On to '20: Cornerbacks

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Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback D.J. Hayden (25) provides a fiery motivational speech before kick-off against the Indianapolis Colts in an NFL game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019 in Indianapolis. (Rick Wilson via AP)

JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' cornerbacks in this position-by-position look at the '20 offseason

Position: Cornerback.

2019 starters: A.J. Bouye (14), Tre Herndon (14), D.J. Hayden (8), Jalen Ramsey (2), Parry Nickerson (1).

Others: Brandon Watson.

2019 at a glance: This position underwent a seismic shock early last season, with Ramsey – a Pro Bowl cornerback for the Jaguars in 2017-2018 – playing just two games before requesting a trade and eventually receiving one to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for two first-round draft selections. Those events thrust Herndon – who signed as a collegiate free agent with the Jaguars the previous offseason – into the starting lineup for the final 14 games; he defensed a team-high 13 passes and intercepted three passes while registering 54 tackles. Bouye took over as the team's No. 1 corner after Ramsey's departure and defensed eight passes with 65 tackles. Hayden, the Jaguars' nickel corner, registered six passes defensed with two sacks, five tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries ad 40 total tackles.

Offseason storyline: An overhaul of this group that began with the departure of nickel cornerback Aaron Colvin following the 2017 season became complete last week, with the Jaguars reportedly agreeing to trade Bouye to the Denver Broncos for a 2020 fourth-round draft selection. Bouye's departure makes cornerback a high offseason priority, with many expecting the Jaguars to address the position in what is considered a strong cornerback draft.

Free agents as of March 18: None.

Oehser analysis: Perhaps no Jaguars position group has undergone so dramatic a change so quickly. The Jaguars in 2017 had perhaps the NFL's best cornerback tandem in Ramsey and Bouye; they will enter the 2020 League Year starting Wednesday as uncertain as they have been at the position in a half decade, with Bouye's trade last week elevating corner to perhaps their biggest offseason need. Because of limited salary-cap space, it's unlikely the Jaguars will sign Bouye's replacement as an unrestricted free agent. That means the Jaguars likely will enter 2020 depending on a rookie starter – quite likely a first-round draft selection – to help upgrade a spot that struggled at times last season. Still, the position isn't without positives. Herndon received way too much criticized from fans last season and outplayed Bouye much of the second half of the season; the Jaguars believe he can play well in a starting role. Hayden has emerged the last two seasons as one of the NFL's best nickelbacks. What the Jaguars do in the draft could define this position next offseason. Corner is a position where rookies often can play at a high level quickly. If a rookie can do that for the Jaguars this season, corner has a chance to be a strong area. If that doesn't happen, what recently was an area of strength could continue to struggle.

Sexton analysis: This group is a great example of how fast things can change in professional football. At this time last year, we were talking about an All-Pro selection (Ramsey) on one side of the field and a Pro Bowl-caliber performer (Bouye) on the other. Now we're talking about an undrafted rookie free agent (Herndon) who has worked his way into the lineup and a veteran (Bouye) who will be traded at the start of the 2020 League Year. Bouye didn't rise to the occasion when the Jaguars traded Ramsey in October – mostly because he isn't as much a No. 1 corner as a really good player who thrived opposite a true No. 1 on the other side of the field in Jacksonville and with a great pass rush. Trading Bouye will save the Jaguars more than $11 million on the cap; with a very tight salary structure, that was too much to pass up for a guy who isn't a top performer. That left Herndon as the only returning starter outside. The Jaguars are high on Herndon and believe he can grow now that he's spent most of a season on the field. Hayden never seems to get the praise he deserves; he's smart, tough and talented and was at the right spot at the right time plenty this past season to prevent a touchdown or a key third-down conversion – the kinds of plays that don't make stat sheets but make a huge difference. Bouye's departure likely will necessitate a foray into free agency or – more likely – the 2020 NFL Draft, where a number of quality corners could be available to them early. The good news is the Jaguars don't need a complete overhaul and they have options to improve. Now, how will they get it done? Stay tuned.

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