JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton offer quick thoughts as the Jaguars move on to the offseason following a 2022 AFC South Championship and a trip to the AFC Divisional Playoff round
John Oehser, Jaguars Senior Writer
- More in this vein. If a theme prevailed this week as the Jaguars reluctantly cleaned out lockers after an oh-so memorable season, it was that '22 was just a start – and that this franchise is very much on the rise. And while success in one season doesn't guarantee the future, there is plenty to suggest the Jaguars' success indeed is sustainable. The main reason is quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and another is that most key pieces around him – wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, running back Travis Etienne Jr., and much of the offensive line – remain under contract. Also: The Jaguars very much want to re-sign their two most high-profile offensive unrestricted free agents – tight end Evan Engram and right tackle Jawaan Taylor – and the guess here is they will. Head Coach Doug Pederson talked all season about the importance of continuity, particularly offensively, in personnel and scheme. One need look no further than last weekend's three other AFC teams – Kansas City, Cincinnati and Buffalo – to see the benefit of a frontline quarterback with familiar teammates in a familiar system. Next season will be Lawrence's first in the NFL with any sort of continuity from one season to the next. Pederson believes that will be enormously beneficial. "For Trevor, it's everything," Pederson said this week. There's no reason to think he's wrong.
- Improve from within. Much will be made this offseason about the 2023 NFL Draft and free agency, and the Jaguars certainly can benefit from those areas. But the thought here is that the most critical area where this team can improve may be from players already on the team. While Twitter undoubtedly will flood the NFL consciousness with thoughts of offseason "winners" and "losers," the reality is drafting and developing one's own players remains the best way to build a sustained winner. While the Jaguars benefitted from free agency this season, they also benefitted greatly from drafted players improving from 2021-2022 – most notably a 2021 draft class that included Lawrence, safety Andre Cisco, cornerback Tyson Campbell, offensive tackle Walker Little and running back Travis Etienne Jr. Those players improved from 2021 to 2022 for various reasons – scheme fit, opportunity, experience, maturity. The Jaguars need similar improvement from the '22 class, particularly from linebackers Travon Walker (Round 1), Devin Lloyd (Round 1) and Chad Muma (Round 3). Those players contributed in 2022 and helped the defense improve from 2021. But the hope when they were drafted was they would become core players to a dominant defense. It's no surprise they didn't do it in '21. Such impact is rare for rookies. But the Jaguars need them to take a Year 2 jump and move toward that level next season.
Brian Sexton, Jaguars Senior Correspondent…
- A smooth transition. This is the year the switch is flipped. The Jaguars will become one of those NFL teams that is quiet in March, and that's a good thing. For years, they've overcome draft mistakes by pulling out the checkbook in free agency. "Yeah, I think it has to be that moment," General Manager Trent Baalke said this week. "First of all, we're up against the cap a lot more than we were the previous two years. We feel really good about the nucleus of young players that we have on the team. I believe we're the fifth or sixth youngest team in the National Football League right now. We have a lot of young players on their first contracts. As you transition into more guys that are on their second deals, it becomes more and more difficult to use free agency as a strong vehicle to improve your team, so we've got to look to the draft. We've got to look to developing the guys that are currently here and obviously retain as many of these guys as we can." When you look at the Chiefs you see a great example of what the Jaguars hope to become, a franchise with drafted/developed players they spend their salary cap working to keep. It builds depth, continuity and familiarity – and also protects the salary structure from players who can't possibly live up to contracts they were paid by a team desperately seeking a quick solution. It will feel strange watching teams write big checks when free agency opens and not see the Jaguars among them. But it's where every team hopes to be. This franchise is finally there.
- This is an important offseason for Luke Fortner. The Jaguars' rookie center started 19 consecutive games and by all accounts had a really solid first season. The Jaguars need him to take a big step forward in the fall to get their offensive line to its next level of performance. Kansas City's Creed Humphrey and Philadelphia's Jason Kelce are elite in the middle of their team's offensive lines, the two best offensive lines in the NFL, and those are the teams after which the Jags want to model their line. Kelce might be the NFL's best run-blocking center. Humphrey is so smart at getting the right protections called in the passing game; I'm not sure he made a mistake last week – and that's with an injured Patrick Mahomes and a backup on the field. Fortner is more than smart enough to play the position; the chance to return to the same system with the same coach and same teammates will only enhance his abilities. He needs to get into the weight room and get stronger after struggling at times this season, but you expect that from rookies. He has the chance to develop into a top performer. If he does, the Jaguars will get to their next level much quicker.