JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' defensive end position in this look at the '18 offseason
Position: Defensive end.
2017 starters: Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell.
2017 reserves:Dante Fowler Jr., Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips.
2017 at a glance:The Jaguars hardly could have expected more from the end position this past season than they received. Not only did Campbell have a career season after signing as an unrestricted free agent in the 2017 offseason, Ngakoue continued to emerge as one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL – and Fowler was a force in nickel situations. Campbell, who signed as an unrestricted free agent from Arizona, registered a career-high and franchise record 14.5 sacks with 14 tackles for loss and was the runner-up for Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. Campbell and Ngakoue both were named to the Pro Bowl, with Ngakoue named to the game as an alternate in his second NFL season after registering a career-high 12 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Fowler played 45 percent of the team's plays, registering seven tackles for loss and a career-high eight sacks in the regular season; he also had two sacks and two tackles for loss in the postseason.
Offseason storyline:This likely will be among the Jaguars' quietest areas this offseason. Campbell, Smoot, Ngakoue and Fowler are all under contract for the long-term, though the team does have a decision forthcoming on Fowler's fifth-year option for the 2019 season. The team must decide whether to exercise that option by May 3. If they exercise it, they control his rights through 2019. If they don't, he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2019 unless he re-signs with the Jaguars before then.
Free agents as of March 14:None.
Oehser analysis:This was among the team's strongest areas in 2017 – and that appears likely to be the case in 2018. Campbell was a key to the defense on and off the field, becoming the first defensive end in franchise history named first-team All-Pro and making his third Pro Bowl; he also provided leadership for a team that ranked among the NFL's best defenses through the entire season. Ngakoue didn't receive the postseason accolades that Campbell earned, but forget honors: Ngakoue was key to the team's pass rush and appears likely to be a core player for this defense for the foreseeable future. Fowler may not yet quite have fulfilled the expectations that come along with being the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, but his effort and playmaking ability makes him key to the defense. The team has reason to be optimistic about Smoot, who as a rookie quietly played 16 solid games and has the look of a long-time contributor and possible future starter.
Sexton analysis: We knew the addition of Campbell a year ago would improve the pass rush, probably significantly. But we couldn't have said it would revolutionize it – and that might not be a strong enough adjective to describe what happened. Campbell was a revelation from Week 1 – when he set a franchise single-game record with four sacks in Houston – through December, when he set the franchise single-season record with 14.5. He wasn't just dominant; he was overpowering from his spot outside and didn't allow teams to slide their protection schemes toward Ngakoue and Fowler Jr. We knew those two were oozing potential; we saw it from both players in 2016. Who knew that Ngakoue would become the most prolific strip-sack end since Derrick Thomas? The second-year end registered 12 sacks, forcing six fumbles that led to five Jaguars defensive touchdowns. He was such a threat that teams started sliding toward him, allowing Campbell one-on-one action. Fowler added eight sacks and two more in the playoffs, when you could see all the traits that made him the third pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Fowler's athleticism is epic; pushed hard by Campbell and Ngakoue, he rushed the quarterback with a greater sense of purpose in his third season. Mix in Smoot, who provided quality depth in all 16 regular-season games and the playoffs, and you have the team's most talented position group. You wouldn't bother taking an end in the draft unless something entirely unexpected happened; he couldn't make your roster … this group is absolutely set for 2018.