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Will This Year Be the Year the Jaguars Defense Breaks Through?

Malik Jackson, Myles Jack, Jalen Ramsey, Tashaun Gipson—this off-season, the Jacksonville Jaguars have made a huge investment in upgrading their defense. In the AFC South, that could be enough to make a difference.
Photo by Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

It's odd to think of a 5-11 team as one of the leaders in the clubhouse for the "What if?" game, but that's what the Jacksonville Jaguars were last season. The AFC South was there for the taking. In Indianapolis, Andrew Luck's injuries and poor roster management sunk the Colts, the division's traditional powerhouse. The Tennessee Titans, an orphan franchise waiting for real ownership and direction, were never a threat. Seven different Houston Texans players threw passes last season, including one quarterback claimed on waivers and another signed off the street.


The Jaguars, on paper, should have been able to claim the playoff spot that everyone else fumbled away. Quarterback Blake Bortles was still prone to mistakes, but a talented receiving corps and an ability to improvise helped give the Jaguars the best passing attack in the division.

Head coach Gus Bradley's defense, however, wasn't able to keep up their end of the bargain. The Jaguars finished 31st in pass defense DVOA, ahead of only the woeful New Orleans Saints in the NFL. The pass rush failed to materialize, with a below-average 5.8 percent adjusted sack rate. Three-down linebacker Paul Posluszny wasn't able to cover. The safety play was brutal.

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Jacksonville hired Bradley from the Seattle Seahawks, where he had been defensive coordinator, after the 2012 season, just as the Legion of Boom were making their mark on the NFL. In the years since, Seattle's Cover 3 scheme has inspired imitation around the league: Bradley's successor at Seattle, Dan Quinn, now heads the Atlanta Falcons; the Saints signed safety Jairus Byrd based on those principles. But the results haven't always been pretty.

Of course, the real reason for Seattle's success isn't a magic scheme; it's the players. Corner Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas seem to be likely Hall of Famers at this moment, and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner covers as well as anyone. K.J. Wright and Kam Chancellor round out a secondary that has few weaknesses to attack. Their pass rush is good.


When you have the talent on defense. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Jaguars, in contrast, were basically rebuilding from scratch after the Gene Smith era, and a 2-14 2012 season, came to an end. They have mostly failed to find great players who were willing to take their cap space in the years since. This off-season, though, the Jaguars have made a huge investment in upgrading their personnel. In fact, you can argue that their defense has improved on practically every level:

-- Defensive lineman Malik Jackson was signed to one of the biggest contracts in NFL history. Jackson isn't exactly a prototype 4-3 edge rusher, and in Denver he was used as an interior lineman. But his penetration and burst should help improve Jacksonville's pass rush. And oh, by the way, Dante Fowler Jr., who tore his ACL in OTAs last year after Jacksonville picked him third overall in the draft, will be ready to play. Along with Sen'Derrick Marks, Ryan Davis, and Jared Odrick, this should be the best group of pass rushers the Jaguars have had under Bradley.

-- Linebacker Myles Jack, one of the best prospects in the entire draft, fell to the second round, where the Jaguars were able to scoop him up. He and incumbent speed backer Telvin Smith make for a formidable combination underneath, and now the Jags no longer need to rely on Posluszny in passing situations. Bradley has said nice things about Posluszny keeping his third-down job in the offseason, but that's the kind of news nugget no one will remember in September. Barring a setback with Jack's knee, it's very obvious where this is headed.


-- Speaking of prospects falling down boards, the rise of the quarterbacks and running back Ezekiel Elliott allowed consensus top-five pick Jalen Ramsey to fall into Jacksonville's lap, too. Ramsey has already suffered a meniscus tear in OTAs—proof he's truly a Jaguar rookie—but he should eventually be a long-term solution at the cornerback position. He's joined by former New York Giant Prince Amukamara, a good corner for the 12 weeks each year he's actually healthy. Between these two and incumbents Davon House and Aaron Colvin, the Jaguars should have the depth to avoid starting a corner that anyone could pick on.

-- Tashaun Gipson isn't a household name at safety, and he's coming off a bad year in Cleveland. The Jaguars are hoping he can revert to the level of play he showed in 2014—they're certainly paying him like he's already reached it. Jacksonville still needs Johnathan Cyprien to play up to the second-round pick they spent on him or they need someone to replace him, but Gipson has the potential to be the best Jags safety since a young Dwight Lowery.

Things can yo-yo pretty fast on defense in the NFL—performance tends to be more fluid than on offense. Jaguars fans might remember the 2010-12 seasons, when they finished 32nd, fifth, and 28th, respectively, in total defensive DVOA. One turnover a week can be the difference between world-beaters and also-rans.

With its defensive additions this off-season, the Jaguars have stacked the deck in their favor. While there are still some things I'm unsure about, like safety play and outside pass rush, it's not at all ridiculous to think this could be a top-ten defense next season, especially considering the typical soft AFC South schedule. Their performance could deliver a verdict on Bradley's tenure in Jacksonville, and on the value Seattle's scheme when you don't have Hall of Fame talent. Should Luck and the Colts continue to bumble, it could even be the difference in the divisional race.

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