.”

Payne's solid game is an encouraging situation for a Jaguars team that desperately needs positives after four straight losses. The linebacker group has taken a hit with injuries as of late with Jack's knee injury and with top reserve linebacker Najee Goode going to injured reserve with a knee injury last week. 

If Jacksonville is going to win any of its final four games, it will likely have to continue to lean on players such as Payne and hope they can turn in productive performances. Marrone was encouraged by what he saw from the reserves Sunday, but he is still looking for a win.

"They are fighting their asses off. There’s not much more you can ask of those guys," Marrone said Sunday. 

"I think we did make some plays on defense. You are always going to look back and want to make some more, but I thought for the most part, I’m happy to see those guys get in there and get an opportunity and the way they go about themselves, it’s just unfortunate that I can’t pull them all home for a victory so they can truly celebrate it.”