JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' linebacker position in this look at the '18 offseason
2017 starters: Telvin Smith, Paul Posluszny, Myles Jack.
2017 reserves: Lerentee McCray, Blair Brown, Deon King, Donald Payne.
2017 at a glance: This was a strong season for this group, with Smith continuing to emerge as one of the league's top 4-3, "off-the-ball" outside linebackers – and at last receiving that recognition his performance long has merited. Smith, who finished the season with three interceptions, five passes defensed and a career-high three touchdowns, was named second-team Associated Press All-Pro and made his first Pro Bowl appearance. Jack in his first season as a full-time player adjusted to play-calling duties, getting more comfortable throughout the season. Posluszny adapted to a smaller role, starting at middle linebacker but coming off the field in favor of Jack and Smith in nickel situations. Like the entire Jaguars defense, this area remained remarkably healthy in 2017; Smith's two games missed with a concussion in early December marked the only games missed by a Jaguars defensive starter this past season.
Offseason storyline:A major focus in this area in the coming weeks will be Posluszny's future. Long one of the team's most reliable players and a team leader, Posluszny is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 14 – and his future with the team is very much uncertain. He remains an effective player, particularly against the run, but he said during the season he had more trouble adjusting to his part-time role than he anticipated. McCray, who played mostly on special teams, also is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. The Jaguars' offseason focus here likely will depend on whether or not Posluszny returns. If he does not, the team must decide whether to move Brown – who started two games as a rookie – into the starting lineup, or draft or sign a less-high-profile player than Posluszny to play alongside Jack and Smith.
Free agents as of March 14: Posluszny, McCray, Payne (restricted free agent).
Oehser analysis:As strong as the Jaguars' linebackers were in 2017, the guess here is the group only will get stronger in 2018. That's because of the rapid development late in the season of Jack, who played very well much of the season and then raised his playmaking to a different level in the postseason. His interception early in a Divisional Playoff victory over Pittsburgh changed the game's momentum. While his strip-sack and fumble recovery in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game will be remembered by Jaguars fans for a premature whistle that prevented Jack from scoring what could have been a game-clinching touchdown, what shouldn't be forgotten was the athleticism and instincts that allowed Jack to make the play. Smith had a breakout season in 2017 that appears to have established him in the eyes of league observers as one of the best at his position. The guess here is Jack could turn in a similar season in '18, something that would make him a core player on the defense and perhaps one of the league's brighter young stars.
Sexton analysis: The strength of the Jaguars' linebackers is well-known. Smith played in the Pro Bowl in 2017, earning second-team Associated Press All-Pro honors. He was exceptional, exciting and everything about him and his new contract says he will be again in 2018. Jack didn't make as many big plays as Smith, but that's kind of like saying Kevin Durant doesn't score as many points as Stephen Curry; Jack is bigger than Smith, which opponents felt when he arrived on scene – and if his 75-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown in which he outran the entire Jets offense didn't tell you how good he could be … then his incredible finger-tip, toe-tapping sideline interception in Pittsburgh in the playoffs should have. The Jaguars have two excellent linebackers. The question is whether Posluszny will return after a situational season for him. Poz can still run and hit; if he hits free agency, he will have a job. But the presence of Smith and Jack means his role – which means his earning potential – will be limited. I can't imagine the Jaguars not wanting him back at the right price. Can the two sides find common ground for a player who is beloved in Jacksonville? Beyond that you have rookie Blair Brown, who started two games when Smith was down in December and earned praise from Head Coach Doug Marrone for his progress. Special teams considerations should add a linebacker or maybe two this off-season, but the corps is well positioned for 2018 and beyond.