Could the Jacksonville Jaguars have one of the best inside linebacker duos in the NFL in 2021? They certainly have the potential to do so if you base expectations off a recent ranking of the league's best linebackers by players, coaches and executives.
The Jaguars were unsurprisingly not making many appearances on ESPN's annual position-by-position ranking of the league's top players this offseason, but that changed with ESPN's and Jeremy Fowler's Wednesday ranking of the best linebackers entering this season.
After no Jaguars' defensive linemen were ranked among the top defensive tackles or pass-rushers, the Jaguars had both Myles Jack and Joe Schobert make appearances on the list of top linebackers. Jack was ranked No. 10 while Schobert earned a spot on the honorable mention list.
After being unranked last season, Jack edged out Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones to round out the top-10 entering 2021. He did so after his first season at weak side linebacker as well, with Jack turning in his best season as a pro yet after switching from the middle linebacker spot to the outside.
Jack missed two games in 2020 but still had the best season of his carer, recording career-high 118 tackles, a career-high six tackles for loss, and a career-high five pass deflections, all to go along with one forced fumble, one sack and one interception.
"He played like an All-Pro last year," an NFC executive told ESPN.
"Would like to see him more consistent, but it is really tough to get past him," an NFC coach continued, via ESPN. "[The Jaguars] are letting him play fast and float to the ball."
Jack didn't earn any regular-season accolades as a result of his stellar play, in large part due to Jacksonville's 1-15 record and porous overall defensive production. But Jack's play stood out among his peers and throughout NFL circles, and he is now set to be one of the true cornerstones of the Jaguars' new era.
"Yeah, he’s an alpha leader, he’s a stud. I love the way he’s worked," Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer said in June. "He was a little overweight, he lost that weight immediately. He’s been A+ in the weight room and in the training.
"You know, you need your Josh Allens and Myles Jacks to be who they are. And when I talk about core players, everyone wants to talk about free agency and the NFL draft, but I always try to make sure we mention the guys that I see [as] core players. ‘Does he have to play better?’ Yeah, a lot of the core players have to. But we’ve addressed it and he’s done everything we’ve asked and above and beyond since we stepped foot in Jacksonville.”
A big reason Jack was able to excel the way he did in 2020 was due to the offseason addition of Schobert. The former Pro Bowler and Cleveland Browns linebacker took Jack's place at middle linebacker, allowing Jack to shift to a more natural position and make more plays throughout the course of the season.
And while Schobert's biggest impact in 2020 was the fact that he allowed Jack to reach his potential as an off-ball linebacker, he was still able to make plays on his accord as well once he became comfortable in the Jaguars' scheme.
While Schobert didn't earn a spot on ESPN's top-10 like Jack did, he was listed as one of the several honorable mention candidates who finished just outside the top-10.
"Good field general, great in zone coverage. Never going to be the big, physical guy," a coach told ESPN.
Schobert started all 16 games for the Jaguars last year, recording 141 tackles, six tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions. He is once again expected to start at middle linebacker as the Jaguars shift to a 3-4 scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Joe Cullen.
Whether Cullen and the Jaguars find success in that first year of transition will rely heavily on the play of Jack and Schobert. If each plays up to the potential that the rest of the league seemingly thinks they are able to, then the Jaguars could have a positive defensive shift in the near future.