Way-Too-Early Depth Charts: Projecting the Jaguars' Interior Defensive Line
For now, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the other 31 NFL clubs are restricted to a virtual world and have yet to take any fields together for offseason team activities. Competitions for starting roles have yet to be had but rest assured, they will still eventually be battled.
But with the season still scheduled as of today to begin on time, it can still be a worthwhile exercise to project how certain position groups may shape up come the regular season. For the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are set to trot out one of the league's youngest rosters in 2020, there are a number of positions that still needed to be sorted out from top to bottom, whether it be at the starting role or along the depth.
As this offseason progresses, we have decided to take a look at each position and give our best guess as to what the depth chart will look like come September, or whenever the season does start. The final installment of our series is looking at the interior defensive line, which could look a bit different this season if the Jaguars decide to deploy a different scheme.
It has been widely thought the Jaguars would switch from a traditional 4-3 under scheme to a 3-4 scheme with two stand-up outside linebackers, but defensive coordinator Todd Wash was quick to point out earlier this offseason that the defense won't look radically different.
“Everybody’s saying a 3-4 but if you look at our system in the last two years, we’ve had three different front’s based out of a 3-4 but nobody considered us a 3-4 because we ran so much over front," Wash said. "You might not see as much over front out of us now because of the makeup of our personnel so everybody’ll say ‘well you’re a 3-4.’ No, we’re just a 50 front and we’re based out of under."
“We’re not built to be a two gap team. If you are looking at the two, three, four stuff that you see in our league. That’s not the way we’re built. So we’re still gonna be gap accountability, one gap, single high, it’s just gonna be leverages and alignments are gonna be a little bit different within our scheme. But we’re not a true 3-4, two gap team. That’s not how we’re built up front or the sides of our unit to do that.”
With that said, for this exercise we are going to classify three different positions: big end/five-technique, three-technique and nose tackle/one-technique.
So, who do we see taking the first snaps for the defensive line rotation for the Jaguars this year? We examine below:
Big end/five-technique: Rodney Gunter (starter), Dawuane Smoot (backup)
Jacksonville signed Rodney Gunter as an unrestricted free agent from the Arizona Cardinals this past offseason, giving the sixth-year veteran a three-year, $18 million contract in March. In five seasons in Arizona, Gunter appeared in 77 games and made 38 starts and recorded 126 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.
"I think when you look at Gunter, he’s someone that I didn’t really know a lot about because they’re in the NFC West. Our scouting department did a good job, got him to the coaches, we watched a ton of film, and we were like, 'Listen, there are a lot of good things about this player.'" Marrone said on March 31.
"Obviously, he plays the run well, he can rush at times, he has some versatility whether he’s inside or outside, at big end or defensive tackle, so we felt pretty good about that. I’m happy that we were able to find him, and we expect really good things out of him."
Due to the investment in Gunter, and the fact that he is an experienced starter, it should be presumed that Gunter is the front-runner to replace Calais Campbell's previous role in the defense. He should see plenty of snaps at big end on base downs and then have reps at nickel defensive tackle on passing downs.
Behind him could be Dawuane Smoot, the fourth-year defensive lineman who had a career year in 2019. As a rotational player last season, Smoot was fourth on the team in sacks and also recorded six tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits. He should also be one of the Jaguars' primary options to serve as an interior pass rusher on third downs, where he is arguably more impactful than on base downs as a run defender.
Three-technique: Taven Bryan (starter), Dawuane Smoot (backup)
Jacksonville saw definite flashes from 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan last season, though his final production may not indicate as such. Bryan recorded 33 tackles, two sacks, five tackles for loss and nine quarterback hits in his sophomore season, a significant improvement from his rookie year but the Jaguars would likely hope to see even more from their starting three-technique.
"Taven Bryan quietly had a productive sophomore season. In fact, Bryan ranked first in plays made per defensive snap among eligible Jaguars defenders. Bryan recorded just three sacks in his first two years in the league, but his plays made rose from 14 to 34," JaguarReport's Gus Logue wrote this offseason. "He finished 2019 strong with nine quarterback pressures and seven tackles in the last five games."
Smoot should be the top option to backup Bryan at the three-technique spot considering he was productive as an interior pass-rusher in 2019. For the Jaguars' upfield, attacking defensive scheme, Smoot and Bryan are simply the two best fits from a skill set wise.
Nose tackle/one-technique: Al Woods (backup), Abry Jones (primary backup) and Davon Hamilton (backup)
Finally, the all-important run-clogging position in Jacksonville's defense. The Jaguars had issues on top of issues at the nose tackle position in 2019 once starter Marcell Dareus went down for the season with a core muscle injury. The best bet could be veteran free agent signee Al Woods, who last year performed well in a two-down role in Seattle.
"When you look at [Al] Woods, you see someone that I’ve known and played against and he’s always a tough guy to move, and I think he can give you, at times," head coach Doug Marrone said in March. "Al is a tough man to move, he’s a big human being and we expect him to come in there and really clog it up and play the run well."
Behind him should be long-time defensive tackle Abry Jones, the mainstay of the defensive line room. Jones wasn't the answer at the nose tackle position in 2019 but his experience is still a valuable asset, even if it is in a rotational role with the 33-year old Woods.
DaVon Hamilton was the team's third-round selection (No. 73 overall) in April's NFL Draft and offers more pass-rush upside than either Woods or Jones so he could realistically still see a decent amount of playing time, even if it is in a rotational third down role. In his final year with the Buckeye’s, Hamilton notched 28 total tackles—including 10.5 for loss—and six sacks along with a fumble recovery.