For the last several days, fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars poured into the Jags' practice facility, hoping to catch a glimpse of rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Just the chance of seeing him toss some passes on-air was tantalizing enough to sit in the heat and humidity for hours on end.
It’s understandable, Lawrence—as the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft—is expected to save the club and become the Jaguars franchise quarterback. He has the tools and skillset to do so…but it’s going to take some help.
Not just from receivers like DJ Chark and Marvin Jones Jr. or running backs like James Robinson and Travis Etienne. No, the most important person to Lawrence’s potential success may just be center Brandon Linder.
“I always call the center the apex,” explained Head Coach Urban Meyer following Saturday’s training camp practice. “We’re fortunate to have one of the best centers in the league. He really controls the offense and to have a young quarterback behind him, that’s priceless. I’m not sure you could function without a non-veteran center with a young quarterback.”
It's not quite "priceless" since Linder signed a five-year, $51.7 million deal in 2017 that made him the highest-paid center in the league at signing. But he's worth the money, especially now.
Linder was No. 4 on our list of 10 Most Important Jaguars for 2021 for just this reason. A veteran offensive lineman, he has spent his entire career thus far with the Jaguars.
In a season that had little else going for the Jaguars, Linder continued to be a bright spot. When he was on the field, he posted an 87.6 pass-blocking grade according to Pro Football Focus. That was the best pass blocking grade for any center in the NFL last season, based on PFF’s grade system. Furthermore, he was sixth among league centers in run blocking (76.7).
“I felt dominant out there and I’m excited to elevate my game this year and get better and stay healthy,” Linder said on Friday, of his 2020 season (shortened by seven games due to injury).
His staying healthy is crucial. The ripple effect of having Linder at center extends to Lawrence, and as such, the entire offense. Because even if Lawrence immediately lives up to the otherworldly hype surrounding his name, there will inevitably still be a learning curve. It’s simply the price of moving from college to the NFL. Having Linder in front of him means Lawrence has a safety net, or a translator if you will. It’s a fact the rookie QB is already aware of through the first week of training camp.
“He is one of the key components of offense—everyone is—but as far as a leadership standpoint, having him that’s been there, done it and just is really smart, for one, and a great player,” said Lawrence on Saturday.
“Having him just takes a little pressure off me because he can direct the traffic and some of the stuff I got to get used to doing that I didn’t do in college that I’m still learning, he can kind of help me with all that. He has been great.”
Meyer has been rotating Lawrence and third-year QB Gardner Minshew II as QB1 through the first four days of camp. Each passer has received two days with the first team, as the Jaguars walk through the steps of a quarterback competition between the incumbent starter and the No. 1 pick who was drafted to be starter.
Despite the limited time with Lawrence, Linder has seen the makings up a future NFL starter.
“He’s been great,” bragged Linder of Lawrence. “[He] comes in poised, confident, giving the play—and seeing a lot of him being able to ID the defense, when they change, we’re able to change, flip plays—so it’s been pretty good.
“[For a] rookie to come in, poised in the huddle, confident, he’s making some incredible throws, putting the ball right on the receivers. So, it’s exciting.”
The two are hoping to forget their connection of the field as well, making plans for Lawrence to join Linder—an avid fisher—on his boat soon. In the meantime, they’ll prepare for the quickly approaching season, with Lawrence at the center of the Jaguars' future hopes and plans; and Linder at the center of Lawrence’s potential success.