JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- An impressive turnaround by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2022 and a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding their divisional opponents in 2023 are indications that the Jaguars might be the team to beat in the AFC South next season -- and likely for a lot longer.
The Jaguars have two of the most important pieces for success: a franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and one of the best playcallers in the NFL, and Super Bowl winning head coach, in Doug Pederson. Add in young talent at key spots on offense and defense and an owner willing to spend money, and the Jaguars are poised to be the favorite in the AFC South for the next several seasons.
“You look at the foundation that we have,” Lawrence said. “We just have a lot of stability at coach and quarterback, key pieces on offense, key pieces on defense. Obviously things are going to change year in and year out, but that's the biggest thing. That chemistry that we built this season is really huge."
Lawrence ended his second season as one of nine quarterbacks to throw for at least 4,000 yards, 10th in the NFL in passer rating and completed 66.3% of his passes. From Week 9-18, which coincided with the Jaguars’ surge from a 2-6 start to a 9-8 record, he was second in the league in passer rating and completion percentage.
He rallied the Jaguars from 17-point deficits against the Las Vegas Raiders and Dallas Cowboys, beat the Baltimore Ravens on a TD pass and two-point conversion pass with 14 seconds to play, and overcame four first-half interceptions and a 27-0 deficit to lead the Jaguars to a 31-30 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in a wild-card game.
Pederson, who led the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl title after the 2017 season, rebuilt the trust in the Jaguars' locker room. He treated the players the same way he did during his five-year stint as the Eagles’ head coach: With respect. He also made sure he was consistent with his message and demeanor.
Players say that was a big factor in why they were able to rebound from an 0-5 record in October, beat the Tennessee Titans in Week 18 to win their first division title since 2017, beat the Chargers in the playoffs and had the chance to upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round.
“He captures his players for sure,” tight end Evan Engram said. “You find a different gear when you have a coach like that.”
Lawrence and Pederson are why things can be different than they were the last time the Jaguars won the division and were considered among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl the following season.
The 2017 Jaguars had one of the league’s best defenses -- it scored seven touchdowns and finished second in the NFL with 55 sacks and 21 interceptions -- but the offense was built around the run game and rookie Leonard Fournette. Blake Bortles threw 21 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions and played well in key spots -- especially the divisional playoff victory in Pittsburgh -- but he wasn’t an elite quarterback, and that showed up in 2018 when he threw 13 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and got benched. The 2018 team also was battered by injuries, especially on the offensive line, where they had four starters at the tackle spots and the starting left guard and center at the end of the season were backups.
The current Jaguars may not have the kind of elite defensive talent the 2017 team did – six players made the Pro Bowl and two were first-team All-Pros – but they do have much better offensive talent, notably receivers Christian Kirk (84 catches for 1,108 yards and eight TDs -- all career highs) and Zay Jones (82 catches for 823 yards, both career highs) and running back Travis Etienne Jr. (1,125 yards and five TDs rushing after missing his rookie season in 2021 with a Lisfranc injury).
The Jaguars have four main obstacles -- pass rush, red-zone production, tight end and the salary cap -- and how well they are addressed this offseason will play a large role in whether they can take decisive control of the division.
The Jaguars finished third in the NFL with 209 pressures (per NFL Next Gen stats), but they had only 35 sacks, which was tied for 25th. They need more from outside linebacker Josh Allen, who has had 7 and 7.5 sacks the past two seasons, and outside linebacker Travon Walker. Walker was the No. 1 overall pick and had just 3.5 sacks in 2022. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot has been the Jaguars’ most consistent pass-rusher the past four seasons (22.5 sacks), but he’s coming off a torn Achilles and is going to be a free agent. Defensive end Arden Key had 4.5 sacks in 2022 but also is a free agent. Young pass-rushers (Key is 27) are generally pursued heavily, so he may be out of the Jaguars’ price zone.
In the red zone, the Jaguars scored touchdowns on 53.4% of their possessions, below the league average (56.1%). Eight of the top 10 teams in red-zone touchdown percentage made the playoffs in 2022.
Luke Farrell is the only tight end on the roster under contract for 2023. Re-signing Engram, who set single-season franchise records for tight ends in catches and receiving yards in 2022, should be the team’s No. 1 priority. The team also could use the franchise tag. Bringing back blocking tight end Chris Manhertz depends on what kind of interest he sparks with other teams.
The Jaguars are $31.5 million over the salary cap but can clear up significant space by releasing several players, most notably cornerback Shaquill Griffin ($13.1 million in savings), and restructuring others to push some of the cap hits into the future.
Even with those key issues, the Jaguars are in much better shape than the three other teams in the division.
The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts both averaged just 17 points per game last season (tied for 30th), are searching for quarterbacks and will have rookie head coaches. The Texans, who averaged 283.5 yards per game (31st), have the second overall pick, so they’re guaranteed to get one of the top quarterback from among Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and
Will Levis. Indianapolis could go the veteran route (again), use the fourth pick on a quarterback, or try and trade up with the Chicago Bears to No. 1 overall to get the rookie they covet.
The Titans ended the 2022 season with seven consecutive losses, which was the second-longest losing streak of the Titans era (which began in 1997). Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is entering the final year of his contract and rookie QB Malik Willis struggled in his three starts when Tannehill was injured: 51% completions, 234 yards, three interceptions. The team traded away receiver A.J. Brown during the first round of the 2022 draft in a move that played a large part in GM Jon Robinson’s firing during the season. Robert Woods caught 53 passes in 2022 but will be 31 in April, and first-round pick Treylon Burks caught more than four passes in a game only once.
Running back Derrick Henry led the NFL in carries for the third time in the past four seasons and turned 29 in January. How much longer can he keep up that pace and carry the Titans’ offense?
So unless something unusual happens -- injuries to multiple key players, for example -- the Jaguars have a chance to be in control of the division for a while, and Lawrence knows it.
“The stability that we have I think sets us up for a great window for a run for many years."