JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton examine the Jaguars' safety position in this look at the '18 offseason
2017 starters: Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson.
2017 reserves: Jarrod Wilson, Peyton Thompson.
Others:Jarrod Harper, Charlie Miller.
2017 at a glance: Church and Gipson didn't get the postseason accolades that Jaguars All-Pro cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey received, but the tandem was a major reason the team spent much of the season as one of the NFL's better pass defenses. Church, who signed with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent from Dallas in March, emerged as a veteran leader in the secondary and started 16 regular-season games with eight passes defensed, four interceptions and an interception return for a touchdown. Gipson, in his second season with the Jaguars after signing as an unrestricted free agent from Cleveland in the 2016 offseason, intercepted four passes with seven passes defensed while also starting 16 regular-season games. Wilson continued to be one of the team's most underrated overlooked reserves, proving reliable when playing in a backup role; he defended two passes while playing in place of an injured Gipson in the second half of the team's Divisional Playoff victory at Pittsburgh.
Offseason storyline:This figures to be a quiet area this offseason, with Thompson being the only unrestricted free agent among the top four players at the position. Safety and/or corner is a possible target late in the draft or in second-tier free agency, partly because the Jaguars figure to try to upgrade roster depth and special teams this offseason. The Jaguars spent big money on these areas the last two offseason when they acquired Church and Gipson; there's little reason to invest heavily in the front-line roles this offseason.
Free agents as of March 14: Thompson.
Oehser analysis:The Jaguars' safeties represented one of the team's most improved areas this past season – and were a major reason in 2017 for not only the effectiveness of the secondary but the effectiveness of the entire defense. Gipson and Church not only combined for eight interceptions, their awareness and knowledge of the defense was key for a defensive backfield that accounted for 18 of the team's franchise-record 21 interceptions. Don't underestimate the duo's ball awareness as a reason for the team's ability to force turnovers – and don't underestimate Gipson's importance to the defense; Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone talked on multiple occasions during the team's run to the AFC Championship Game about Gipson having played at a Pro Bowl level in '17. The team would appear likely to be able to retain Thompson at a reasonable free-agent offer if they choose to do so; if not, the team likely would address backup safety late in the draft or via second-tier free agency.
Sexton analysis: Church deserved more credit than he received for the play of the Jaguars' defense in 2017. The sage veteran was the wisdom and logic in a defensive backs room that could have easily succumbed to an overdose of youth and swagger; Church earned Ramsey's respect and the young player listened when he spoke. Church channeled the youth and swagger – and he, as much as anyone, led the way in the secondary. He made big plays at key moments, contributing interceptions and sacks along with 74 tackles. He was nearly always where he was supposed to be, and he was as dependable a performer as you could ask for in free agency – even during a season in which the defensive end (Calais Campbell) and cornerback (Bouye) you signed played at an All-Pro level. Gipson took a big step forward in his second season in Jacksonville, clearly embracing his centerfield role. His foot injury in the AFC Championship Game, an injury that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went after successfully in the fourth quarter, revealed how important he was to the cause in 2017. Thompson and Wilson were both special teams contributors and reliable replacements; both play for a reasonable salary, which means safety likely will be left alone this offseason.