JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – From the moment the Jacksonville Jaguars clinched the chance to draft quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall in 2021, the cry has been to build around the former Clemson standout.
The Jaguars have done that, especially in free agency this spring, when they signed receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram. But the franchise has also quietly gone about remaking what had been one of the NFL’s worst defenses in just two years.
And they’ve pumped in a significant amount of resources to do it over the past 15 months: $126 million in guaranteed money in free agency, one trade, and nine draft picks (including five in the first three rounds).
The payoff for that investment needs to show up this season.
“Obviously, you have to address needs, and we felt we did that,” general manager Trent Baalke said. “At the end of the season, we go through an end-of-the-season review and write down the top needs that we have on offense, defense and special teams. We feel like we did a really good job of addressing those, and we’re going to continue to address the needs that we see as we work through the offseason program.”
It was clear the defensive side of the ball needed a significant upgrade after a dismal 2020, when they ranked 27th or worse in the four major statistical categories (scoring, total yards, rush yards and pass yards allowed). They also gave up the most points and yards per game in franchise history, a large part of the reason the Jaguars were 1-15.
Last offseason, the Jaguars signed cornerback Shaquill Griffin ($29 million guaranteed), safety Rayshawn Jenkins ($16 million), defensive tackle Roy Robertson-Harris ($7.8 million), defensive lineman Jihad Ward ($2.45 million) and linebacker Damien Wilson ($1.75 million), and they traded for defensive tackle Malcom Brown. They followed it up by drafting cornerback Tyson Campbell (Round 2), safety Andre Cisco (Round 3) and linebacker Jordan Smith and defensive linemen Jay Tufele in Round 4.
Things improved considerably under first-year defensive coordinator Joe Cullen last season. The Jaguars gave up four fewer points and 65 fewer total yards per game, but the Jaguars forced only nine turnovers and parted ways with Cullen this offseason.
While attention early this offseason was on the additions of pass-catchers, the Jaguars also added linebacker Foyesade Oluokun ($28 million guaranteed), cornerback Darious Williams ($18 million), defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi ($20 million) and defensive lineman Arden Key ($30 million). Three of their top four draft picks were defensive players – including first-rounders end/linebacker Travon Walker (No. 1 overall) and linebacker Devin Lloyd (No. 27).
The end result is only two starters remain from the 2020 defense: Outside linebacker Josh Allen – the No. 7 overall pick in 2019 -- and defensive end Adam Gotsis, who is projected to be a backup in 2022. Seven of the projected starters this season were drafted in the third round or higher – including five in the first round (New England Patriots drafted Brown in the first round in 2015).
Putting it all together falls to first-time defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, who spent the past seven years working under Todd Bowles, a noted defensive mind who is now the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s going to be a process that begins with the organized team activities, when he finally gets a chance to have everyone on the field together.
“What the Jaguars players do well, we’ll let them, 'Do that,'” said Caldwell, who will run a base 3-4 defense. “It’s really not going to be, 'We’re going to be this type of defense.' I’m going to look at the personnel, understand what they do well, let them go out there and do it well, and that’s where success comes from.”
It’s early, but the players seem to like the scheme. And there is an acknowledgement that the defense better be notably improved, considering the investment the front office has made.
“You never really know until we’re in live action, and we’re playing a game,” Brown said. “So far the defense looks good, and we’re still learning everything. We’re still building every day. It’s going to be whatever we make it. It’s a go-getting defense. It should put us in position to go play fast and play well.
“… I think we’re all tired of losing. We want to win.”