The 2020 Jacksonville Jaguars were known for their youth above all else. The NFL's youngest team entering 2020, the Jaguars have a roster full of young potential stars like James Robinson, Josh Allen, DJ Chark, and so forth.
But among the best of all of their young players through the final weeks of 2020 was none of the above. Instead, it was second-year linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, who turned a rare opportunity into unquestionable production.
A key cog in the Duke Blue Devils' defense for years, Giles-Harris signed with the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He spent most of his rookie year on the sidelines, playing 96 total snaps in five games as a rookie. Only four of those snaps came on defense, so he entered his second year with limited experience.
But after a string of injuries at the strong side linebacker position in 2020, the Jaguars leaned on Giles-Harris. He closed out the season and started the final five games of the year at the position.
The result? A number of pressures, quarterback hits, big run stops, and most importantly, the first sack of Giles-Harris' career in Week 14 against the Tennessee Titans.
"It felt great. You live for that. You live to make a play," Giles-Harris told JaguarReport about the chance to get his first sack.
"You want to do something to stand out. And I think that was huge. It was very exciting for me. The week before I had come close a couple times and I didn't get home. And to finally get home was big and now it just makes you want to keep doing it. The first one is always really great. But now, you just looking forward to trying to get the second one and so on."
Jacksonville's defense was filled with young faces throughout the 2020 season, but Giles-Harris' stretch of play in the season's final month stood out all on its own. It became hard to watch their defense and not notice No. 43 and the intensity and passion he played with.
Giles-Harris' first start in Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings was a revelation for Jacksonville's 4-3 defense. They had struggled to get a pass-rush from the strong side linebacker position all year, but Giles-Harris changed that. He harassed Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins for four quarters, recording five tackles and four quarterback hits in a career-high 63 snaps.
For comparison, the Jaguars didn't have a single quarterback hit recorded by any of their previous strong side linebackers in 2020.
“I’ve really—he’s really done a great job. I mean, he’s made plays just by knowing what to do, just by doing his job," former Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said about Giles-Harris on December 18. "I don’t want to say ‘shocked’, I don’t want to say that, because that’s criticizing the player. I mean, he’s worked extremely hard. And he’s gotten himself an opportunity and he’s taking advantage of it."
"You’ve seen him pull people up … you’ve seen him with good eyes, he’s a smart football player. You saw a little pass rush out of him last week, with his speed-to-power move that got to the quarterback on the sack. So, we’ve been really, really happy with that and I don’t know—again, he’s one of those guys I chalk up. He’s always worked, he’s always done anything, got an opportunity and kind of took advantage of it. And I’m happy to see where it goes for him.”
Giles-Harris was commended by his defensive coaches for being able to switch from backing up Joe Schobert at middle linebacker to starting at strong side linebacker. The two roles are extremely different after all, with the strong side linebacker being asked to set the edge while also rushing off of it.
But Giles-Harris was ready for his moment. He had spent his first one-and-a-half seasons in the NFL working at all three linebacker positions and waiting. Waiting for his moment. Waiting for his chance to go and make a play.
The moment finally came for Giles-Harris, and he didn't let it slip away. While the defense struggled overall, Giles-Harris was a consistent bright spot.
"Since I've been here, I've been asked to learn all three linebacker positions, so the switch wasn't that big of a deal. I mean, I'd never done it in a game. I've played one preseason game at strong side linebacker last year, but that was the extent," Giles-Harris said. "But I have taken reps through the year at all of them. So I was just more appreciative of the opportunity. I just went out there and did what I had to and played to the best of my abilities."
As Giles-Harris described it, his instincts simply took over. It had been quite a long stretch since he had last seen significant snaps considering the lack of preseason in 2020, but once he got back on the field, it was like he never left. The hard-hitting and heady linebacker Duke came to known and love had been able to seamlessly translate his skills to strong side linebacker.
Giles-Harris finished his second year with 20 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, seven pressures and five quarterback hits. He was the team's most productive SAM linebacker, and he did all of this while playing just 18% of the defensive snaps for the season.
But Giles-Harris knows he couldn't have done it alone. He has made himself an interesting part of the team's defensive future thanks to his strong pass-rushing skills from the position, but it was his two fellow linebackers who helped push him each week.
While Giles-Harris was an inexperienced and green linebacker entering Week 13, Myles Jack and Joe Schobert were in their fifth seasons and had already seen it all. As a result, Giles-Harris found an invaluable resource on and off the field.
"It's been great. I can't say enough about Myles Jack. It is my second year with him, and even from last year to this year, I've learned so much about life, football, etc., etc. from that man," Giles-Harris said.
"He has been like a big brother to me. And you know, I can't thank him enough. Just being able to watch him work every day, it's been a blessing for me just seeing how a guy who does it at a very high level approaches the game and goes out there and plays.
"Joe I've known for a year now and he is the same way. Joe is really smart football player. He understands a lot and he's always there to help you with whatever you need. "
The experience of players like Jack and Schobert was surely an aid for a young and developing player like Giles-Harris, who was one of many youthful undrafted free agents playing a major role in Jacksonville's defense.
Jacksonville has almost made a name of sorts in terms of finding gems in undrafted free agency. James Robinson is the most obvious one, of course, but he is far from the only one. Players like Giles-Harris have fought their way into the NFL, and at least in this instance have no intentions of looking back.
"Whether you're drafted later or undrafted, it's kind of that mentality is it's you against the world basically. A lot of guys don't get along opportunities like this. So the fact there's a bunch of us out there, you know, putting in work every day, and going balls to the wall every day, it definitely brings a different kind of swagger," Giles-Harris said
"And I think that's been the biggest part, you know, for guys in my similar situation. You just got to do what you got to do to get on the field, you know, you don't want to look back and you can't take a breath. Because every time you take a breath, you know, in this business especially, there is somebody gunning for your spot. So you have to put out good film day in and day out to stay where you're at. And I think that's the swagger a lot of guys have."
Jacksonville is undergoing a coaching change in 2021, but that doesn't change what Giles-Harris showed in 2020. When the Jaguars open camp next season, Giles-Harris is who should be penciled in at strong side linebacker.