For the Jacksonville Jaguars, one important roster decision underlines the balance the Jaguars are now facing. Following a 1-15 season that resulted in the franchise hitting the reset button from top to bottom, the question now facing the Jaguars' when it comes to roster decisions is upside and the future against experience and the present.
One can consider the Jaguars a clean slate in 2021. There are new faces at quarterback, all over the offense and defense, the front office, and perhaps most importantly, along the coaching staff.
But with just five days before Urban Meyer and the Jaguars open their season at the Houston Texans, there aren't presently many questions about who the first players on the field will be for the offense and defense. There is no quarterback controversy, no reshaping of the offensive line, and the trade of Sidney Jones cleared up the cornerback room.
But even with the recent rush of clarity throughout the roster, there is still one starting role among the Jaguars' 22 starting positions that has yet to be determined. One position that is still a clean slate. One position that, as of today, there is a question mark instead of an answer: strong safety.
The Jaguars kept five safeties on the active roster, but two of those are free safeties (Rayshawn Jenkins and Daniel Thomas), while Rudy Ford is the team's dime safety who enters the game in three-safety sets. That leaves just third-year safety Andrew Wingard and No. 65 overall pick Andre Cisco for Meyer, safeties coach Chris Ash and defensive coordinator Joe Cullen to choose from.
“Starting — it’s an “or” I believe right now. I believe it is Wingard or him [Andre Cisco] at the other safety and then you have Rayshawn [Jenkins] at the one," Meyer said on Monday.
When looking at the evidence available to us, do the Jaguars have a clear choice at safety? Should they roll with the upside and potential in Cisco, or the experience of Wingard? We review the case for each below.
The case for Andre Cisco
The obvious argument for Cisco to start is the fact that the Jaguars drafted him at No. 65 overall for a reason. Picking Cisco in the third round after passing on Jevon Holland and Trevon Moehrig was a sign of faith by the Jaguars in Cisco, whom Meyer said he believes fell as far as he did due to his ACL injury last fall. Wingard didn't make a large impact on a bad Jaguars' pass defense last season, so the logic for many is that a high draft pick on a rebuilding team should be prioritized on the depth chart.
Now, there would be an argument against Cisco's draft pedigree playing a role in the decision if he had a poor training camp or preseason ... but this wasn't the case. In fact, it is the exact opposite, with the rookie safety instead playing well enough to demand a role in the Jaguars' defense in some fact.
Cisco was prepared to practice for the first day of training camp despite his injury last fall, and he turned in an impressive rookie camp thanks to his athleticism and physicality. This carried over into the preseason, with Cisco ending the preseason as Pro Football Focus' highest-graded rookie safety during the three-week exhibition period. This high grade was the result of Cisco not recording any missed tackles while also recording two pass breakups.
As a pure talent, it is hard to argue that Cisco isn't a solid answer for the Jaguars at safety. Even before his strong preseason, Cisco was one of the nation's most productive safeties in 2018 and 2019, leading the FBS in interceptions in 2018 and the ACC in picks in 2019. Cisco finished his college career with 29 pass deflections and 13 interceptions in 24 games, averaging over a pass deflection and 0.5 interceptions per game.
Overall, the other four safeties on the Jaguars' roster have a combined eight interceptions in their entire NFL careers. Cisco is the only safety on the roster who is known as an established turnover generator, even if he has yet to prove he is that same player at the NFL level.
Cisco has his role as a significant draft investment, his favorable and desired skill set, and his strong preseason all working in his favor. He is the high-upside option, but there is also a good chance he is the best option today.
The case for Andrew Wingard
The case for Andrew Wingard as the starter on Sunday starts and ends with his experience. Wingard has been a favorite of each of the two coaching staffs he has played for in Jacksonville, with his effort, physicality and passion all earning him respect from his coaches and peers. As a result, Wingard has worked his way up from an undrafted free agent in 2019 to earning a spot on the Jaguars' roster over former starter Jarrod Wilson.
Unlike Cisco, who has yet to play in an official NFL contest, Wingard has plenty of Sunday game tape. Meanwhile, Wingard has appeared in 29 games and started six over the last two seasons, recording 80 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble, three tackles for loss and five pass deflections in the process.
Wingard has had a penchant for allowing big plays and penalties in coverage, but he is more often than not a technically sound player whose athleticism and demeanor have helped him carve out a niche in the NFL. He doesn't have Cisco's physical upside, but the Jaguars at the very least know what they are getting out of him and there will be few surprises.
Also working in Wingard's favor is the very fact that Cisco is a rookie. Cisco made rookie mistakes at times throughout camp and caught some tough coaching from Ash during one camp practice after Cisco allowed a touchdown to a running back in coverage. While the Jaguars love Cisco's potential, they still have to determine if they can trust a safety at a key position in the defense.
"He’s—we’re grooming him. No, he’s not ready right now, not at all. But hopefully, he will be here shortly. It might take time, but he’s fast, he’s physical and he’s doing some great things. But in time, he will be," Cullen said about Cisco before the end of the preseason.
The Jaguars have made two things clear throughout camp and the preseason: they think Cisco is the future, but he has yet to be given the keys to the present. Cullen and Meyer have gushed about Cisco's talent at times, but it is also clear that there are some expected growing pains involved when it comes to asking a rookie safety to play a big role.
The best bet for the Jaguars, though, is to roll with those punches. There will be gaffes here and there and times where Ash will likely want to pull his hair out, but the Jaguars have more to gain from growing with Cisco through any potential rough spots. Wingard is a better special teams player than defender, and it is clear Cisco will get the job one way or another before 2021 ends, so why not now?
The Jaguars have five days to sort this position out if they haven't already. To start Wingard would be a win toward conservative and patient coaching, but to start Cisco would give the Jaguars a better chance to win.