As the Jacksonville Jaguars begin preparation for the 2021 season, they will do so while leaning on a bevy of second-year players. This is due to a franchise-record 12 draft picks last spring, giving the Jags the youngest team in the league and (perhaps this is slightly post hoc ergo proctor hoc) the worst record in the league at 1-15.
Regardless, the swatch of young players played major roles in 2020 and will do so again in 2021. With that in mind, we evaluate how each rookie did in 2020 to grade their performance…and perhaps get an idea for how they’ll do this coming fall.
We have already covered CJ Henderson and K'Lavon Chaisson, the Jaguars' pair of first-rounders, second-round pick (No. 42 overall) Laviska Shenault, and third-round nose tackle DaVon Hamilton. We also looked at the three rookies taken in the fourth round. Next up we look into the fifth-round selections: safety Daniel Thomas and wide receiver Collin Johnson.
Safety Daniel Thomas (Auburn, No. 157 overall)
2020 Stats: 18 tackles, two pass deflections, an interception and a blocked punt for a touchdown
Thomas didn’t see the field much the first half of the season, except for on special teams. But he took advantage. It was on special teams that Thomas really began to stand out and earn more playing time. In the Week 7 game versus the Los Angeles Chargers, Thomas blocked a punt and ran it back 16 yards for a touchdown, giving the Jaguars a 21-16 win at the time (LA would eventually win the game 39-29).
Thomas’ play landed him on the radar of his coaches and the staff began putting him on the field more and more to see what he could do within the defense. Versus the Houston Texans in Week 9, Thomas split snaps with the starter Josh Jones at strong safety. Jones played 66% of the defensive snaps and Thomas 34% in the 27-25 loss.
Former Head Coach Doug Marrone explained the decision after the game.
“Daniel is also a guy that’s a playmaker and we just have two guys that are really one position. So, I just wanted to make sure we had Daniel in there. And I thought that playing Daniel every couple series would make—my thought process was to get better production out of that.”
Added former Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash later that week, “We’ve seen that [Thomas’] getting better and better. Once again, he was a rookie obviously when he came in and it’s taking him a while to learn it. There’s a lot stuff going on in the back end and we’ve seen him start to learn and [function] a lot more efficiently in practice.
“And even like we said [versus Houston], ‘Let’s get him a couple series here and there.’ And he went in and functioned really well. So, we’re going to continue to develop him. Obviously, Josh Jones is our starter, but we’re going to continue to develop him because I think he’s got some playmaking ability.”
After Jones was placed on injured reserve with a chest injury, Daniel Thomas’ playing time increased tenfold, even playing 100% of the snaps versus the Green Bay Packers in Week 10.
The rookie looked to be on a strong streak through the heart of the season, following it up the next week with an interception on Ben Roethlisberger to end the first half the next week. However, on the first play of the second half Thomas suffered an arm injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season, cutting short what had become a promising stretch for the young rookie.
In total, Thomas started two games and recorded 18 tackles, two pass deflections, an interception, and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. At the time of his injury, he was the only player in the league in 2020 to block a punt and intercept a pass.
It’s hard to fully predict Thomas’ place in the 2021 lineup based on such a small sample of snaps (161 total on defense). He’ll compete with Josh Jones in camp along with any new faces. If his tape from the last three weeks of his season though is any indication, this is only the beginning of Daniel Thomas’ impact on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Receiver Collin Johnson (Texas, No. 165 overall)
2020 Stats: 18 receptions (60% catch rate), 272 yards, two touchdowns, 18.13 yards per game
The tallest receiver on the Jaguars roster at 6-6, Johnson stood out from the moment he stepped on the practice field last summer. Then he wowed with acrobatic catches and vertical leaps that were picture perfect.
Once the season kicked off, Johnson was forced to limit his gymnastics while splitting time with more veteran receivers. Still, he found ways and times to impress. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson had one drop in 15 games, had a 60% reception rate and quarterbacks had a 98.2 rating when throwing his way.
His best day came against the Cleveland Browns when the rookie hauled in four receptions for 96 yards, one for a touchdown and all for first downs.
The concern with Johnson’s performance in 2020 was its seeming dependence on certain quarterbacks. While the rotating door at QB does nothing to help a receiver, and Johnson did see time with all three passers, his targets increased exponentially with Mike Glennon. Some of that is more Glennon than Gardner Minshew and/or Jake Luton. Some of that is due to Glennon and Johnson’s extra reps in practice being at similar places on the depth chart early in the season.
Yet as Johnson progresses, his chemistry with each and every quarterback will need to reach that same level of trust.
“I think the thing always with Collin [Johnson] has just been experience,” commented Marrone before Week 11.
“I think the more reps we get him, the better he’s going to get. I think he’s very talented and he’s really still transitioning, learning how to play in the NFL. But he’s learning fast and I think that’ll only get better with time.”
The chances of Johnson’s snaps, targets and overall production increasing in 2021 are high. He has all of the intangibles, the height and—as Marrone noted—will have more experience at that time. He’s everything Urban Meyer wants in an outside receiver and having a full offseason then season working with the same quarterback—barring injury or unforeseen event—should have Johnson and (presumably) Trevor Lawrence clicking in a way that will quickly show itself on the field this fall.