Jaguars Training Camp Battles to Watch: Strong Side Linebacker

John Shipley

With NFL training camps set to kick off on July 28, it is time to examine which training camp battles will be the most hotly contested once the Jacksonville Jaguars hit the field again.

For the Jaguars, 2020 represents a year of transition. A new offensive scheme, Gardner Minshew II taking the reigns of the offense on a full-time basis and an overhauled roster that is now one of the youngest and most inexperienced in the league.

Once training camp rolls around, the Jaguars will have to short out the best way to field 22 starters in Week 1 vs. the Indianapolis Colts. Who should start at key positions such as cornerback, wide receiver, offensive tackle and more?

In an effort to gauge which training camp battles will be the most noteworthy and likely the hardest fought, we are going to take a look at the upcoming competition for the starting strong side linebacker position. While the "SAM" linebacker may not be utilized by Jacksonville's defense on every down due to the frequency in which the Jaguars have used a 4-2-5 defense, it is still a key piece to the defense. 

Luckily for the Jaguars, there are three players who could be justifiable starters at strong side linebacker: one journeyman veteran, one starter from the last two seasons and a first-round rookie.

So, how will this battle likely play out once training camp comes along?

Strong side linebacker: K'Lavon Chaisson vs. Leon Jacobs vs. Cassius Marsh

Entering this year's training camp, the Jaguars have three different players who bring varying skill sets to the table when it comes to the strong side linebacker position. Because of this, it could be hard to peg who is the frontrunner considering the likely transformation of some of the aspects of Jacksonville's defense, but it is worth examing who will duke it out for the starting position. 

The leading candidate to start just may be rookie edge defender K'Lavon Chaisson, who the Jaguars selected out of LSU with the No. 20 overall pick in April's NFL Draft. Chaisson suffered through injuries during his college career, but he racked up 6.5 of his 9.5 career sacks in LSU's championship season, which fast-tracked him to the first-round once his immensely impressive physical traits were factored in.

"He’s a tremendous, tremendous team-guy. Six-three, 265 pounds. We feel like he can bring a presence on the edge," general manager Dave Caldwell said following the selection of Chaisson. "He can set the edge as a very good run defender. You see him against big SEC tackles, locking guys out. We’ll play him probably in a 2-point stance and then he’ll be our rusher opposite of Josh (Allen) and Yannick (Ngakoue) and we’ll go from there."

"This is a guy that is really multifaceted, and we can play in some 3-4 looks obviously with Josh Allen and him and I think he offers a bunch of versatility on our defense with those two guys and Yannick," Caldwell said.

While Chaisson will be at a bit of a disadvantage as a rookie due to the uneven offseason that has been the past several months in the NFL due to COVID-19, there is little reason to think the Jaguars invested a first-round pick in Chaisson to see him simply rotate with Allen and Ngakoue. Chaisson offers a skill set which is more of a fit at strong side linebacker than either Allen or Ngakoue possess, so it makes sense to start him early on if it means that is the best way to get all of the team's best pass-rushers on the field at the same time.

"Well, I think, you know, we want both of them to be plugged in the first game and playing a majority of the reps," Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash told local media in June when asked about Chaisson and fellow first-rounder CJ Henderson.

"We know that they have the physical skills to play at this level, obviously, you know, both of them being drafted in the first round. But we anticipate both of them to be solid impact players for us, you know, week one. Once again, we're going to figure a lot more about that once we get on grass in training camp, but both of them physically have the abilities to be impact players early in their career."

But what about the other options at strong side linebacker? If Wash and head coach Doug Marrone don't want to start a rookie, they have two veteran alternatives to play in his place in Leon Jacobs and Cassius Marsh.

Jacobs has been Jacksonville's primary strong side linebacker over the last two seasons following being selected in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Since 2018, Jacobs has appeared in 26 games (technically starting 10) and has recorded 63 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and three quarterback hits. 

None of these numbers jump off the screen, but it should be noted that Jacobs only saw the field when offenses came out in two wide receiver sets. He has played just 472 snaps over two seasons, including 31% of last year's defensive snaps. Despite this limited role, Jacobs was a bright spot for the defense thanks to his strong play vs. the run and improved effectiveness as a pass-rusher.

"Leon has done a really nice job for us. People say this and say that about a SAM linebacker, but Leon has done a nice job of everything we asked him to do," Wash said in December. 

"He rushes the passer. He had not had a lot of production. He had a sack last week, which was really nice, but he is a good, solid football player. We are very excited that he is our SAM linebacker, and he is another guy that I think the future is really bright for.”

While Jacobs is a run-oriented defender who can excel at setting the edge, Marsh is an athletic defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid who brings more quickness and explosiveness to the position. Like Chaisson, Marsh would give the Jaguars a player who can be lined up alongside Allen and Ngakoue and still provide a pass-rush in the base defense. 

Last year, Marsh played for the Arizona Cardinals, giving the Cardinals' defense depth on the edge. In 16 games (three starts) in Arizona, Marsh recorded 36 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. The 2014 draft pick should be expected to play a similar depth role in 2020, though his versatility could give him a leg up in the competition for strong side linebacker.

"You’ll see me all over the field. I might be inside, I might be outside covering, I might be outside rushing. There’s a lot that I feel like I can bring to the team," Marsh told local media in May. "I look forward to showcasing that to the guys on the team first and foremost, my teammates and my coaches and then the fans when I get a chance.”

Jacksonville certainly has a tough decision to make when it comes to these three players. Each brings different traits to the field, while each has varying degrees of experience. The safe bet may be Chaisson due to his first-round pedigree and ability to play both linebacker and defensive end, but there certainly should be no lock in the competition as it stands today.

If the Jaguars choose to let Chaisson develop in a rotational role early on, it would be hard to argue against either Jacobs or Marsh as the starter. Chaisson has a higher ceiling than either, but Marsh is a versatile and experienced defender while Jacobs is a familiar face for the Jaguars' coaching staff.