On Tuesday, the pads came on and the hitting really began as the Jacksonville Jaguars kicked off day six of training camp. The first full day in pads always ratchets up intensity and amplifies competition, and nowhere is that truer than in the trenches.
The big men up front get nasty once they’re allowed to play faster and harder. So who stood out the most once the hitting started? Which rookie took a massive jump and what returning star returned to his old self? We examine all of that and more in these five observations from the trenches.
Welcome Back Josh Allen
Defensive end/outside linebacker Josh Allen has teased his progress within this new defensive scheme under Joe Cullen. The former Pro Bowler was shoehorned into a position that didn’t fit his skill set last season, and for that matter during his rookie season as well. The latter was helped largely due to Calais Campbell drawing so much attention and double teams.
But under the change with Cullen, Allen has been allowed to return to the game that led to the Jags drafting him in the Top 10 in 2019. In one-on-one drills, Allen won every rep we watched him in, no matter the competition. He was successful against rookies, veterans, starters and third teamers. He has reemployed his swim move to get past linemen and it made him nearly impossible to defend on Tuesday.
In team drills, Allen got into the backfield twice, forcing throw-away passes with quarterback hurries. One of them would have likely been a sack had he been allowed to hit the quarterback.
Both Allen and Cullen have talked about the need for the third year end to be great this season; how much the defense will depend on him to step up his game. At least after the first day in pads, Allen looks to be back to his old self, with a physicality and finesse that makes him one of the best at the position.
Walker Little vs K’Lavon Chaisson
If there was one battle that became a must-see by the end of the day, it was Walker Little versus K’Lavon Chaisson. The rookie offensive lineman and the second-year outside linebacker were teetering on the edge of a blow-up all day, reigning in their emotions but doing everything to push the other to the breaking point.
Some of the ferociousness was likely due to Little’s standout showing on Monday, putting Chaisson on the ground more than once. Looking to even the score, Chaisson put extra juice in his hits when facing Little. The defensive end flashed in team drills against other linemen, but Little had his number. On paper, Walker Little won the majority of the reps. But the duo found themselves locking horns in standoffs that would benefit those around them in a game—with Little not letting Chaisson into the backfield and Chaisson taking on the block so someone else could get past.
It’s the kind of competition that can make or break a team, and as long as it’s done in the name of getting better, it often turns out well.
The Best Five
Speaking of Little, the rookie hasn’t played a game since the first week of the 2019 season, when he was in school as a Stanford Cardinal. There was going to be some acclimation necessary. But he’s stacked good days with great days and could legitimately push for a large role on this offensive line…if not—dare we say it—a starting role.
Bevell isn’t going to commit to any changes along the line just yet, as he shouldn’t. All five starters were returned from the 2020 roster but competition can extend into camp and through the three preseason games. Instead, Bevell told reporters he is looking for the best five.
But could one of those five be Walker Little? He not only impressed against Chaisson in individual drills, but also continuously opened holes for running lanes during team drills. His upward trajectory thus far has been and will continue to be one to watch.
If Little continues to push for more playing time, it will come at the expense of Cam Robinson. And on Tuesday at least, that didn’t seem to be a bad thing. Robinson struggled against Josh Allen, Dawuane Smoot and rookie Jordan Smith to name a few. He was beaten by Allen in team drills, leading to the aforementioned pressure that would’ve been a game sack.
The interior of the line is solid, especially with Brandon Linder at center. But the tackles—specifically Robinson—better keep an eye on the rookie behind him if he doesn’t want to watch his reps go to Walker Little.
The Free Agent Defensive Linemen Are Difference Makers
This originally began as a section highlighting Roy Robertson-Harris. But truth be told, all of those added in free agency on the line are looking more and more like great decisions every day.
Robertson-Harris is incredibly strong, with a low center of gravity that makes it easy for him to get leverage along the line. But he’s also tall and speedy, with a litheness that makes him deadly off the block as an edge rusher. On one play during team drills, he pushed Gardner Minshew from the pocket, then chased the QB down to the sideline, running him out of bounds for no gain.
The same can be said for Jihad Ward. During trench work, we saw Ward line up in the interior, as an edge rusher and as a standup linebacker. It’s the type of versatility that is crucial in Cullen’s defense and one reason the DC worked so hard to bring Ward with him from the Baltimore Ravens.
Those guys are also at the forefront of keeping younger ones moving, encouraged and coached. It’s the leadership that’s vital on a young team.
Urban Meyer has spoken repeatedly about the importance of the defensive line, pegging the unit as the difference-maker for a team. It’s why so much emphasis was put on finding quality free agents for the trenches this spring. The Jaguars appeared to have done just that, signing the players that changed the entire feel of the unit.