Throughout the offseason, I will be running through a series of Q&As with our fellow SB Nation blogs across the AFC. The ball gets rolling with a recap of the 2019 season, while previews of free agency, the 2020 Draft, training camp, and the 2020 season are to come later on.
We continue with a team in Florida that has one of the most interesting quarterback controversies in football — the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ryan O’Bleness of Big Cat Country was able to answer a few questions regarding Jacksonville’s 2019 campaign.
1. Of course, the headline story surrounding the Jaguars this year was the quarterback position. We’ll get to the future of the position later, but for these first couple of questions, let’s focus on the on-field performance from the Jags’ 2019 signal-callers — starting with Gardner Minshew. Did his performance in training camp and the preseason suggest he could be something special, or was his lightning-quick breakout completely out of the blue?
Minshew II did not receive many first-team reps during training camp, as Nick Foles handled nearly all of them, but Minshew did start three of the four preseason games, and played in all four contests. The Jaguars decided to sit the majority of their starters for almost all of the preseason, which led to Minshew playing with a bunch of second and third-stringers, and a lot of players who didn’t even end up making the final 53-man roster. So, as you could imagine, Minshew did not look too impressive in the preseason playing with almost no supporting cast. He completed 54 of 96 passes for 468 yards yards with zero touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 69.3 quarterback rating. He was also sacked nine times, including this viral moment.
So when Nick Foles fractured his collarbone in the first quarter of the first game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs, expectations weren’t too high for Minshew. However, he came in and looked calm, cool and collective, as well as extremely accurate (completed 22 of 25 passes), against a team the Jaguars were never going to beat anyways. He then proceeded to light the league on the fire and started the whole “Minshew Mania” craze with his on-the-field play and off-the-field antics. He led the Jaguars to a 4-4 start before losing his next game against the Houston Texans in London, and then being benched in favor for Nick Foles for the next few games before earning the starting job back later in the season. One thing the coaching staff did during the season, even when Foles came back from injury as the starter, was allow Minshew to take first-team reps in practice. This, along with watching the game from the bench, helped him develop and perhaps matured him to take the reins back from Foles when he was later called upon again.
So I would say Minshew’s performance was definitely more of an out-of-the-blue thing than expected, but he was a pleasant surprise and the better option than Foles, which we can get more into below.
2. Jacksonville bought into Nick Foles’ playoff heroics in Philadelphia by way of a four-year, $88 million deal, but his first campaign in Duval County seemed to be a major disappointment. During his time on the field, was Foles truly enough of a detriment to deserve such a quick benching, or was he a victim of a poor supporting cast and thus yanked too quickly?
I think benching Foles was the right move. There were things out of his control with injuries, lack of playmakers on offense and a poor offensive line, but these are also all reasons why Minshew was the better option. Minshew is the more mobile quarterback and can make plays when he is forced out of the pocket/on the run and when the offensive line breaks down. While it was a small sample size, Foles kind of proved Jags fans’ worst fears about his signing to be true. He’s not a game-changing quarterback who is going to win games week-in and week-out. He’s a middling, high variance player who struggles without a good supporting cast around him. There was a lot of concern among the fanbase that Jacksonville overpaid Foles, and that appears to be the case.
In total this season, Foles competed just under 66 percent of his passes for 736 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions -- those numbers on the surface, while not particularly good -- aren’t awful. But the team was 0-4 with Foles as a starter (and each was a blowout loss), but were 6-6 with Minshew at the helm That’s the difference. The offense when led by Foles struggled to move the ball and produce points. The offense with Minshew in charge, for the most part, was able to sustain better drives. But the offensive unit as a whole needs a lot of retooling this season overall (so does the defense, but that’s a conversation for another day).
3. Going into 2020, who is the favorite to be the starting quarterback? Is Minshew in the driver’s seat? Will there be an open competition?
The Jaguars’ brass recently praised Minshew, but has been noncommittal on the quarterback situation heading into 2020. General manager Dave Caldwell recently stated that head coach Doug Marrone will evaluate the play at he quarterback position this offseason and make a decision from there, but that decision has not been made yet. In my opinion, I think it would be in the team’s best interest to name Minshew as the starter and then use free agency and the draft to build around his skillset and get him playmakers and more protection on offense.
With that said, you simply don’t sign backup quarterbacks to $88 million contracts, with $50 million in guarantees. The best thing the Jags can do is try to move on from Foles, but it’s going to be hard for Jacksonville to trade Foles because a lot of teams aren’t going to want to take on that contract for a player who showed nothing in 2019, and it’s also even harder to outright cut him as he carries a dead cap hit of nearly $34 million if he’s cut before June 1 (or 21,375,000 post June 1), according to Spotrac. So this isn’t a black and white situation, and if Foles is still on the roster, then there would almost surely be a quarterback competition come training camp. But I fully expect Minshew to be the starter in 2020 either way.
