Jaguars drafted with Trevor Lawrence and the future cap in mind

Jaguars GM Trent Baalke's first-round draft pick OL Anton Harrison is a key part to managing the future cap. And he might fill a critical role on the field this season. AP Photo/Gary McCullough

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars used free agency to build around quarterback Trevor Lawrence last offseason by signing tight end Evan Engram and wide receiver Christian Kirk, among others. This year, though, they used the draft.

The Jaguars selected offensive tackle Anton Harrison, tight end Brenton Strange and running back Tank Bigsby with their first three picks, respectively, last weekend.

Will these players have big roles on the field in 2023? Not necessarily, but they should be core players in 2024 and beyond. They will be a critical part of managing the future salary cap with an extension for Lawrence looming in 2024.

“We have to improve,” coach Doug Pederson said. “But it is nice knowing that you have the one piece, which is a big piece -- obviously, the quarterback position -- in Trevor Lawrence.

“… Trevor is in a good place right now. We've got to continue to grow him, keep him coming in the right direction. He took a big, big step forward this past year. The opportunity is right for him and our football team at this time.”

Harrison likely will contribute early in the 2023 season because left tackle Cam Robinson is facing a potential suspension of up to six games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Pederson said over the weekend that Harrison will begin his NFL career working at right tackle, despite starting only one game there in his three-year career at Oklahoma. That move would mean starting right tackle Walker Little would take over at left tackle in Robinson’s place if Robinson does get suspended.

Regardless of the suspension, the Jaguars are not likely to retain Robinson after the 2023 season and Harrison would be expected to become a full-time starter in 2024. Robinson has a high cap number ($22.75 million) and the team can save $17.75 million by releasing him.

At tight end, the Jaguars now have an alternate option in Strange, who caught 70 passes for 755 yards and 11 touchdowns in four seasons at Penn State. He will be the Jaguars’ No. 2 pass-catching tight end behind Engram and is expected to be on the field when the Jaguars use two tight end sets.

“He's kind of a ready-made tight end for us,” Pederson said. “… His versatility, he can be an inline blocker for us as the wide position, so he's got that versatility that way. Just getting him in here, getting him going in a couple weeks with the team, then really kind of figuring out the upside with him, too. It's extremely high."

Engram has yet to sign his franchise tag but is not expected to sit out the season (he would leave $11.345 million on the table). He’s coming off his best season (73 catches, 766 yards) -- and the best campaign by a tight end in franchise history. He and the team are trying to work out a new contract. Strange is insurance for next season if that extension doesn't materialize.

Bigsby gives the Jaguars more depth at running back behind starter Travis Etienne Jr. and D'Ernest Johnson (signed in free agency), JaMycal Hasty and Snoop Conner. Bigsby is not a burner (he ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at the combine), but he is a physical runner who can help in short-yardage situations. The Jaguars struggled in short yardage in 2023. Though they were fourth in the NFL in averaging 5.6 yards per carry on third downs of 3 or fewer yards needed for the first down, their third-down conversion rate in that range of 49.1% ranked 25th. Etienne led the NFL in yards per carry outside the tackles (8.3) but was 27th among running backs in yards per carry between the tackles (4.0).

“It's one of our stronger rooms on the team,” Pederson said. “I'm excited about that. … Just love the way he [Bigsby] runs. He's a smart guy. He understands fronts, defense, knows what he's looking at. He's a smart runner. Just have to get him in here and get him started.”

The Jaguars are in a good position to draft players like Harrison, Strange and Bigsby who don’t necessarily need to be major impact players right away because of the work that GM Trent Baalke has done over the past year. He signed receivers Kirk and Zay Jones and Engram in free agency in 2022 and all three responded with career highs in catches and receptions.

Baalke also acquired receiver Calvin Ridley from the Atlanta Falcons last November for a 2023 fifth-round pick and a conditional pick in 2024 that could end up as high as a second-rounder if the Jaguars sign Ridley to a contract extension after this season.

The Jaguars guaranteed Kirk $37 million, Ridley is playing on the fifth-year option in 2023 ($11.116 million) and Engram is hoping for a deal north of $10 million annually. Plus, the team has big money tied up in right guard Brandon Scherff ($23.9 million cap hit), linebacker Foyesade Oluokun ($21.75 million) and defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi ($12.8 million) in 2024.

And if Lawrence continues to play at a high level, he’ll be headed for a massive contract that could surpass $300 million and approach $60 million annually.

Lamar Jackson became the league’s highest-paid player when he signed a contract worth $260 million with $185 million guaranteed and an annual salary of $52 million with the Ravens. With Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles ChargersJustin Herbert also in line for big deals this offseason, the numbers will keep going up.

To manage the salary cap with a quarterback eating up such a large portion, the Jaguars should mirror the way the Kansas City Chiefs have handled Patrick Mahomes’ contract, which pays him $45 million annually. The Chiefs have chosen to spend on tight end Travis Kelce and offensive linemen Joe Thuney and Jawaan Taylor, but elected to trade away Pro Bowl receiver Tyreek Hill rather than sign him to a costly extension.

Instead, the Chiefs have relied on running backs on rookie deals (Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Isiah Pacheco) and spent sparingly at receiver (Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the only receiver on the roster with a salary cap hit in 2023 of more than $2 million). They’re trusting that Mahomes and Kelce are good enough to carry the rest of the offense -- and as a result, they won the Super Bowl this past season.

Harrison, Strange and Bigsby can be cost-controlled building blocks over the next four to five seasons -- along with center Luke Fortner and Etienne -- at key positions. Continuing to add those kind of players, whether it’s in free agency or the draft, and spending wisely on a few stars, is the formula to keep the Jaguars in position to join the AFC’s elite teams.

“We’re in a good situation with a cap perspective,” Baalke said. “We're a lot less tight on the cap than we were a year ago. There's room to work here.

“Coach and I talked about this right after the draft. We're not done putting this team together. We're going to take a hard look at what we have. We've got a great chance with these young guys coming in in a couple of weeks and over the next month or so, watching them as they go through the offseason program and really kind of assess where we are.”