With Turnover on the Jaguars’ Defense, 2020 Could Be Dawuane Smoot’s Chance to Breakout
For the vast majority of the last three seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive identity has focused around one unit — the defensive line.
The pass-rushing rotation has consisted of players like Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, Marcell Dareus, and Josh Allen. For the last three seasons, the Jaguars had one of the top pass-rushing units in the entire league from a perspective of production and depth.
- 2017: 55 sacks (second-most in NFL).
- 2018: 37 sacks (tied for 22nd-most in NFL).
- 2019: 47 sacks (tied for seventh-most in NFL).
But in 2020, the Jaguars' defensive line is set to look dramatically different. Campbell has been traded to the Baltimore Ravens, Dareus had his team option declined, Fowler and Jackson each left the team before the 2019 season, and Ngakoue has one foot out of the door at TIAA Bank Field.
With these departures, the Jaguars' former identity has become a mystery. What was once the one unit the Jaguars could depend on showing up each and every Sunday is now filled with question marks after massive turnover. Holes have been created at a number of spots and begging the question of how the Jaguars can keep their pass-rush productive in 2020.
Allen, who recorded 10.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, will obviously be the new leader of the Jaguars' defensive line, but over the last three years, the Jaguars have never relied on one single player to provide their pass-rush. They can't decide to do so in 2020, considering it would be a counterproductive team-building strategy.
With the holes that have already been created, and the one that will eventually be created by Ngakoue's likely departure, who else beside Allen can the Jaguars lean on defensively next season? The prime candidate is fourth-year defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot, who came into his own in 2019.
Smoot, a third-round pick by the Jaguars in 2017, struggled to make much of an impact in the first two years of his career. Originally drafted to back-up Campbell at the big end spot in Jacksonville's 4-3 defense, Smoot didn't flash much pass-rush ability on the edge and went without recording any sacks in the first two years of his career.
But year three became a resurgence for the 25-year-old defensive lineman. Smoot added some size and became much more of an inside/out player who could line up on the edge or at defensive tackle, and was often used as one of Jacksonville's two interior rushers on third downs.
Smoot showed enough development in training camp and the preseason to have head coach Doug Marrone give him a glowing endorsement before the 2019 season began.
"He’s really changed. I will tell you that he’s come a long way," Marrone said. "I think he has really come a long way. I think he’s playing well, I think we’re going to get some really good snaps out of him. I think we’re going to get productivity."
As it turned out, Marrone was right. Smoot saw his snaps increase to a career-high 404 snaps (38% of the team's defensive snaps) and he had the most productive year of his career by far. Despite having zero sacks in 2017 and 2018, Smoot recorded six sacks in 2019, along with a career-high in tackles for loss with six, and a career-high in quarterback hits with seven.
Smoot's opportunities increased with his improved play, and his production matched that improvement. Smoot's six sacks were fourth on the team in 2019, trailing only Allen, Ngakoue, and Campbell.
This improved production came in a year where Smoot was mostly a rotational or sub-package defensive lineman. While he saw a big increase in snaps, he didn't start a single game. He was still a bit of an afterthought along the defensive line compared to the Jaguars' trio of high-profile pass-rushers.
But Smoot's block shedding, pass-rush technique, and strength all improved immensely in 2019, making him a player worth utilizing for the defense. And in 2020, there won't be Campbell to take snaps away from Smoot in the base defense. Smoot is the team's lone productive interior pass-rusher on the roster, so it is a safe bet that he will see a heavy dosage of snaps and be relied upon more.
Smoot will be entering a contract year in 2020, and without Campbell and likely Ngakoue on the defensive line, the extra responsibilities on his plate could lead to a breakout opportunity for the ascending veteran.
Allen will be the key to Jacksonville's pass-rush in 2020, but Smoot will have to play a big role as well. If he plays anything like he did in a rotational role in 2019, the Jaguars' loss of sack production could be mitigated to a degree. Because of this, Smoot is quietly one of the defense's most important players moving forward.
2020 will be a year of massive transition for the Jaguars' defense. Leading that transition will be Allen, but Smoot could be close behind him.