JACKSONVILLE – The Jaguars' identity is changing.
That's the hope, anyway – and if the franchise's identity is indeed going to change, some high-profile veteran newcomers must be responsible for a lot of the changing.
That's particularly true on defense, but it's true on offense, too.
The Jaguars' 2017 offseason has been one of transition, beginning with the hiring in early January of Tom Coughlin as executive vice president of football operations and Doug Marrone as head coach – and continuing through a 2017 NFL Draft the team hopes will have a major impact on an offense that struggled much of last season.
The Jaguars expect to be more physical on offense – and to be a defense that allows fewer points, gets better pressure on the quarterback and forces more takeaways.
Some of that improvement can come from draft selections such as running back Leonard Fournette and offensive lineman Cam Robinson. Some must come from development of players already on the roster, young players such as defensive ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Yannick Ngakoue.
The transition of linebacker Myles Jack from the strong side to the middle will be key, and quarterback Blake Bortles must improve for anything to matter.
But the Jaguars' offseason also was about adding experienced, veteran impact. They moved quickly to address offense, defense and special teams in a busy March that featured two trades and at least nine free-agent signings: guard Earl Watford, tight end Mychal Rivera, linebacker Josh McNary, linebacker Audie Cole, defensive end Lerentee McCray, defensive tackle Stefan Charles, defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church.
That's big spending, and big roster turnover – if the Jaguars are going to improve, those veteran acquisitions must yield the desired results.
Here are three players from that group who must have the biggest immediate impact in 2017:
3) Branden Albert, offensive tackle.The lone non-defensive entry on this list, Albert was by far the Jaguars' pre-draft 2017 offensive acquisition. The team opted to not retain last season's starting left tackle, Kelvin Beachum, and shortly thereafter acquired Albert in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Albert missed organized team activities while trying to renegotiate his contract, but attended mandatory minicamp and made clear he plans to be ready – and in shape – for training camp in late July. The offensive line must improve as a run-blocking unit after selecting Fournette No. 4 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, and the line as a whole must be better both pass- and run-blocking. Albert must be a major – perhaps, THE major – part of that improvement, and his ability as a run-blocker could be the major difference this season at the left-tackle position.
2) A.J. Bouye, cornerback.While the Jaguars also need impact from Church – and while Church's experience and pass-coverage ability is key to the secondary – Bouye's potential impact is critical to the Jaguars. He has started just 19 games in four seasons with Houston, including 11 last season, but played at a high enough level last season to emerge as one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks – and one of the offseason's most coveted unrestricted free agents. His presence opposite second-year veteran Jalen Ramsey gives the Jaguars potentially one of the NFL's best young cornerback tandems. If Ramsey's reputation makes quarterbacks throw away from him, Bouye should have opportunities for takeaways. That's an area in which the Jaguars have struggled far too long, and an area where Bouye must produce results.
1) Calais Campbell, defensive end.Let's clarify this: Campbell may not be the Jaguars' best 2017 offseason veteran acquisition over the long term. Because Campbell is 30 and Bouye is 25, it stands to reason Bouye may someday be looked back upon as the offseason's best signing. But for the short-term, the Jaguars need Campbell to be the most impactful '17 veteran acquisition. He was acquired for both on-field and off-field reasons, and he emerged as a veteran leader during the offseason program. But on-the-field is more important, and Campbell is key to the Jaguars' biggest area of need. The Jaguars last season finished sixth in yards allowed defensively, but struggled to create pressure and disruption in key passing situations. Campbell isn't a pure edge rusher, but he has registered at least five sacks in all eight of his seasons as a full-time starter, and also has 42 passes defenses, eight forced fumbles and three interceptions in his career. Can Campbell bring that pressure to Jacksonville? Can he disrupt when it matters? Can his presence help mature a young line that includes Malik Jackson, Abry Jones, Dante Fowler Jr. and Yannick Ngakoue? If the answers are yes, the Jaguars' defense could go from good to elite in a hurry.