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On to ’19: The defense

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JACKSONVILLE – In this look at the Jaguars’ offseason, we turn to the defense.

Whereas the Jaguars’ offense could undergo significant change at nearly every position this offseason, the defense figures to have more continuity moving forward.

Still, this won’t be a stagnant offseason defensively. Defensive tackle, linebacker and safety all could feature change at starting positions with the team facing salary-cap decisions at every level of the defense.

Here’s an early offseason position-by-position look at the Jaguars’ defense:

Defensive tackles (6)

2018 starters: Marcell Dareus (15), Malik Jackson (10), Abry Jones (6), Taven Bryan (1).

Others currently on roster: Eli Ankou, Lyndon Johnson, Michael Hughes.

Projected Jaguars free agents: None.

About the position: This position remained strong in 2018, though it transitioned late in the season when Dareus moved from nose tackle to three-technique to replace Jackson. Jones at that point moved into the starting lineup, bolstering what at the time was a struggling rush defense. Dareus played at a high level throughout the season, and Jones showed again he is a reliable player and strong against the run. Jackson, after an eight-sack season in 2017 in which he made the Pro Bowl, finished with 3.5 sacks.

Offseason lookahead: This will be an offseason area to watch, with Jackson expected to be released in a salary-cap move after three seasons with the team. Dareus, like Jackson, has a high cap figure moving forward and the team must decide on him moving forward: do they keep him at the same salary, approach him about renegotiating or release him in a cap-related move? Jones figures to be part of the rotation moving forward, with 2018 first-round selection Taven Bryan – who played both tackle and end as a rookie – likely moving into the starting three-technique tackle role next season.

Possible first-round defensive tackles: Quinnen Williams, Alabama; Ed Oliver, Houston; Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State; Rashan Gary, Michigan; Dexter Lawrence, Clemson; Dre'Mont Jones; Christian Wilkins, Clemson; Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame; Gerald Willis III, Miami (Fla.).

Top projected free agents: Grady Jarrett, Atlanta; Michael Pierce, nose, Baltimore (restricted); Ndamukong Suh, Los Angeles Rams; Sheldon Richardson, Minnesota; David Irving, Dallas; Muhammad Wilkerson, Green Bay; Darius Philon, Los Angeles Chargers; Charles Covington, Houston; Henry Anderson, New York Jets; Margus Hunt, Indianapolis; Rodney Gunter, Arizona; Tom Johnson, Minnesota; Isaac Rochell, Los Angeles Chargers; Damion Square, Los Angeles Chargers; Brent Urban, Baltimore.

Defensive ends (5)

2018 starters: Calais Campbell (16), Yannick Ngakoue (16).

Others currently on roster: Taven Bryan, Lerentee McCray, Dawuane Smoot.

Projected Jaguars free agents: None.

About the position: This was a strength for a second consecutive season, with Ngakoue and Campbell as reliable as they were productive. Campbell had 10.5 sacks to lead the Jaguars for a second consecutive season, becoming the first player in franchise history with back-to-back double-digit sack seasons. He was named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Ngakoue registered 9.5 sacks and has 29.5 through three NFL seasons. Both pressured quarterbacks consistently, with their sack numbers hurt by the Jaguars playing with leads far less than in 2017.

Offseason lookahead: Some of the mystery here went away immediately after the season when the Jaguars informed Campbell he would return. There had been speculation he could be released in a salary-cap move, but he has been too productive and consistent for the Jaguars to make that move. Ngakoue could be an offseason storyline. He will be in the final season of his rookie contract in 2019, and the Jaguars could look to negotiate a long-term deal for one of the NFL’s top young pass-rushers.

Possible first-round defensive ends: Nick Bosa, Ohio St;            Clelin Ferrell, Clemson; Jachai Polite, Florida; Zach Allen, Boston College; Brian Burns, Florida State; Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech.

Top projected free agents: DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas; Jadeveon Clowney, Houston; Frank Clark, Seattle; Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit; Cameron Wake, Miami; Trey Flowers, New England; Brandon Graham, Philadelphia; Preston Smith, Washington; Derrick Morgan, Tennessee; Randy Gregory, Dallas; Chris Long, Philadelphia; Bruce Irvin, Atlanta; Henry Anderson, New York Jets; Allen Bailey, Kansas City.

Linebackers (7)

2018 starters: Weak-side linebacker Telvin Smith (16), middle linebacker Myles Jack (16), strong-side linebacker Leon Jacobs (3), strong-side linebacker Nick DeLuca (2).

Others currently on roster: Christian Kuntz, Donald Payne, Blair Brown.

Projected Jaguars free agents: None.

About the position: This linebacker group was tricky to analyze in 2018. The area was strong at times, and it provided big plays – but the group wasn’t as consistent as would be ideal and didn’t match its stellar 2017 season. Smith, a Pro Bowl selection in 2017, led the Jaguars with 134 tackles, also registering a sack, four tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries, two interceptions, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Jack, who many observers believed on the cusp of becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player entering the season, was second on the team with 107 tackles, registering 2.5 sacks, a tackle for loss, four quarterback hurries, an interception, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The duo also accounted for both of the Jaguars’ defensive touchdowns, with Jack returning an interception 32 yards for a touchdown in a Week 1 victory over the New York Giants and Smith returning an interception 33 yards for a touchdown in a Week 16 victory over Miami.

