JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton both offer three quick thoughts on the Jaguars as they prepare to play the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., Sunday …
1.We won't know what Minshew Mania means this season, so just enjoy it. Gardner Minshew II is starting again. And winning. That means the mania around the Jaguars' rookie quarterback is back, too. What does that mean for future? We realistically won't know until after Jaguars Owner Shad Khan decides the organization's future structure. Veteran Nick Foles remains a viable option for next season and the Jaguars' position in the 2020 NFL Draft could make an available quarterback too tempting to pass. Impressive, winning performances in the final two regular-season games would enhance Minshew's status, but it won't likely make him the guaranteed 2020 Week 1 starter. And you know what? That's OK. Minshew remains a remarkable story, and he will be in the conversation at quarterback for the Jaguars next season – even if the result of that conversation remains a mystery. Advice for Minshew Maniacs: Don't worry about next season yet. Enjoy the next two starts and have fun. Because he's absolutely a lot of fun.
2.Good for Calais Campbell, but … The good news for the Jaguars this week was defensive end Calais Campbell being named to a fifth career Pro Bowl, his third such honor in three seasons since joining the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent in 2017. While Campbell always is deserving, the downside of the 2020 Pro Bowl selection was multiple deserving Jaguars players – particularly edge defenders Josh Allen and Yannick Ngakoue – were not named to the game. Allen and Ngakoue both were as – and perhaps more – deserving than Campbell this season and would have fared better in the Pro Bowl process had it not been for the team's record. The same goes for: kicker Josh Lambo, punter Logan Cooke, running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver DJ Chark Jr. All likely could have made the game it not for the five-game second-half losing streak that wrecked the Jaguars' season. Such is the reality of 5-9.
3.Speaking of that list … The players mentioned above? The ones who narrowly missed the Pro Bowl? That's a good place to start when figuring the franchise's future core. It was appropriate that both Chark and Allen were recognized as Pro Bowl alternates, because those may be the best players on offense and defense respectively as the Jaguars move forward. Allen has a chance to be one of the NFL's best defensive players – and it's a good fortune for the Jaguars he plays the defense's most-impactful position. It's hard to find dominant pass rushers and the Jaguars appear to have found one. It's also hard to find No. 1 receivers, and Chark has shown signs of being such a player this season. If the offense improves next offseason – i.e., adds a tight end and improves the running game – Chark should continue to emerge. Ngakoue and Fournette also figure to return, though it remains to be seen if Ngakoue will be under the franchise tag or on a long-term deal. Add right tackle Jawaan Taylor to the list and you have five young players who should be strong for this franchise for at least two more seasons. The thought here is that players such as linebackers Myles Jack and Leon Jacobs, wide receiver Dede Westbrook and center Brandon Linder also will remain or become front-line players. Are there areas where the Jaguars must improve? Yes. But the aforementioned appear to have bright futures, and there's a foundation in that list.
1.The Jaguars should be able to stop the run in Atlanta. Falcons running back Devonta Freeman is a big-time back, but he isn't having a big season. He is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry with one touchdown – and has rushed for more than 80 yards in just three of 14 starts in 2019. Any hope the Jaguars have of winning for the second consecutive Sunday rests on their ability to keep Freeman contained with six men up front in order to free another defender to reign in wide receiver Julio Jones. The Jaguars did a nice job last week on Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, who is having a much better season than Freeman and who plays behind a stronger-run blocking line. That means it's not a reach to suggest the Jaguars can get the job done Sunday. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash has talked a lot this season about getting his guys to spots where they would have the right angles on the running backs, so he and his staff are going to have to have that covered this week. It's up to the defenders to make every tackle. If you miss this guy, he can make you look slow and silly.
2.To that end, keep your eye on Leon Jacobs. Jacobs was credited for eight tackles last Sunday in Oakland, but to my eye he had more like 18. The second-year linebacker has the size – and has enough suddenness and speed – to be an impact player for the future. Besides his run-stopping skills, he has shown plenty of pass-rush ability in recent weeks and has upside in coverage. Jacobs, a seventh-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, is one of those under-the-radar guys who has quietly put together a good season – despite a foot injury in October that slowed him for several weeks. When the Jaguars begin to rebuild their defense next spring, they can focus on a big body up front and help for the secondary. Jacobs looks like a guy they can count on in-between.
3.I know everyone loves Minshew Magic … but how about the Jaguars score a few touchdowns in the first half instead of settling on field goals? In their last six games, three started by Foles, the Jaguars have managed five first-half field goals and just one touchdown. In his last three starts, Minshew has three of those field goals. If Minshew is the franchise-caliber quarterback so many folks want him to be, it can't all be come-from-behind heroics. At some point he must stake his team to a lead and let the defense get after the guy in the other jersey. It's obviously not all on him, but he's the guy who got the headlines when they won last week so it's on him. Great quarterbacks play hero enough to remind us they're capable, but Minshew must find a way to get into the end zone and build a lead more often.