NFL News & Analysis

Jacksonville Jaguars 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Dec 20, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II (15) huddles the offense during the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Jacksonville Jaguars will enter the 2021 season with a new coaching staff across the board, headed by Urban Meyer making his NFL debut at the helm. The Jaguars are set up for an eventful offseason in the player personnel department, as well. Jacksonville has the most cap space of any team in the league to go along with four top-50 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, including the first overall pick that is expected to net Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

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It may be too much to expect a competitive team as early as next season, but with the right moves, the Jaguars should be on the right path toward making it back to the postseason in the coming years.  

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $82,022,150 (most in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 1, 25, 33, 45, 65, 97, 121, 129, 154, 193, 214

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB James Robinson 29 / 70 $0.8 million
WR D.J. Chark Jr. 58 / 127 $2.5 million
WR Laviska Shenault Jr. 56 / 127 $1.7 million
WR ?
TE ?
LT ?
LG Andrew Norwell 10 / 39 $15.0 million
C Brandon Linder 4 / 37 $8.6 million
RG AJ Cann 11 / 40 $6.3 million
RT Jawaan Taylor 35 / 38 $2.1 million

The quarterback spot is left blank, but we all know it will be Clemson's Trevor Lawrence filling that role by April 29. That's the prize for finishing with a 1-15 record this past season. 

Despite the Jaguars' lack of success in 2020, their offense isn't completely devoid of talent. They have several promising young players at the running back and wide receiver positions in Robinson, Chark and Shenault. Jacksonville could still use some additional receiving threats at both wide receiver and tight end, though. Look for them to be players for big-name free agents at each of those positions. 

The Jaguars' interior offensive line is coming off a fairly productive season, but there are questions at the tackle position. Taylor took a step back at right tackle after a solid showing as a rookie in 2019, and left tackle Cam Robinson is set to enter free agency following four years with the team. Jacksonville should be looking to improve at the position. Robinson earned a career-high 61.8 PFF grade last season.  

What are realistic expectations for Trevor Lawrence as a rookie?

We'll talk here as if Lawrence is already on the Jaguars roster because it’s difficult to see a scenario where Jacksonville passes on him. 

It's no secret why Lawrence has been slotted to go first overall for so long. He is as good of a quarterback prospect to come out of the collegiate ranks in some time. As his bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “We’ve seen more accurate QB prospects in seven years of doing this, but we haven’t seen a more complete one.” From the physical traits, such as athleticism and arm strength, to the mental ones, such as processing and feel in the pocket, Lawrence has it all.   

That said, it is still difficult for rookie quarterbacks to find immediate success on bad teams. The Jaguars are in position to add talent to their roster around Lawrence through both the draft and free agency, but there are going to be a lot of new faces along with an entirely new coaching staff. A similarly highly touted quarterback prospect in Andrew Luck earned just a 66.7 PFF grade as a rookie in 2012. 

It would be a success for Jacksonville if Lawrence finished the season among the top half of quarterbacks in PFF grade, something he is certainly capable of. A top-10 quarterback season isn’t entirely out of the question. 

Are the Jaguars in a good position to replace Cam Robinson at left tackle?

In short, yes. It would be hard for a team to be better positioned to land a left tackle than the Jaguars are this offseason. Not only do they have the cap space to chase a top name like Trent Williams or proven veterans Russell Okung and Alejandro Villanueva, but they also have three draft selections from Picks 25 to 45. 

Typically, tackles that teams will feel comfortable with as starters in Year 1 are off the board by the time Jacksonville’s 25th overall pick rolls around. That isn’t necessarily the case this year, as there could be quality options at each of Picks 25, 33 and 45. The Jaguars also have the draft capital to jump up and target a player like Christian Darrisaw should they value him and he slides within range. 

Having a hole at starting left tackle isn’t ideal, but Jacksonville is better suited than most teams to fill it this offseason.  

Is Laviska Shenault Jr. primed for a big second season?

Last February, I wrote that Shenault’s versatility should cement him as a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming out of Colorado, Shenault had experience in a screen- and slot-heavy role (2018) and a more traditional role out wide (2019). He performed admirably in both, delivering PFF grades of 88.2 and 86.3, respectively. Concerns about his injury history led to him sliding into the second round, and the Jaguars capitalized on that value. 

Jacksonville gave him an opportunity to show what he could do outside as a rookie in 2020. Shenault ran just 27% of his routes from the slot last season, and he delivered a solid rookie campaign as the team’s No. 3 target, behind Keelan Cole and D.J. Chark. Most noteworthy from that season was Shenault’s ability to create in the open field. His 16 forced missed tackles after the catch in 2020 — a statistic he dominated while at Colorado — ranked eighth among all wide receivers, and he did it on just 58 receptions.

Considering Shenault was relatively raw as a route-runner coming out of college, he should continue to show signs of improvement next season. He will also get a nice bump at quarterback, making a 2021 breakout a real possibility. 

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Trevor Lawrence 

Don’t overthink it. This is the best and only option for the Jaguars. 

