JACKSONVILLE – They've been good at times, and they've been so-so at others.
That's a fair assessment of the 2017 Jaguars through four games, but here's what's undeniable at the '17 quarter pole: this team is vastly improved from last season – and three faces new to the roster are a major reason.
Those three faces were three of the team's most high-profile '17 offseason additions – a Top 5 draft selection and two high-profile free agents.
That's notable, because while teams logically expect big-time results from major financial or draft-day investments, NFL history is littered with rookies and undrafted free agents who are slow to make impact – or who never make an impact at all.
Recent Jaguars history is littered with those stories, too.
The '17 Jaguars are telling a different story. While the Jaguars have been so-so as often as they have been really good this season, they are 2-2. They're in first place in the AFC South. They are among a slew of AFC teams at 2-2 at the quarter pole.
They're right in this thing. Their destiny lies ahead.
These three newcomers are three major reasons:
1)Leonard Fournette, running back.It has taken just four games for the No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft to emerge as the Jaguars' most important player. The run offense works better with him in the game – and his presence helps the passing game not only when he catches the ball, but when opposing defenses are worrying about where he's lining up. The Jaguars as they enter the second quarter face two pressing issues with Fournette. One is preventing defenses from stacking against him; that largely will be about making a struggling passing game effective enough to force safeties off the line of scrimmage. The other issue is seemingly on every Jaguars observers' mind this week – i.e., how much work for Fournette is the right amount? His 28 touches – 24 carries and four receptions – Sunday flirted with being too many. But he has a touchdown in every game and he is so good that there are few plays where you don't want to play Fournette. It's a tricky balance.
2)Calais Campbell, defensive end.Campbell, who signed as an unrestricted free agent from Arizona, felt like the Jaguars' most-important free-agent signing in March. He still feels that way. He made immediate impact with four sacks in the regular-season opener against Houston, and is on pace for a career-high total with 5.5 sacks in four games. But Campbell's impact is far more than sacks. He also gets consistent pressure with a team-leading nine hurries and his presence has had a positive influence on the entire defense – on and off the field. His has had undeniable influence on the pass rush, which along with a lock-down secondary has defined the team through four games. The Jaguars registered 33 sacks last season and lead the NFL with 18 through four games this season. That pressure has helped them create 10 takeaways after they had 13 all of last season). This is a dangerous team when it has the lead. A major question entering the season was whether the addition of Campbell and improvement of ends Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. would be enough to make this a lock-down, end-the-game pass rush. That question no longer seems pertinent.
3)A.J.Bouye, cornerback.Jaguars second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey last week on O-Zone Live called Bouye the NFL's best cornerback. While it's hard to say Bouye – who signed with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent from Houston – indeed is better than his younger teammate, Ramsey's praise has merit. Bouye in two games has allowed a few big plays – most recently a 41-yarder to Robby Anderson of the Jets – but he leads the Jaguars with six passes defensed and is tied for second in the AFC with two interceptions. It's rare to have a corner on the level that Ramsey is reaching. It's even rarer to have a tandem on the level of Bouye and Ramsey. The Jaguars rank No. 1 in in the NFL against the pass, and their league-leading sacks numbers can be attributed at least in part to the play of Bouye/Ramsey and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson. It's often hard after the fact to justify dollars spent in NFL free agency. Looking at the Jaguars' defense thus far this season, it's easy to justify those spent on Campbell. It's just as easy with Bouye.