Every team will harp on competition this fall as they have both new additions and old faces fight for roles on the depth chart and in the starting lineups. This is no different for the Jaguars, who brought a sea of change to their roster this offseason with over a dozen free-agent additions and nine draft picks.
But which battles will be the most important to watch in Jacksonville later this month and into August? Which will help determine how far the Jaguars can go in year one of a new era? We have picked five to evaluate and will do so individually over the course of the pre-training camp period.
We started with the kicker competition between Josh Lambo and Aldrick Rosas. Second, we looked at the backup quarterback battle between Gardner Minshew and C.J. Beathard, and then the three-way battle at running back between James Robinson, Travis Etienne and Carlos Hyde. Wrapping up on the offensive side of the ball was the battle for the No. 4 wide receiver role between Phillip Dorsett and Collin Johnson.
The first look on defense was at three-technique with Doug Costin, Jay Tufele and Taven Bryan. Then we moved on to the secondary to examine the outside cornerback spot across from Shaquill Griffin.
Now, we head back to the defensive backfield to examine the options at safety, particularly alongside Rayshawn Jenkins.
Jenkins was a free agent acquisition in the spring, coming over from the Los Angeles Chargers. His versatility and experience in different safety spots mean he’s gameday ready, but given what the Jaguars have in terms of depth, he’ll likely be at free safety.
“Rayshawn [Jenkins]’s come in, he has some of the quickest, smoothest feet, acceleration, running around the field out there,” revealed middle linebacker Joe Schobert, during minicamp.
Added defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, “We’ve kind of remade that whole [secondary] room. Rayshawn Jenkins and Shaq[uill] Griffin, those were two key guys, plus keeping Josh [Jones].”
It’s the latter part of Cullen's statement that deserves attention as the Jaguars gear up for training camp. Keeping Josh Jones on the roster in free agency is seen as a win by the staff. Does that mean he will be playing opposite Jenkins, who is more of a sure-fire starter?
Jones started at strong safety in all 13 games in which he appeared for the Jags last season. He missed three games while on injured reserve with a chest injury. During his 13 games, Jones finished with a career high 83 tackles, one interception and a pass defended. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones accounted for 22 defensive stops (a play that constitutes a failure for the offense) and kept his missed tackle rate below 10% (9.6). However, he also gave up 29 receptions on 33 targets.
As Cullen told local reporters during minicamp, coverage skills will be of the utmost importance, especially in a division that now includes Julio Jones.
“I think you have to cover in this league and our secondary coaches have done a great job,” Cullen explained. “Tim Walton and I were together 20 years ago. Joe Danna and Chris Ash have done a great job bringing that unit together. But it was critical in finding guys either through the free-agent acquisitions and through the draft, so we’ve kind of remade that whole room.”
Someone with near impeccable coverage skills is rookie Andre Cisco. The Syracuse product dropped in the draft after an early-season ACL injury his final year at Cuse kept him off the field. He has the biggest potential to be the “steal” of the 2021 draft. It’s something Cullen is well aware of, as he told reporters early in the offseason.
“Andre [Cisco], before his injury, was probably the top safety in the country. I think he had 13 interceptions in about roughly two years, and he fits all the boxes in terms of the size, the speed, the athleticism. So, we’re really excited about those two additions via the draft.”
His freshman season, Cisco was tied for most interceptions in the country with seven. As a sophomore, he was seventh in the country with five takeaways.
Head Coach Urban Meyer called Cisco one of his favorite players on the board post-draft, and added, “You watch him when he’s healthy and it’s hard to say he’s not the best safety in the draft.”
Cisco was notably NOT on the Jaguars Active/PUP list announced before training camp. That would seem to say he’s healthy and ready to play. If that’s the case, he could see the field quickly. He is labeled a free safety more often than not, which would require some shuffling if he’s on the field with Jenkins, but the latter could more easily shift his position depending on who joins him on the field.
The biggest possible detriment to Cisco’s impact with the Jaguars will be what scheme Cullen wants to see from his secondary. Cisco’s skills make him a ball hawk in zone coverage, but his tackling and mirroring will need work if in man coverage. He could be a situational safety though, which would also allow him time to adjust to the NFL and fine-tune his tackling skills against the league’s bigger tight ends in practice.
The Jaguars' safety unit has been a conundrum in recent years; lacking in depth and star power, then subsequently being one of the defense's more dependable groups. That was thanks to guys like Andrew Wingard and even 2020 rookie Daniel Thomas.
The latter saw limited action as he worked he way up from special teams then as soon as he earned a safety spot, almost immediately was injured for the second half of the season. But Thomas showed a promise and physicality—along with a knack for turnovers—that indicated he could provide quality depth as the Jaguars bulk up their safety room.
Then there’s Jarrod Wilson. What do you do with the guy who returns as the incumbent free safety? Wilson had 69 tackles (45 solo), three passes defended, two tackles for loss and one interception in the 12 games in which he appeared and started for Jacksonville last season. More importantly, he was voted as a team captain last year.
On a young team with a new coaching staff in need of winning over a roster, guys like Wilson can be crucial. His familiarity with the AFC South and leadership amongst the 2020 guys can be helpful. That alone makes it worth the argument Wilson should be in heavy rotation with Jenkins.
The Jaguars safety unit has been retooled, rebuilt, and reassembled. Rayshawn Jenkins will be a pillar, but the question this training camp will be which young gun can take the leap to start alongside him.