JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There have been a number of question marks surrounding the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense in 2019, but maybe no other group has more uncertainty than linebacker.
After an eventful offseason where Jacksonville's starting linebacker Telvin Smith retired and middle linebacker Myles Jack was made one of the league's highest-paid linebackers with a four-year, $57 million deal with $33 million guaranteed, the group has undergone turmoil due to injuries and poor play. This leads to the question of what exactly the group may look like in 2020.
Each of Jacksonville's top four linebackers has ended up on injured reserve before the end of the season and Jacksonville's starting defense is now down to Austin Calitro and Donald Payne, two players not on the team's roster during training camp. But even before Jack, Najee Goode, Quincy Williams, and Jake Ryan all had their seasons end prematurely, Jacksonville had issues.
Jaguars linebackers found themselves out of position far too often in 2019, playing a big role in the team's bottom five rush defense and NFL-worst yards per play allowed (6.1) figure. One of the players who had seen the most criticism for the play was Jack, and questions have loomed over whether or not he can be a true middle linebacker.
Often times in the past year Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash adamantly said Jack was a Mike linebacker and nothing else. But during a Thursday press conference at TIAA Bank Field, Wash's tune changed when it came to Jack's future position.
“I am not really going to get into that – where Myles will be," Wash said. "I know I talked to him earlier in the week, and he looks good. His rehab is going well and whatever position he plays, he will continue to get better.”
Currently, Jacksonville has six linebackers under contract next season in Jack, Williams, Ryan, Leon Jacobs, Joe Giles-Harris, and Dakota Allen. Goode and Calitro are on one-year deals, while Giles-Harris and Allen are only on the active roster due to injuries to other players. Ryan is also a likely cut since he is due nearly $7 million next season.
This means that Jacksonville has to take a serious look at its linebacker group heading into 2020. As it stands today, there are no real guaranteed playmakers on the roster and the team is losing bodies.
One player Jacksonville could factor into their 2020 plans at the position is Payne, a third-year linebacker who was not on any team until Week 8 of this season. Payne spent his first two seasons in Jacksonville as a special teams player and started the first game of his career in Week 13 this season, the first week Jack missed with a knee injury.
Payne is a restricted free agent in 2020 but has flashed in four starts, totaling a team-high 57 tackles in that period. While he has had some issues in terms of pass coverage and run fits, he has shown more playmaking ability than most presumed he would and has grown exponentially since his first start.
“He has progressed a lot. He has had a lot of tackles. He gets himself in position to make a lot of plays," Wash said. "You really see him evolving and learning the MIKE position on the grass. He has done a great job of communicating. For us on defense, we have had very little busts and stuff like that these last couple three, four weeks. It is a credit to him to get us lined up and get us in position to make plays.”
Heading into 2020, Jacksonville would be wise to make sure Jack, Jacobs, Williams and Payne are their top linebackers before any other additions are made in free agency or the NFL draft. It is likely Jacksonville makes notable investments at the position when it acquires players to ensure a year like 2019 doesn't happen again.
Even then though, it is an unproven and inconsistent group and there is no telling what next year could hold. Whether a rookie or a new veteran starts, how the group looks moving forward will be one of the most important aspects of the team's rebuilding effort.