JACKSONVILLE – The defense underwent more offseason change than many expected.
The Jaguars changed several key spots on one of 2017's best defenses early in the NFL offseason – then added significant depth and talent to an already strong front during the recent NFL Draft.
The Jaguars' defense is strong. Last season proved that. It appears strong again. What are the key changes? What are the storylines to watch in the 2018 offseason?
Here's a look:
Defensive end (7)
Projected starter: Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue.
Projected reserves/others: Dante Fowler Jr., Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips, Hunter Dimick, Darius Jackson.
Offseason to date: The Jaguars have been relatively quiet here this offseason, as might be expected considering the strength of the unit. The lone acquisition was signing Jackson as an undrafted rookie free agent. The team also declined to exercise the fifth-year option on Fowler's 2019 contract, but would like to re-sign him to a long-term deal before his contract runs out at the end of the 2018 League Year.
About the position: This is as strong a position as the Jaguars have on the roster, with Campbell being the 2017 Associated Press AFC Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and Ngakoue – like Campbell – making the Pro Bowl last season. Fowler registered 10 sacks, including the postseason, and the team liked the development of Smoot during his rookie season. Keep an eye on Jackson, who was ultra-productive at Jacksonville State and who was the Buck Buchanan Award winner as college football's FCS Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. If this group comes close to matching last year's productivity in 2018, it will be one of the best units in the NFL.
Defensive tackle (9)
Projected starters: Malik Jackson, Abry Jones/Marcell Dareus.
Projected reserves/others: Taven Bryan, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Eli Ankou, Michael Bennett, Michael Hughes, Lyndon Johnson.
Offseason to date: The Jaguars made a major move here when they selected Bryan at No. 29 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. They also signed Hughes and Johnson as undrafted free agents, but made no other moves at a position that was a strength last season.
About the position: Because the Jaguars rotate heavily on the defensive line, it's sometimes tough to identify a starter at nose tackle; the rotation also means that Campbell plays this spot extensively on pass-rushing downs in addition to playing outside in base situations. However you categorize players, this is a strong and deep position that got stronger and deeper when the Jaguars selected Bryan in Round 1. He gives the Jaguars three front-line three-technique talents including Campbell and Jackson – the latter of whom made his first Pro Bowl last season. They're nearly as strong/deep at nose tackle with Dareus and Jones.
Projected starters: Blair Brown, Myles Jack, Telvin Smith.
Projected reserves/others: Lerentee McCray, Leon Jacobs, Deon King, Donald Payne, Brooks Ellis, Andrew Motuapuaka, Reggie Hunter.
Offseason to date: The major news at this position was the March retirement of long-time middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. The Jaguars also selected Jacobs in the seventh round of the draft and signed Motuapuaka and Hunter as undrafted free agents.
About the position: With the retirement of Posluszny, Jack will move from strong-side to the middle and Smith will remain the starting, every-down weak-side linebacker. Jack played all three downs last season, moving to the middle in nickel situations. The Jaguars are confident he will transition to the every-down middle role smoothly, with Brown moving into the strong-side role in base situations. The Jaguars are ultra-strong at this spot at the starting level, with Smith a Pro Bowl selection and Jack developing into one of the best young players in the NFL at the spot. Depth is the question here.
Projected starters: A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey.
Projected reserves/others: D.J. Hayden, Jalen Myrick, Tyler Patmon, Dexter McDougle, Sammy Seamster, Dee Delaney, Tre Herndon, Quenton Meeks.
Offseason to date: The Jaguars underwent change here, too, allowing Aaron Colvin – one of the NFL's best nickel corners in recent seasons – to sign with the Houston Texans as an unrestricted free agent. The Jaguars signed D.J. Hayden as an unrestricted free agent and also signed three players at this position as undrafted rookie free agents: Delaney, Herndon and Meeks.
About the position: The Jaguars have the NFL's best cornerback tandem in Bouye and Ramsey, with Bouye named an Associated Press All-Pro second-team selection last season and Ramsey named AP All-Pro first team. The question is how well Hayden will replace Colvin, who was a crucial piece in what essentially was a five-man secondary last season. Another area to watch here: depth. The top three players – Ramsey, Bouye and Hayden – are strong and figure to hold their positions in training camp. The other two or three roster spots should be competitive, and the team likes undrafted rookies Delaney and Meeks entering OTAs.
Projected starters: Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson.
Projected reserves/others: Ronnie Harrison, Don Carey, Cody Davis, Jarrod Wilson, Charlie Miller, C.J. Reavis.
Offseason to date: The Jaguars have made multiple moves to strengthen the depth here, selecting Harrison in Round 3 of the draft and signing Carey and Davis as unrestricted free agents. They also signed Reavis as an undrafted free agent.
About the position: This is a strong area at the starting position that got a lot deeper in the last six weeks. The addition of Carey and Davis will strengthen special teams, but they're also capable backups who bring experience. Look for Harrison to quickly establish himself as the top backup behind both Church and Gipson. The latter two are entrenched as the starters and both played at a high level last season. While Bouye and Ramsey deservedly got much of the attention last season, the Jaguars are strong all across the secondary and the veteran stability Church and Gipson bring is critical to one of the NFL's best defenses.