4. The Jaguars selected Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick in the 2019 Draft, a player that a sizable contingent of Jets fans were hoping to see taken third overall. What was the initial reaction to the pick from Jaguars fans? Was Allen the surefire pick when Jacksonville was on the clock, or were there other players considered to be possible options in that spot? Come September, how much of an impact did Allen make in his rookie season, and how high is his ceiling going forward?
Allen was not expected to fall to seventh overall, but he did, and Jags fans (at least the high majority of which) were extremely pleased with this selection. The team also considered tight end T.J. Hockenson at the seven spot (tight end was/still is a big positional need), but rightfully had Allen as the higher-graded player and went with the best player available approach. In terms of on the field production, Allen came in and delivered right away despite playing limited number of snaps. He was mostly used as a 3-4 standup pass rushing specialist in college at Kentucky, but the Jags mostly used him as a hand in the dirt, 4-3 defensive end and he was extremely effective no matter where he lined up.
Despite playing in all 16 games, Allen was used as a rotational pass-rusher this season (he only played about 60.3 percent of defensive snaps) rather than an every-down player. And yet, not only did he lead the Jaguars in sacks with 10.5, he also lead all NFL rookies, including having more sacks than San Francisco’s Nick Bosa (nine). Allen also had the second most quarterback pressures by a rookie with 49, only behind Bosa. He (along with Gardner Minshew) was snubbed from the Pepsi Rookie of the Year nominations. His potential and ceiling, in my opinion, is sky high and he has a ton of untapped potential. He hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he’ll accomplish in this league if he stays healthy (knock on wood). The Jaguars need to find ways to get him on the field as often as possible in 2020, whether that means moving to a 3-4 scheme or using him in different position in the current 4-3 system. If the Jaguars wisely lock in Yannick Ngakoue for the foreseeable future, this will be a nightmare pass-rushing duo for opposing offenses for years to come.
5. After ranking seventh in 2018, Todd Wash’s Jags defense fell to 31st in rush defense DVOA in 2019. Who were the primary culprits for Jacksonville’s struggles to stop the run?
The defense had a lot of attrition in 2019 -- linebacker Telvin Smith decided to take the year off, Jalen Ramsey was traded, run-stuffing defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was out for a good chunk of the year, etc. Also, Myles Jack, while very talented, seems to be a much better fit as a WILL linebacker as opposed to a MIKE and looked lost in the middle at times, while also dealing with injuries of his own. Then there is Wash himself, the team’s defensive coordinator, whose coaching has been called into question. It’s clear Wash does not always have his players in the right positions, and this unit would leave gaps wide open when defending the run, but it’s hard to really pinpoint if this is on Wash completely or if the players just lacked the skill to effectively make plays within the scheme. We’ve seen Wash and the Jaguars have plenty of success with this 4-3 scheme in 2017 and 2018, but the players were also more talented then. Maybe Wash has been figured out by opposing offensive coordinators, but the blame probably lies somewhere in the middle between coaching and personnel.
Marrone is going to meet with and evaluate the staff around Jan. 14 and make decisions from there. My guess is the Jaguars will be looking for a new defensive coordinator and fans will be upset if not. The again, many expected changes at the head coach and general manager positions in 2020, but that didn’t come to fruition, either.
6. In retrospect, the Jaguars’ Week 8 victory over the Jets was a major turning point. Jacksonville was 4-4 after that win, but a disastrous five-game losing streak followed, which each loss coming by at least three scores. What were the biggest differences between the Jaguars team that stomped the Jets and the one that went off the rails afterward?
Minshew had a poor game in London against the Texans, and then was subsequently benched in favor of a healthy Foles. That was the main difference - Foles was now the starter - and as I’ve mentioned above, the offense just didn’t work well with him as the signal-caller. But, as we’ve mentioned, the defense really struggled to stop the run as well. An offense that can’t produce points and a defense that can’t stop a nosebleed is a recipe for disaster, hence the five-game losing streak. The players on the team also had to deal with a lot of the off-the-field drama throughout the offseason with the Smith saga, and the early regular season with the Ramsey saga, and the end of the season with NFLPA publicly blasting Tom Coughlin -- who now has been fired -- and the organization itself. All of this amongst other drama, such as rumors their coach will be fired at the the end of the year. So there were also a lot of distractions over the past several months that likely took a toll on the players, but I actually think Marrone did a really good job of keeping the locker room together, and the players have publicly stated their support for Marrone multiple times.
A lack of depth due to poor roster construction, a bad gamble on Foles and a defense that seriously regressed are all reasons why this season didn’t work out of the Jaguars. The team also seems to be laying a lot of the blame at Coughlin’s feet, but there were myriad reasons why this team finished 6-10 in 2019, and has had only one winning season in the past decade. Here’s to hoping things are better in the 2020s.