JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' defensive tackle position in this look at the '19 offseason
Position: Defensive tackle.
2018 starters: Marcell Dareus (15), Malik Jackson (10), Abry Jones (6), Taven Bryan (1).
Others: Eli Ankou, Michael Hughes.
2018 at a glance: The interior defensive line underwent transition in '18, with Dareus moving from nose tackle to three-technique tackle to replace Jackson. Jones started the final six games at nose tackle alongside Dareus, a move that solidified what at times had been a struggling run defense. Dareus played at a high level much of the season while Jackson followed an eight-sack Pro Bowl season in 2017 with 3.5 sacks during 2018. Jones continued to be a reliable, effective veteran and registered 29 tackles and a sack in 15 games.
Offseason lookahead: This is a position of uncertainty entering the '19 offseason, with most observers believing Jackson will be released for salary-cap reasons after not starting the final six games of last season – and with Dareus' contract status uncertain moving forward.
Free agents as of March 13: None.
Oehser analysis: While the Jaguars officially have no free-agent defensive tackles entering 2019, their reality at this position likely will be far different this offseason. Jackson is expected to be released for cap reasons after three seasons with the Jaguars, leaving the team a major decision regarding Dareus. He has played at a high level in a season and a half since being acquired in an October 2017 trade with Buffalo, and his age (29 in March) and production merit him being back despite a potentially high cap figure. Assuming Dareus returns, the key for the Jaguars' interior defensive line will be Bryan's development. He is expected to start at the three-technique spot Jackson played much of the last three seasons, and his explosive athleticism should give him a chance to succeed. He also was far more effective inside last season than outside, which gives the Jaguars hope that the interior can again be the strength it was during the 2017 season. Don't overlook the importance of Jones to this position. Along with long snapper Carson Tinker, he is the Jaguar's most-tenured player – and he is more than a reliable veteran. He continues to play at a high level entering his seventh NFL season, and remains a capable starter when needed.
Sexton analysis: The assumption here is Jackson will play elsewhere in 2019 – and by here, I mean me and most of the sporting public in Jacksonville and even Jackson himself. No one sees the 2017 Pro Bowl selection returning with a $17 million cap figure after a poor performance in 2018. One of the reasons selecting Bryan in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft made so much sense was the idea that someone from the 2017 defensive line crew wouldn't return. Dareus should return in 2019 after a very strong performance this past season. It's often difficult to see the guys in the middle who make plays but don't make sacks but trust me: Dareus was a handful for offensive linemen in 2018. His strength at the point of attack is epic, but his pursuit to the sideline and up the field set him apart. Mix in Jones and you're set when it comes to the run game. Jones was part of the rotation last fall and when he wasn't – Thursday Night Football in Nashville – the Jaguars struggled against the run. Expect Bryan to replace Jackson inside. The initial thought on the youngster from Florida was he would be to take over for defensive end Calais Campbell at some point, but it became apparent his game is better inside in the NFL. He's powerful and quick but struggled with awareness; the coaching staff must address that, and he should improve with experience. His development will be key because the Jaguars are cap heavy on the defensive line and will have to move some of that money around to get the desired results on offense.