JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' defensive tackles in this position-by-position look at the '20 offseason
Position: Defensive tackle.
2019 starters: Taven Bryan (8), Marcell Dareus (6), Abry Jones (15).
Others: Dontavius Russell, Akeem Spence, Carl Davis, Brian Price.
2019 at a glance: This was a position in transition in '19, with former Pro Bowl selection Malik Jackson having signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles and with starting nose tackle Marcell Dareus playing just six games before missing the final nine games with a core injury. Dareus' absence in the second half of the season further weakened an already struggling run defense, and the Jaguars' struggles against the run in late October and November contributed heavily to a five-game losing streak that took the team from midseason playoff contention to being out of the postseason by mid-December. Bryan finished the season with two sacks, 33 tackles, five tackles for loss and nine quarterback hurries and Jones also had two sacks with 31 tackles, a tackle for loss and three quarterback hurries. Dareus had 13 tackles and a half sack.
Offseason storyline: The transition that began last season appears likely to continue, with the team late last month declining to not pick up the option on Dareus' contract for 2020 because of his $20 million base salary in 2020 and a $22.5 million cap figure. Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell said during the recent NFL Scouting Combine that the team could re-sign Dareus, and that will depend on Dareus' salary demands and his demand on the open market. Whether or not Dareus returns, the position appears to be an area of offseason need and many observers see defensive tackle as a possibility with one of the team's two first-round selections in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Free agents as of March 18: Spence, Davis.
Oehser analysis: Of the Jaguars' multiple offseason priorities, this appears to be the biggest. The team's inability to stop the run defined what went wrong at the midway point of the 2019 season; when a team struggles against the run as much as the Jaguars in November it doesn't matter how good it is in other areas because opponents control games on the ground. One key moving forward will be the development of Bryan, the No. 29 overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. He played better late last season than he had in his first season and a half, and the Jaguars need that development to continue. Depending on what happens with Dareus, the Jaguars could need to acquire two contributing players at this position – a starter and a reliable rotational player. The Jaguars' approach under Caldwell has been to fill needs in free agency so that they're not forcing needs in the draft. Look for the Jaguars to try to address this in second-tier free agency, and it will be hard for the team to pass on a front-line tackle prospect early in the draft. It would be something of a surprise at this point if one of the team's first three selections in the draft didn't address this area.
Sexton analysis: I don't see how the Jaguars can pass on a big body for the interior of the line with one of their two first-round picks in April. Size was the issue in 2017 when the Jaguars were desperate to shore up the middle and sent picks to Buffalo to acquire Dareus. We knew he was very good and very important to the run defense, but I'm not sure anyone thought his absence would devastate the team. Yet, that's what happened when he left for abdominal surgery in November; the run defense allowed more than 200 rushing yards in three consecutive critical AFC South games. Those three performances all but eliminated the Jaguars from the playoffs before December began and showed a weakness that every other opponent would exploit. They couldn't stop the run, so no one needed to expose their quarterback to pass rushers Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Josh Allen. Dareus is unlikely to return in 2020 – and if they want a different result without him next season, they must get better. Bryan played out of position all season long – he isn't a three-technique tackle – so expect him to move to more of a zero technique and supplant Jones, who isn't big enough or strong enough to play every down. Bryan's best overall performance came in the 2019 regular-season finale, so there is reason to be hopeful the move will create a more effective player. Jones is very good for 12-15 snaps and has some football left after seven years in the trenches. We didn't see much from Russell, but he'll be in the mix along with at least one rookie and maybe more. They must get bigger and stronger and there are at least two big tackles who should be within reach in the draft.