Wide receiver: Chris Godwin, Keelan Cole, Elijah Moore

Cole was the Jaguars' primary slot wide receiver in 2020, running 69.3% of his routes inside. No one else on the team cleared 30%. So if Jacksonville doesn’t bring Cole back, they should be looking to add someone with a slot skill set to replace him. 

Of the high-end receivers in the free agent market this offseason, Godwin best fits that bill. He can win both inside and outside, but he’s shown himself to be particularly effective from the slot in recent years. Godwin’s 1.97 yards per route run from the slot over the past three seasons rank fourth in the league among receivers with at least 500 routes, behind only Tyreek Hill, Cooper Kupp and Adam Thielen. He would instantly step in and give the Jaguars an impressive (and young) receiving corps for Trevor Lawrence

Moore is an option in the draft who Jacksonville could target late in the first round or early in the second. His player comp in the PFF Draft Guide is “faster Cole Beasley” — not bad territory to be in. Moore is coming off a monstrous year this past season with Ole Miss, and he has the speed, quicks, toughness and hands necessary to contribute right away inside.  

Tight end: Jonnu Smith, Pat Freiermuth

The reports that Jacksonville is expected to decline Tyler Eifert’s option in 2021 means the team will be looking for a starting tight end this offseason. The Jaguars have plenty of familiarity with what Smith can do after four seasons in Tennessee. He’s an explosive athlete who has made his living after the catch but never quite expanded into a featured role at the position while with the Titans. Still, Smith has PFF receiving grades of 77.0 or higher in each of the past two years. 

Freiermuth has fallen a bit under the radar with the deserved attention paid to Kyle Pitts in the 2021 tight end class, but there is plenty to like with the Penn State tight end’s game, as well. He projects as a much better blocker than what Smith brings to the table, and his size and physicality play as a receiver over the middle of the field.      

Tackle: Trent Williams, Samuel Cosmi

While there are veteran left tackles who could come in and start for the Jaguars in 2021 — Cam Robinson included — there is no player who could give them Williams' level of play in the short term. After a year away from the game in 2019, Williams came back with the San Francisco 49ers in 2020 and showed he is still very much in the conversation for the NFL's best left tackle. He posted a 91.9 overall grade that led all players at the position. There is a chance his age and injury history will suppress his contract, at which point he would offer tremendous value for a team with the cap space that Jacksonville has. 

Cosmi would be a much more cost-effective option should Jacksonville choose to prioritize other positions in free agency. The Texas product has three starting seasons of high-end production on his resume at the college level, improving his PFF grade from 79.7 in 2018 to 83.9 in 2019 and 90.8 across eight games this past season. Cosmi’s play in pass protection, specifically, gives reason for confidence as he moves on to the NFL. He earned an 82.8 pass-blocking grade in his first season, and that only improved in the two years since.

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Doug Costin 50 / 126 $0.8 million
DI Davon Hamilton 96 / 126 $1.1 million
DI ?
EDGE Josh Allen 32 / 109 $6.2 million
EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson 104 / 109 $3.0 million
LB Myles Jack 11 / 83 $12.2 million
LB Joe Schobert 45 / 83 $9.9 million
CB CJ Henderson 74 / 121 $4.7 million
CB ?
CB ?
S Jarrod Wilson 46 / 94 $2.8 million
S ?

New Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen has already made it clear that he wants this defense to be multiple. 

Per Big Cat Country’s Demetrius Harvey, Cullen said after his hiring, “We are still evaluating our current roster and I’ve been [in the NFL] for 14 years — eight years we were a 4-3 scheme and six years we were a 3-4 scheme when we were multiple. It is all tailored to the personnel that you have, and in both schemes, you have the flexibility to do both.” With that in mind, I went with a base 3-4 defense above, but expect the Jaguars to be versatile in the looks they show opposing offenses. 

While they could look at edge rusher Matthew Judon from Cullen’s former team, I would expect Jacksonville wants to feature both Allen and Chaisson in large roles next season. The interior defensive line is the more glaring need. Taven Bryan could be a cap casualty following an underwhelming 2020 season, and there isn’t much proven depth in the group overall. 

The need along the defensive line pales in comparison to the secondary, though. The Jaguars should be attempting to find two starting cornerbacks to pair with Henderson and at least one safety to slot in next to Wilson. Andrew Wingard flashed with a 68.8 PFF grade in limited action in 2020, but it’s hard to imagine that Jacksonville doesn’t want to make an impact signing from a deep group of free agent safeties. 

Can 2020 first-round picks C.J. Henderson and K’Lavon Chaisson take a step forward in their second season?

Both Henderson and Chaisson showed flashes of why Jacksonville selected them in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, but neither put forth a complete year as rookies. 

For Chaisson, the Jaguars can look for him to build on his improved play towards the end of the year as a pass rusher. He recorded at least three pressures in each of his final five games after failing to hit that mark in any of his first 11 performances. The switch to a primarily 3-4 defense under Cullen could play to his strengths given that Chaisson was a stand-up outside linebacker at LSU. He will turn just 22 in July, so there is still plenty of room for development. 

