How Jaguars can become true contenders in 2023: An offseason checklist – Trending News

How Jaguars can become true contenders in 2023: An offseason checklist

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After the Jaguars’ divisional-round playoff loss to the Chiefs, coach Doug Pederson made known what the standard in Jacksonville will be for 2023 and beyond. 

“We want to be one of the four, five, or six teams in the AFC every year,” he said. “Our guys believe that.”

So what will it take to actually make that a reality, ensuring this season wasn’t a one-hit wonder? 

Here are six things, in no particular order, the Jaguars need this offseason to take a step toward becoming a perennial playoff contender: 

Re-sign TE Evan Engram, RT Jawaan Taylor

Even the best quarterbacks need a security-blanket pass catcher and great pass protection. For the Jaguars, that’s what Engram and Taylor represented for Trevor Lawrence — and why they must be re-signed at all costs. Both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. 

Engram enjoyed a career year with Jacksonville in 2022, posting career-high in receptions (73) and receiving yards (766), both of which are single-season franchise records for tight ends. We’ve seen many great quarterbacks in recent years depend on strong tight end play. Tom Brady had Rob Gronkowski. Patrick Mahomes has Travis Kelce. Lamar Jackson has Mark Andrews. Jalen Hurts has Dallas Goedert. While not on the level as some of those other tight ends, Engram can represent that for Lawrence. 

Then there’s Taylor, a full-time starter since he was drafted in the second round in 2019, who was one of the best pass-blocking offensive tackles in the NFL last season. Among offensive tackles who played at least 80% of their team’s snaps in the regular season, Taylor’s 21 pressures allowed ranked second in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He had career-bests in pressures, hurries (15) and sacks (5) allowed in 2022. 

Add a No. 2 running back 

A common thread between the four teams left in the playoffs — the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles and 49ers — is that they all run the ball effectively. They all have a clear No. 1 tailback, but their run schemes all have dependable second options. 

The Jaguars didn’t have that in 2022. 

Trading James Robinson in October made Travis Etienne Jr. the clear-cut No. 1 running back, but it left Jacksonville without a particularly strong No. 2 option. From Week 8 (when Robinson was traded) through the end of the regular season, the Jaguars averaged 115.4 rushing yards per game, 20th in the league in that span. From Weeks 1-7, they averaged 136.7 rushing yards per game, eight in the league in that span. 

After Robinson was traded, the only true running back contributions the Jaguars received outside of Etienne were from JaMycal Hasty (46 carries, 194 yards, 2 TDs). Fifth-round rookie Snoop Conner (12 carries, 42 yards, TD) was a non-factor down the stretch. 

The Bengals have Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. The 49ers have star Christian McCaffrey and a stable of backups and receivers they use in their diverse run scheme. The Eagles have star Miles Sanders and dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts, who had 760 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns in the regular season. The Chiefs have Isiah Pacheco and Mahomes, one of the league’s most effective scramblers. 

According to the Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA) advanced metric, which quantifies the value of each play based on total yards and yards toward a first down, those four teams all have rushing attacks in the league’s top half (Eagles are No. 1, Bengals No. 4, Chiefs No. 9 and 49ers No. 13). The Jaguars are 20th in rush DVOA. 

There’s certainly room for Jacksonville to utilize Lawrence, an athletic quarterback, more as a runner. But a dependable No. 2 tailback behind Etienne could take the offense to new heights. 

A seamless transition for Calvin Ridley

Each team left in the playoffs also has a bona fide star receiver. The Eagles have A.J. Brown. The 49ers have Deebo Samuel. The Chiefs have Kelce, a tight end. The Bengals have Ja’Marr Chase. 

That’s what Ridley can be for the Jaguars. 

Don’t get it twisted: Lawrence had a strong group of weapons around him in receivers Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Engram. But none of them are true No. 1 options. Ridley could be that for Jacksonville and take pressure off the other pass catchers, giving them more favorable one-on-one opportunities. 

Ridley, who was suspended for at least the 2022 season for gambling on NFL games, can apply for reinstatement as soon as Feb. 15. He also played just five games in 2021 after stepping away from football due to mental-health reasons. 

So as good as he’s been in the past, it could take some time for him to reacclimate to football and become the player he once was. That’s the challenge the Jaguars face and must overcome to elevate their offense. 

Growth from Trevor Lawrence 

Lawrence became a true franchise quarterback in 2022. The next step for him is continuing to work on the consistency of his ball security and decision making, which was an issue early this past season. He threw a couple of egregious red-zone interceptions (think Week 5 vs. the Texans, Week 8 vs. the Broncos) and had 12 lost fumbles overall, fourth-most in the league. 

Nick Wright foresees a Super Bowl appearance for Trevor Lawrence

Nick Wright foresees a Super Bowl appearance for Trevor Lawrence

Though Trevor Lawrence gave a valiant effort, the Jacksonville Jaguars could not overcome Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. But this isn’t the end of the road for the Prince That Was Promised.

Pederson believes Lawrence could take massive strides in Year 3. For the first time, he’ll know what to expect in the offseason program and be able to build on the chemistry he established with his pass catchers in 2022. 

“He knows the guys he’s going to be throwing the ball to,” Pederson said. “He knows the coaching staff that’s going to be coaching him. That’s big for us from Year 1 to Year 2 (in this system). … For our quarterback, who had a great year this year, he’ll only get better having that consistency around him.” 

Crush the draft

Earth shattering, right? (That’s a joke). 

Drafting well consistently is the only surefire way to establishing staying power in the NFL. That’s all the more critical now for the Jaguars, a rising team in the AFC with financial constraints. Jacksonville is currently $22 million over the 2023 salary cap, according to Over The Cap. General manager Trent Baalke has also noted how this offseason is time for the franchise to start depending less on free agents. 

The Jaguars are scheduled to have nine picks in the 2023 draft, including the 24th overall selection (Jacksonville would’ve typically chosen 25th this year, but the Dolphins forfeiting their first-round pick bumped the Jaguars up a spot). 

The team’s 2021 draft class helped set the promising foundation it now has for 2023 and beyond. Lawrence, Etienne, cornerback Tyson Campbell and safety Andre Cisco are full-time starters from that class. Offensive tackle Walker Little, who stepped in as a starter at left tackle this season when Cam Robinson was lost for the year, and key backup tight end Luke Farrell were also drafted that year.

Improve the pass rush

It’s not like the Jaguars couldn’t get after the quarterback in 2022. 

They had a 32.9% pressure rate on dropbacks, third in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. But so often, Jacksonville couldn’t get home for sacks, racking up just 35 of them, tied for 25th in the league. Of the 14 playoff teams this season, the Jaguars had the second fewest (Bengals had 30). They didn’t have a player record more than seven sacks. That’s a figure that must improve in 2023. 

Jacksonville expects continued growth from 2022 No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker (3.5 sacks), but it could use another edge rusher in the rotation. Defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot (5), who’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, tore his Achilles in Week 16. Rotational outside linebacker Arden Key (4.5) is someone the Jaguars could look to bring back. 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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