INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The Jaguars aren’t far away.
If there was a takeaway from the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine Wednesday, perhaps that was it – that the Jaguars’ decision-makers believe what went wrong in 2018 can be made right quickly.
“I don’t think we have a slew of needs – or a slew of glaring needs,” General Manager David Caldwell said during an appearance on Jaguars.com Live Wednesday.
Caldwell, who next season will enter his seventh season as the Jaguars’ general manager, said that’s particularly true if the team gets multiple key players back from injury.
“With a little bit of luck and some guys coming back from injuries – which we feel good about right now – I think we should be all right,” Caldwell said. “We feel like we get some of those guys back, especially along the offensive line and at wide receiver. …
“The holes aren’t as big as they were at the end of the season.”
Wide receiver Marqise Lee missed the entire 2018 season with a preseason knee injury, and left tackle Cam Robinson’s 14-game absence with a torn anterior cruciate ligament was one of multiple injuries to starters along the offensive front.
Center Brandon Linder and left guard Andrew Norwell missed seven and five games with injuries, respectively – and running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2017, missed seven games with injuries – and another due to suspension – in a disappointing second season.
All of the above players are expected to return next season. Less certain is running back Corey Grant, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13.
But while a lot will change about the Jaguars’ offense in the offseason – quarterback almost certainly included – Caldwell said the past shows the future could be bright.
“If you go back two years ago, we were the sixth-ranked offense in the league,” Caldwell said. “We lost a majority of those players due to injury last year, so we’re not going to fill every need in free agency. Between free agency and the draft, we feel like we can fill the majority of our needs.
“There’s a select couple of spots where we need to be selective and go from there.”
IMPROVING FROM WITHIN
Caldwell doesn’t necessarily agree with observers who see wide receiver as a major need area. Lee is expected to return next season, and the team is optimistic about the development of 2017 second-round selection DJ Chark Jr. and 2016 fourth-round selection Dede Westbrook. “To find big-time help is not the easiest thing to do at that position, so let’s be clear on that one,” Caldwell said. “Two, can you get big-time help from the guys you have currently that have gotten better and are utilized in a different manner. We feel like there’s a chance we can do that.” The Jaguars currently have eight receivers on the roster: Lee, Chark, Westbrook, Keelan Cole, Jaydon Mickens, Donte Moncrief, Rashad Greene Sr. and C.J. Board. Mickens, Moncrief and Greene are scheduled to be free agents.
AS EXPECTED …
Caldwell called this the most challenging offseason of his Jaguars tenure.
The reason for that is simple: Unlike past offseasons when the Jaguars typically had ample salary-cap space, the Jaguars in the coming weeks are expected to release veterans for cap reasons.
“This is the most challenging because we have decisions to make,” Caldwell said. “We don’t have carte blanche of $75 million in cap space. We’ll have to make some tough decisions going into free agency.”
But it’s also important to remember the Jaguars have known for several years this offseason would be one with difficult decisions. When signing high-priced free agents such as end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, cornerback A.J. Bouye, safety Tashaun Gipson and safety Barry Church in recent offseasons, team officials targeted this offseason as one when some of those players would restructure or be released.
The team released Church late last season and picked up the option on Campbell to ensure he will return in 2018. Decisions on players such as Jackson and Gipson are expected in the next two weeks.
Caldwell said the process has played out “90 percent according to plan.”
“The one part that did not go to plan was the season we had last year,” Caldwell said, noting the team’s slip from an AFC South title in 2017 to a 5-11, fourth-place finish last season. “We were hoping to come off two successful seasons and maybe return a little bit this year. It’s maybe forced our hand and increased our urgency to make some decisions, which has been good.
“When you have a team like we have now, and you have some players who are high-priced players, you’re going to have to make decisions. When you make decisions, you hope it puts the best team on the field for the right reasons.
“They may not be popular decisions at first, but hopefully over time they prove to be the right decisions.”
Caldwell on Wednesday also discussed the midseason trade that sent defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. to the Los Angeles Rams for a 2019 third-round selection and a 2020 fifth-round selection. He called it a trade “that made sense,” adding that the key to the trade was Rams General Manager Les Snead agreeing to the fifth-round selection. “I did not think it was going to happen up until the last minute,” Caldwell said. “Les and I went back and forth. Les knew what it was going to take. … For us to get a third [round pick] this year and then a fifth next year, it was a good move for us.” Fowler was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13, and Caldwell said the trade was made because Fowler was unlikely to be re-signed. “We knew there was a good chance Dante was not going to be with us at the end of the season and moving forward,” Caldwell said. “They needed a player and they had the draft capital to do it.”