A groin injury ultimately shut down Henderson’s rookie season after just eight games played, but the former Florida Gator did provide reason for optimism early on. He came out of the gate strong with three pass breakups and one interception against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, but Henderson had his share of troubles in coverage, as well. He has the athletic traits needed to have success as a man coverage cornerback. Jacksonville just needs him to deliver with more consistency in 2021.  

Does it make sense for the Jaguars to go big on a deep free agent defensive back class?

If there was ever a situation for a team to attack a need in free agency, this is it for the Jaguars. Outside of Henderson, there truly isn’t any defensive back under contract in Jacksonville who sticks out as an obvious candidate to build around. It makes some sense to keep Wilson in a starting role at safety after two solid seasons, but even then, his presence shouldn’t keep the Jaguars from trying to add talent at the position. 

This is a deep free agent safety class. Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, Marcus Williams, John Johnson III and Marcus Maye are all potential Pro Bowl safeties in the right defense. There is plenty of talent in the cornerback free agent pool, as well. That is especially true in the slot, where the league continues to undervalue the position given that it has become a full-time starting role in today’s NFL. 

The Jaguars should be looking to find at least two starters in the secondary through free agency this offseason. 

Can Charlie Strong get the most out of Myles Jack and Joe Schobert?

Per Sports Illustrated’s John Shipley, new Jacksonville inside linebackers coach and assistant head coach Charlie Strong said of Jack and Schobert in his introductory press conference, “You’re looking at two ‘backers that are kind of in the prime of their career because the length of time that they have been in the NFL, but guys that can make plays and guys that will become the staple of our defense. If you’re not good at linebacker, then you really don’t have much of a chance to play really good defense.”

Those two linebackers are currently the second- and third-most expensive players on the Jaguars' roster for next season. Jack is set to earn $12.2 million, while Schobert’s 2021 cap hit sits at $9.9 million, according to Over the Cap. Given that, Jacksonville should be getting high-level play out of that duo. Both are talented, athletic linebackers who can hold their own in coverage, though it was an area where Schobert struggled in 2020 after recording coverage grades of 87.7 and 67.6 in his final two years with the Cleveland Browns

Strong certainly brings plenty of experience to the table, with nearly 40 years as a coach, including multiple head-coaching stops at the college level. His ability to get the most from Jack and Schobert will go a long way toward Jacksonville’s success as a defense moving forward.

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Leonard Williams, Lawrence Guy 

I expect defensive coordinator Joe Cullen will value interior defensive linemen who are stout against the run and capable of eating blocks. Those kinds of players allow linebackers to flow to the football. The Jaguars have some players who could fit that mold in Davon Hamilton and Doug Costin, but they could also use someone capable of disrupting as a pass rusher inside. 

Williams fits that bill. He is the top target for any team looking for interior defensive line help after a strong 2020 season with the New York Giants. Williams has recorded PFF run-defense grades above 70.0 in each of his six NFL seasons, but he can also cause trouble as a pass rusher. His 62 quarterback pressures in 2020 were a career-high, tying for third-most among all interior defenders — behind only Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Donald

Guy will certainly come cheaper than Williams, but he still fits the run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end mold that Jacksonville could be looking for. Across time with both the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, Guy has recorded at least a 65.0 run-defense grade in six straight seasons, flashing elite play in 2016 (84.8) and 2018 (90.4). He would be a solid veteran addition to a young group.

Cornerback: William Jackson III, Jaycee Horn

We continue fitting together top free agents at their respective positions and the Jaguars with Jackson. The No. 16 player overall in PFF’s free agency rankings, Jackson bounced back well in 2020 from a down 2019 season. He has flashed elite play at times but hasn’t quite taken the jump to become a top-tier cornerback in the NFL. Still, he has shown himself to be a capable No. 1 option outside in his time with Cincinnati, and he would give the Jaguars a chance to have a strong duo should Henderson continue to progress.

Horn is a potential target toward the back end of the first round who has the physicality and mindset needed to succeed as a press-man cornerback in the NFL. Few teams have run more man coverage over the past several seasons than Cullen’s former team in Baltimore, and if he wants to carry that over into Jacksonville, then Horn makes a lot of sense.   

Safety: John Johnson III, Elijah Molden

The credit for the Rams' defensive performance in 2020 first goes to names like Brandon Staley, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but Johnson doesn’t lag far behind them in the value he provided last season. He’s capable of playing a versatile role across box and deep responsibilities, extending to the slot a fair amount in 2020. Outside of a 2019 season affected by injury, Johnson has earned PFF grades of 80.0 or higher in each of his past three seasons. It would be a big addition at safety for a Jacksonville defense that needs a difference-maker there. 

Molden’s floor seems to be a playmaking, missile-seeking slot cornerback. That’s an underappreciated starter in today’s NFL with base defensive looks all but dead. Molden becoming a versatile chess piece capable of playing multiple positions in the secondary is very much in the range of outcomes, as well. On a recent 2 for 1 Drafts podcast, that was the role Molden himself said he envisions playing at the next level. He is coming off two seasons with PFF grades above 85.0 at Washington.  

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