Pre-Draft Jaguars Position Primers: How Will Jacksonville Address Rebuilding the DL?

The Jaguars aren't quite done adding to their defensive line despite a busy offseason of signing free agents to the unit, but where is their biggest need along the line?
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In a few short weeks, the wait will be over. The 2021 NFL Draft will be here and the Jacksonville Jaguars will kick off the spectacle for the first time in franchise history.

Following the worst season in franchise history and 15 consecutive losses, the Jaguars are looking to make a splash to turn around one of the NFL's more stagnant franchises. The Jaguars are equipped with 10 draft picks to fuel that turnaround, including the No. 1 overall pick.

But where do the Jaguars need to improve? Who needs to be replaced? To answer these questions and more, we are taking a look at what each Jaguars position group looks like entering the final month before the draft. Today, we look at the centers of the defensive front: the defensive line.

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On the roster: Roy Robertson-Harris, Malcom Brown, Dawuane Smoot, DaVon Hamilton, Adam Gotsis, Doug Costin, Taven Bryan, Daniel Ekuale, Daniel Ross

The Jaguars tried to add another name to this list with former first-round pick Tyson Alualu, who agreed to terms with the team in March before going back and opting to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers instead. Instead, the Jaguars have added two starters in Roy-Robertson-Harris and Malcolm Brown, while also keeping two key backups in Dawuane Smoot and Adam Gotsis, each of whom was re-signed following the 2020 season.

Robertson-Harris signed a three-year, $23.4 million deal contract with $14 million guaranteed on the first day of this year's legal tampering period. He is an immensely athletic and physical defender with the versatility to play both five-technique and three-technique. The drawback is he has limited career production (7.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, 30 quarterback hits in 52 games) and is coming off a shoulder injury in 2020. 

The Jaguars signed Brown to a two-year contract after they traded a seventh-round selection in next month's draft to the New Orleans Saints for the former first-round pick. Brown doesn't offer much pass-rush value (11.5 sacks, 23 quarterback hits in 89 career games) but he is an above-average run stuffer who immediately improves the team's run defense at nose tackle. 

Smoot is fresh off a career season, recording 5.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, and 17 quarterback hits in a rotational role. He has produced as a backup pass-rusher in the last two seasons and gives the Jaguars a physical defender who can rush from both the edge and as an interior defender. 

Gotsis was re-signed by the Jaguars' brass after spending one year with the team in 2020. The physical Gotsis recorded just three quarterback hits last season but he was one of the team's best run defenders. Now that the Jaguars have shifted to a more multiple scheme. Gotsis' run defense and strength at the line of scrimmage is likely to stand out even more.

A third-round selection in 2020, DaVon Hamilton suffered a season-ending injury in Week 12 last season but showed serious potential at nose tackle in the weeks leading up to it. He also played for head coach Urban Meyer at Ohio State, so his second season should see him still playing a role to some extent. 

Doug Costin was one of the NFL's best rookie defensive tackles last season, essentially the team's defensive undrafted free agent success story opposite of James Robinson on offense. His strong play at both nose tackle and three-technique and his ability to hold the point of attack suggest he could see even better results on the field in the team's new scheme.

Former first-round selection Taven Bryan only started eight games last year after being benched for Costin. In 16 games, he recorded three tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, and six quarterback hits. He is among the Jaguars' most athletic defensive linemen, but it remains to be seen how he fits in the defensive scheme. 

Offseason additions: Roy Robertson-Harris, Malcom Brown

It isn't hard to figure out where Roberson-Harris and Brown figure into the Jaguars' defensive line plans. Both are versatile defenders who can win from multiple alignments, which fits into the Jaguars' desire to give both 4-3 and 3-4 looks. 

Robertson-Harris can play five-technique, three-technique, and can even line up at defensive end in a 4-3 alignment. He is set to be the team's most important pass-rusher among the interior defensive linemen and will likely play three-technique on passing downs, but he gives the Jaguars flexibility. He should be expected to be among the leaders in snaps played along the defensive line. 

Brown, meanwhile, can win as a 1-technique, a 0-technique, and function in both a two-gapping and one-gapping scheme. He isn't explosive enough to impact the passing game but he is a genuine wrecking ball against the run and will help the Jaguars immensely when it comes to clogging up running lanes. 

Offseason subtractions: Abry Jones, Caraun Reid, Dontavius Russell, Al Woods, and Gabe Wright.

Abry Jones was the Jaguars' longest-tenured player and a staple at nose tackle, but it isn't surprising to see the Jaguars move on. He was injured last season and they were able to upgrade from him when they traded for Brown. With that said, the Jaguars will have to replace his veteran leadership. 

Otherwise, none of the Jaguars' subtractions at defensive tackle are significant losses. Dontavius Russell was a 2019 seventh-round pick who played sparingly as a rookie before spending 2020 on injured reserve, while Caraun Reid made a minimal impact as a free agent last season. Al Woods signed with the Jaguars as a free agent in the 2020 offseason but opted out of last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was released by the Jaguars on the first day of free agency. 

Biggest question facing position before the draft: Can they find an impact player in a shallow draft class?

While the Jaguars have a few solid players along their defensive line, one can't deny they don't yet have a true difference-maker at the defensive tackle position. While they could historically look toward the draft to fill this need, this year's defensive tackle class is among the most shallow of all position groups in terms of talent.

Despite the lack of difference-makers in this class, the Jaguars should still be expected to address the defensive line early on. Some work has been done, but not enough to the point where the Jaguars should feel completely satisfied. But since this year's group of interior linemen isn't a strong one, the Jaguars will have to be on the top of their game from a scouting and evaluating perspective. 

"The edge is a little deeper than the interior, but there are some really quality players on the inside as well," Urban Meyer said on Wednesday.

"We addressed some of the needs on the defensive line in free agency; that was obviously a high need area for us. We’re not done yet, but actually today, this afternoon, we’re going to finalize—that’s one of the final pieces. When Trent said we’re finishing the board, that’s one of the final pieces that we’re actually working on. It’s obviously, ‘How good is your team? How good is your defensive line?’ That’s the first answer."

Draft prospects who fit: Christian Barmore, Milton Williams, Levi Onwuzurike, Daviyon Nixon

Christian Barmore appears to be the lone defensive tackle with a chance to be drafted in the first round this season, though most projections still have him available for the Jaguars at No. 25 overall. He projects best as a penetrating three-technique, but he has the athleticism and frame to play up and down the defensive line.

Milton Williams is built in a similar mold to Robertson-Harris but is actually even more athletic. He is a raw prospect whose technique has yet to match his explosiveness, but he has immense upside. Levi Onwuzurike and Daviyon Nixon are two prospects outside of the top-50 who have starter potential as three-techniques, with each winning with power and an explosive first step.