JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and Jaguars analyst Bucky Brooks examine the Jaguars' defensive tackles in this position-by-position look at the '21 offseason
Position: Defensive tackle.
Position coach: Tosh Lupoi (defensive line).
2020 starters: Abry Jones (5), Taven Bryan (8), Doug Costin (9), DaVon Hamilton (6), Daniel Ekuale (5).
Others: Dontavius Russell, Caraun Reid, Al Woods, Daniel Ross, Gabe Wright.
2020 at a glance: This area struggled with consistency throughout the 2020 season, with unexpected injuries/health issues and COVID-19 opt-outs hurting the unit from the start. The Jaguars shortly before training camp lost veteran Woods, a stout and experienced player who signed as an unrestricted free agent last offseason and who opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19. Gunter retired unexpectedly early in training camp because of a heart issue. Gunter and Woods had been signed to solidify a tackle group that struggled with stoutness and stamina in 2019, and the depleted group again struggled in that area in 2020. Jones, the team's most-tenured player last season and a veteran leader, played just five games before a season-ending ankle injury and Hamilton – a third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft – sustained a season-ending knee injury after a promising six-game stint as a starter from Weeks 6-11. The Jaguars' defensive tackles registered 2.5 sacks in 2020, and the run defense finished 30th in the NFL in yards allowed.
Offseason storyline: This is an area that figures to be a major offseason storyline, with much depending on whether the Jaguars stay in a 4-3 defense or move to a 3-4. Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen and assistant head coach/inside linebackers Charlie Strong each emphasized the need to be multiple when discussing the issue early this offseason, saying the scheme will be based around the Jaguars' personnel. Though many observers believe the team will play a 3-4, nothing official has been said. Whatever the direction, the position is one to watch with Jones, Ross and Ekuale all entering the offseason scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 17. A particular player to watch: Bryan, a first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft who began last season as a starter before playing the second half of the season in a backup/rotational role. How he fits in what could be a new scheme could determine his future with the organization.
Free agents as of March 17: Jones, Ross, Ekuale.
Bucky Brooks' top three free-agent defensive tackles: Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos; Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants; Jurrell Casey, Denver Broncos.
Bucky Brooks' top three defensive tackle prospects: Levi Onwuzurike, Washington; Christian Barmore, Alabama; Daviyon Nixon, Iowa.
Oehser analysis: There is perhaps no more intriguing offseason position for the Jaguars, with the potential scheme change just one unknown. While Hamilton appears to be a solid player for the future, much remains unknown about the rest of this group. Will the team have a place for the veteran Jones? Can Bryan find a role – either at end or tackle – with the consistency he has lacked in three NFL seasons? The reality is the Jaguars need more consistency, stoutness and an overall higher level of production here than has been the case either of the last two seasons. If they move to a 3-4, they may need to seek a space-eating, zero-technique nose tackle – a role that could be played by Hamilton (6-feet-4, 320 pounds), who stood out with encouraging penetration and disruptive ability last season. This is an area where the Jaguars could invest major offseason capital, which could mean high-profile moves in both free agency and the draft. "I always believe you build your team around the defensive line, and then you move backwards – so that's what we're going to do," Jaguars Head Coach Urban Meyer said. "The defensive line will be solidified first."
Brooks' analysis: If improving the run defense is the Jaguars' No. 1 defensive priority, the team will pursue upgrades at defensive tackle in free agency and the draft. Elite defenses are strong down the middle with interior disruptors setting the pace against the run and pass. Without a dominant presence on the inside, the Jaguars are unable to stop opponents' intent on running the ball between the tackles or harass quarterbacks attempting to carve up pass coverage with pinpoint throws from the pocket. Although Hamilton flashed as a rookie and Bryan could eventually realize his potential, the Jaguars need to acquire some five-star talents at defensive tackle to compete against the physical teams that reside in the AFC South.