For the last two seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have failed to consistently find their mojo as a team. Following a storybook season in 2017 in which they won the AFC South with a 10-6 record and found themselves just one quarter away from the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance, the Jaguars have found themselves in the cellar of the division.
An 11-21 record and two consecutive last place AFC South finishes have hampered most optimistic feelings surrounding the Jaguars in the last two seasons, as has the departures of several key players. Once known for their elite pass defense and ferocious defensive line, Jacksonville will be entering 2020 without Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, or Marcell Dareus.
So with the Jaguars failing in most areas in recent years and with the prior identity of the team being stripped away due to a much-needed overhaul of the roster, it could be hard to peg one specific area as the Jaguars' weakness next season. Add in the fact that Jacksonville added the largest draft class in team history fewer than two months ago, and debating Jacksonville's fatal flaw heading into 2020 could be tricky.
Sports Illustrated's Conor Orr recently attempted to get a feel for the greatest weakness facing the Jaguars (and the rest of the AFC), and he opted to label Jacksonville's cornerback position as the team's biggest area of need. Orr's hypothesis matches what many tabbed as the Jaguars' Achilles heel entering next season, which is far from a surprise considering Jacksonville's current options.
"Right now, Jacksonville is looking at a starting unit comprised of a 31-year-old Rashaan Melvin, rookie C.J. Henderson and D.J. Hayden. Hayden actually had a decent season statistically a year ago and Melvin played solid football in 2018, but this is simply not the same defensive backfield that featured A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey together a few short years ago," Orr wrote. "Jacksonville did a nice job repairing its linebacking corps and, depending on the outcome of the Yannick Ngakoue situation, still could have a formidable edge rushing presence."
On the surface, it is understandable why Orr and others would point to this position group. CJ Henderson was a premium draft pick at No. 9 overall and he has all of the athletic traits needed to be an impact player early on, but it is difficult for any rookie cornerback to quickly transition to the NFL and be a team's No. 1 cornerback from the jump.
With that said, Jacksonville will likely trot out Tre Herndon in the starting defense next year as opposed to Rashaan Melvin, unless Melvin makes a big surprise in training camp and overtakes Herndon. In 14 starts last year, the second-year Herndon had his ups and downs but eventually proved to be a valuable starting cornerback whose direction is trending upward.
In his first year as a starter after signing with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent, Herndon led the team in interceptions (three) and pass deflections (13) while allowing just a 46.3% completion rate in coverage, forcing opposing quarterbacks to have just a 69.4 passer rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Reference. Compare this to Melvin, who has just three interceptions since 2014 and allowed a 63% completion rate last year, and it isn't hard to see who Jacksonville's best option is to start across from Henderson.
While a trio of Henderson, Herndon, and D.J. Hayden may not jump off the page, it is certainly a group that has the potential to be more than serviceable. Herndon should be better in 2020 than he was in 2019, while Hayden has already proven to be an impact player in Jacksonville's scheme. Henderson is the missing piece, though patience will be needed there.
So if cornerback isn't Jacksonville's greatest weakness, then what is?
Our pick is for an area of the team which is a little more specific but it is still is a clear flaw threatening to hold the team back in 2020: the interior pass rush.
Jacksonville's two best interior pass rushers from the last five years — Campbell and Malik Jackson — are now playing for contenders elsewhere. Now, they will have to lean on a group comprised of Al Woods (5.5 sacks in 10 seasons), Abry Jones (9.5 sacks in seven seasons), Taven Bryan (3 sacks in two seasons), Dawuane Smoot (six sacks in three seasons), and rookie DaVon Hamilton, who had seven sacks in four seasons at Ohio State.
For a Jaguars defense that may or may not be missing Yannick Ngakoue next season, a lack of consistent and established pass-rushers who can win from the inside could prove to be a fatal detriment to the defense. Teams are often able to build their pass-rushing units around edge rushers, but there are few things more valuable in football than a collapsing pocket resulting from penetrating defensive tackles.
For Jacksonville's defense to take a step forward in 2020, they will need at least one of these interior players to prove they can be an impact player on third downs from the defensive tackle position. Bryan is likely Jacksonville's best hope, though Smoot showed enough traits and production in 2020 to likely give Jacksonville some confidence in his abilities in the role.
For Conor Orr's full article on each AFC team's greatest weakness, click here.