JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars are forced to proceed without linebacker Telvin Smith, who announced Thursday that he was not going to play in 2019 to take time off to tend to his family and his health.
The team has had no contract with Smith since the 2018 season ended, so there are still several questions about his mindset, motivation and reasoning. However, there are some other questions about the situation that can be answered:
How does this affect the Jaguars’ salary cap?
Smith, 28, was due to make $9.75 million this season and would have counted $12.56 million against the salary cap. He had a clause in his contract that guaranteed $5 million of his salary on the third day of the 2019 league year, but that guarantee is voided if he does not play this season.
However, Smith’s prorated signing bonus amount of $2.81 million will count against the salary cap this season even if he does not play.
What will the Jaguars do at weakside linebacker?
Even though Smith did not have a great season in 2018 despite setting a career high with 134 tackles, he’s a significant part of the defense. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Smith has more solo tackles than any NFL player since he entered the league in 2014. He also has nine interceptions and three defensive touchdowns and has missed just four games (all because of injury) in five seasons.
However, the Jaguars are better equipped to overcome his loss than that of five other defensive starters -- cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell, and nose tackle Marcell Dareus -- because of their work to upgrade the depth at linebacker since the 2018 season ended.
The Jaguars signed middle linebacker Jake Ryan in March as depth behind Myles Jack. Ryan racked up 160 tackles in 2016-17 in Green Bay and was slated to start alongside Blake Martinez in the Packers’ 3-4 defense before suffering a torn ACL early in training camp last year. He should be fully recovered in time for the season, and the Jaguars could start him in the middle and move Jack to weakside linebacker.
Jack is fast and athletic and is at his best when he’s flying around, which would make him a natural fit on the weak side. He’s more disciplined than Smith in terms of freelancing as well, and that was something that hurt the Jaguars’ defense last season.
The Jaguars were not happy with their depth behind Smith, Jack and strongside linebacker Leon Jacobs last season and signed five other linebackers in the past month in addition to Ryan: Ramik Wilson, D.J. Alexander, Joe Giles-Harris, Najee Goode and James Onwualu. Wilson is an inside linebacker with 21 starts; the others are mainly special-teams players who now get a chance to compete for playing time.
A wild card is Quincy Williams, a raw player from Murray State whom Jacksonville selected in the third round of last month's NFL draft. The Jaguars loved his speed and physical play and took him in the third round because they didn’t have a fourth-round pick and didn't think he would be around in the fifth, but he’s a bit of a project.
Are there any free-agent linebackers the team could sign?
There are players available and the Jaguars do have approximately $10 million more in cap space without having to pay Smith, but they'll take a wait-and-see approach. If moving Jack to the weakside isn’t feasible because of issues at middle linebacker and none of the other linebackers impresses enough to get the job, the team could mine veteran cuts either after June 1 or closer to the season.
The best of the currently available is likely former Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, who was cut in March with two years remaining on a four-year, $50 million contract. However, Collins might be too costly unless he would be willing to take a one-year, prove-it deal for less money. Collins, 29, also might be willing to wait for better offers or for a Super Bowl contender to show interest.
Another player to watch would be Sam Acho. The 30-year-old is coming off a torn pectoral muscle, but he was regarded as a locker-room leader during the past four seasons in Chicago.
Would the Jaguars welcome Smith back in 2020?
First of all, let's assume Smith comes to terms with his personal issue and he's able and willing to return. If that's the case, the answer is ... maybe.
If Smith were put on the commissioner's exempt list, his contract would pause for a year and pick up in 2020. That means he'd count $12.56 million against the cap, and that could be an issue for the Jaguars because there could potentially be big figures on the cap from Ramsey and Ngakoue if they get new deals. Campbell ($17.5 million) is in line for another expensive contract if he again plays at an elite level and the team decides to keep him. Plus, quarterback Nick Foles ($22.15 million), guard Andrew Norwell ($14.5 million) and Bouye ($15.5 million) have high numbers, too.
If Williams develops into the player the Jaguars believe he can be -- or any of the other recently signed linebackers earns a key role -- they could decide to go forward with another player at weakside linebacker at a much cheaper salary and cap hit. However, there's also no guarantee Jack will be back in 2020 -- he's on the final year of his rookie deal -- but if he plays well at weakside linebacker and re-signs, then there's really no role for Smith at the salary he would be due.
If the linebacker depth continues to be an issue the way it has been the past several seasons, Williams doesn't develop as quickly as the team hopes and the Jaguars decide not to re-sign Jack, Smith should be able to get his old job back, though it wouldn't be out of the question for the team to ask him to redo his contract for cap purposes.