JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the linebacker position in this post-2019 NFL Draft look at the Jaguars’ roster…
Position: Linebacker (15).
Projected starters: Leon Jacobs, Myles Jack, Quincy Williams/to be determined.
Others: Telvin Smith*, Jake Ryan, Nick DeLuca, James Onwualu, Najee Goode, Ramik Wilson, D.J. Alexander, Christian Kuntz, Joe Giles-Harris, Connor Strachan.
Arrivals: Williams (Round 3 2019 NFL Draft), Ryan (unrestricted free agent, Green Bay Packers), Onwualu (waivers, San Francisco 49ers), Goode (free agent, Indianapolis Colts), Wilson (free agent, Los Angeles Rams), Alexander (free agent, Philadelphia Eagles), Giles-Harris (undrafted free agent), Strachan (undrafted collegiate free agent).
Departures: Blair Brown (released), Donald Payne (released).
Offseason breakdown: The Jaguars were relatively quiet on this front this offseason – until they weren’t. They signed Ryan as an unrestricted free agent in mid-March, then acquired seven linebackers either during or shortly after the NFL Draft. They took Williams No. 98 overall from Murray State before signing Giles-Harris from Duke and Strachan from Boston College. They acquired Onwualu via waivers and signed Goode/Wilson/Alexander on the same day a few days after the draft. The major news at this position came shortly after the draft and is the reason for the asterisk next to Smith’s name in the “others” category above; Smith has announced via Instagram that he doesn’t plan to play in 2019, though he has yet to officially inform the team of the decision.
Oehser analysis: What was a likely position of strength has become perhaps the team’s greatest unknown. That happened when Smith announced he doesn’t plan to play next season. Smith as of mid-May hadn’t made clear his reasons for the decision and hadn’t communicated with the team since the end of last season. But while Smith’s decision surprised the Jaguars, the slew of recent linebacker acquisition indicated they knew something was going on with Smith. How much Smith’s absence will hurt is debatable. He has a knack for big plays, but that often is counteracted by a tendency to overrun plays and miss tackles. If Smith returns in 2019, he must be more consistent. Smith’s potential absence makes the position tricky to analyze and makes it one of the team’s major areas to watch during organized team activities later this month and early June. Jacobs appears the likely starter at strong-side linebacker, but the possibility of rookie edge defender Josh Allen playing there in base situations and playing end in passing situations is intriguing. Jack has the skill set to play Smith’s weak-side position, but the team may be reluctant to have him play a third linebacker position in four seasons. Ryan could play the middle with Jack moving to the weak side, but he’s rehabilitating from a torn anterior cruciate ligament – and that could delay a decision on where to play him. Another player to watch: Williams, who has the skill set to play weak-side but will have to show he’s ready to quickly transition from Murray State to the NFL. The team would love for him to earn the starting job in Smith’s absence. The guess here is Jacobs/Jack/Williams open the season as the starting linebackers, but that’s purely a guess and this may not play out until training camp/preseason.
Sexton analysis: Now we know for sure: The Jaguars knew something was up with Smith and we didn’t. They might not have known he was going to walk away from football in 2019 and announce it on Instagram, but they clearly felt as if there was a chance – perhaps a really good chance – he wouldn’t be here. Enter Williams, a player who we didn’t know much about when he was selected. But it doesn’t matter what we know; remember, the Jaguars knew Williams and liked him … a lot. He’s a run-and-hit guy and when you turn on the tape, all you see is a guy making plays. I don’t know if he will be ready to start Week 1 against Kansas City, but I wouldn’t bet against it. Remember, Smith was an undersized fifth-round selection in in 2014 who started nine games as a rookie with 100 tackles, two sacks, a couple of forced fumbles and an interception. Meanwhile, Jack has been here for the offseason program – and for the second time in as many years, I’m sure this is going to be a Pro Bowl kind of year for him. He played really well last year but didn’t make the kind of game-changing plays that were forecast for him. That caused people to think he was just OK. He was better than that, but his ceiling is so much higher. The lasting image for many observers of Leon Jacobs is him chasing Titans running back Derrick Henry on Henry’s 99-yard touchdown last December. He looked unsure how to bring him down and then unable to even slow him down. Jacobs is part pass rusher and part coverage linebacker, which is what coordinators want from the strong side. He as always looked the part and the coaching staff is working on the linebacker part to make him a more viable starter. Mix in Jake Ryan who played for new senior defensive advisor Dom Capers in Green Bay and a half a dozen guys signed as street free agents and/or undrafted free agents and you have a healthy competition for what should be six jobs in 2019. Outside Smith, Jack and Jacobs it’s all about how well they grasp what special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis is asking of them.