JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' linebackers in this position-by-position look at the '20 offseason
2019 starters: Myles Jack (11), Quincy Williams (8), Leon Jacobs (7), Donald Payne (5), Austin Calitro (4), Najee Goode (4).
Others: D.J. Alexander, Dakota Allen, Preston Brown, Joe Dineen, Joe Giles-Harris, James Onwualu, Jake Ryan.
2019 at a glance: This position entered the season relatively inexperienced, with Williams inserted suddenly into a starting role because of the unexpected offseason retirement of weak-side linebacker and former Pro Bowl selection Telvin Smith. Williams struggled at times transitioning from small-school safety to NFL linebacker, and the linebackers as a group struggled with inconsistency and injury. Jack, after signing a long-term extension in the offseason, had some memorable mistakes that led to breakout plays then missed the final five games of the season with a knee injury. No Jaguars position was hit harder by injuries in 2019, with Jack the only member of the group with double-digit starts. Jack finished with 66 tackles, three tackles for loss, four passes defensed and an interception and Williams finished with 48 tackles with two tackles for loss. Jacobs started at strong-side linebacker and finished with 36 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
Offseason storyline: The primary offseason question here: Will the team move forward with Jack at middle linebacker, or will they acquire a middle linebacker and move Jack to the weak-side position that could best fit his skill set? Jack, a second-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft and as gifted athletically as any Jaguars player, has started 27 games over the last two seasons – all at middle linebacker. But the team could move him to the weak side, and Head Coach Doug Marrone and General Manager David Caldwell both left the possibility open when speaking at the recent NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Free agents as of March 18: Ryan, Goode, Alexander, Brown, Payne, Onwualu.
Oehser analysis: This will be one of the more fascinating positions to watch for the Jaguars this offseason. Caldwell and Marrone both have seemed open in recent weeks to moving Jack outside, and Jack's rare combination of size, speed and athleticism indeed may make him a better fit at weak-side linebacker than the middle. He might have played that position earlier in his career if not for the presence of Smith, and Smith left football too late last offseason for Jack to make the move last season. The question: if Jack does move, what do the Jaguars do in the middle? The guess here is they will address the area in second-tier free agency to give them a legitimate starter there; finding an immediate starting middle linebacker in the draft can be difficult because of the mental demands on the position. Jack remains the team's best linebacker and one of their elite players. Whatever the Jaguars can do to maximize his production, they must do.
Sexton analysis: Jack is the linchpin to this crew in 2020; the only story as big as how he plays might be where he plays. Jack has manned the middle since Paul Posluszny retired after the 2017 season and he hasn't looked as good there as Poz, which isn't a slight to Jack. But Jack is big, strong, fast, tough, smart, so why not? Maybe it isn't his natural spot. Maybe he's just more effective with his skill set that he needs to be lined up outside. Expect him to go back outside when organized team activities begin in May and expect the Jaguars to have a new middle linebacker. Who that is? Hard to say. Perhaps Giles-Harris gets a look. The coaching staff was interested in him last summer – and he made the jump from the practice squad as injuries mounted throughout the season. More than likely, the Jags will mine free agency and the draft looking for someone to be the glue between Jack and Williams, the latter of whom has great speed and arrives on scene with a bang. Expect him to benefit from more time on task throughout the offseason. Given the salary-cap situation, the Jaguars need Williams to be the guy Caldwell thought he was getting when he took the chance on the little-known, small-school player last April. One more name to know: Jacobs, who was playing really well early last season before a foot injury slowed him and who finished last season with a few strong performances. He's a big physical guy; though he's lined up outside in his first two NFL seasons, he seems to have the frame to go inside. Either way, he is a nice player who will contribute in either base or sub packages next season.