Offseason lookahead: This will be an area to watch in the coming weeks. Jack, who will be in the final year of his rookie contract, is certain to return. Smith’s status is less certain, with observers speculating he could be among multiple veterans released or traded for cap reasons. Could the Jaguars move on from Smith and move Jack to the weak-side position? Would that mean drafting a middle linebacker, or signing one in free agency? Those are questions to watch.

Possible first-round linebackers: Devin White, inside, Louisiana State; Mack Wilson, inside, Alabama; Josh Allen, outside, Kentucky; Montez Sweat, outside, Mississippi State; Oshane Ximines, Old Dominion; Devin Bush, Michigan.

Top projected free agents: Dee Ford, outside, Kansas City; Za'Darius Smith, outside, Baltimore; Terrell Suggs, outside, Baltimore; Clay Matthews, outside, Green Bay; Lorenzo Alexander, outside, Buffalo; Avery Williamson, inside, New York Jets; C.J. Mosley, inside, Baltimore; Jordan Hicks, inside, Philadelphia; Denzel Perryman, inside, Los Angeles Chargers.

Cornerbacks (7)

2018 starters: A.J. Bouye (13), Jalen Ramsey (16), D.J. Hayden (5), Tyler Patmon (1).

Others currently on roster: Breon Borders, Tre Herndon, Quenton Meeks,

Projected Jaguars free agents: Patmon.

About the position: This was another position that remained strong for the Jaguars in 2018, with Ramsey in his third season remaining one of the NFL’s top corners. He led the team with 13 pass breakups and three interceptions and was the only Jaguars player voted into the Pro Bowl. While Bouye didn’t match his 2017 Pro Bowl/All-Pro season, he registered eight pass breakups and an interception. Hayden missed six games with a sprained toe but played at a high level when healthy in his first season after signing as an unrestricted free agent in the 2017 offseason.

Offseason lookahead: This position appears unlikely to experience much turnover. The team liked what it saw from Herndon and Meeks, both of whom signed with the team as collegiate free agents following the 2018 NFL Draft.

Possible first-round cornerbacks: Greedy Williams, Louisiana State; Deandre Baker, Georgia; Byron Murphy, Washington; Amani Oruwariye, Penn State; Julian Love, Notre Dame; Kris Boyd, Texas; Trayvon Mullen, Clemson.

Top projected free agents: Ronald Darby, Philadelphia; Bryce Callahan, Chicago; Jason McCourty, New England; Kareem Jackson, Houston; Steven Nelson, Kansas City; Brent Grimes, Tampa Bay; Morris Claiborne, New York Jets; Buster Skrine, New York Jets; Rashaan Melvin, Oakland; E.J. Gaines, Cleveland; Tramaine Brock, Denver; Justin Coleman, Seattle; Kayvon Webster, Seattle; Morris Claiborne, New York Jets; Bashaud Breeland, Green Bay; Troy Hill, Los Angeles Rams.

Safeties (6)

2018 starters: Tashaun Gipson (16), Barry Church (11), Ronnie Harrison (8), Jarrod Wilson (2).

Others currently on roster: C.J. Reavis, Cody Davis.

Projected Jaguars free agents: None.

About the position: This position underwent midseason change, with Harrison replacing Church in the lineup in Week 13 – and with Church being released two weeks later. Harrison, a third-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft from Alabama, spent the first 11 games as the safety in the team’s big nickel package – and the Jaguars liked his athleticism and playmaking ability. Harrison registered a sack, three tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry, an interception and three passes defensed. Gipson, who started at free safety for a third consecutive season, was third on the Jaguars with seven passes defensed and also had an interception, a tackle for loss and a hurry.

Offseason lookahead: This is another offseason position to watch. Harrison is expected to be a starter and a core player for the defense for the foreseeable future. Less certain is Gipson, whose contract makes him a candidate for restructuring or release for salary-cap reasons. Wilson, a reliable backup, signed a contract extension in January that prevented him from becoming a restricted free agent. Will the Jaguars try to figure a way to have Gipson start for another season or draft a rookie? That’s a major question as March approaches.

Possible first-round safeties: Johnathan Abram, strong, Mississippi State; Juan Thornhill, strong, Virginia; Deionte Thompson, free, Alabama; Taylor Rapp, free, Washington.

Top projected free agents: Earl Thomas, Seattle; Landon Collins, New York Giants; LaMarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams; Adrian Phillips, Los Angeles Chargers; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Washington; Tyrann Mathieu, Houston; Adrian Amos, Chicago; Clayton Geathers, Indianapolis; Tre Boston, Arizona; Ron Parker, Kansas City; Mike Adams, Carolina; Marcus Gilchrist, Oakland; Eric Reid, Carolina.

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