JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Jaguars appear poised to take control of the AFC South for the next several seasons, mainly because of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the team’s offense.
But if they’re going to have a chance to make a deep playoff run -- and maybe a Super Bowl appearance -- the defense is going to have to make significant strides. The Jaguars held teams to 20.6 points per game but ranked 24th in yards per game and 28th in pass defense with just 35 sacks.
In a conference with Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, those numbers are likely not good enough.
Coach Doug Pederson is expecting that the defense will be better in 2023. Mostly because it will be Mike Caldwell’s second season as a defensive coordinator and the players’ second year in the system.
“I thought honestly [as a] first-time coordinator, he really improved as the season went along,” Pederson said. “One of the things I thought we did a nice job with was our personnel on defense, we kind of figured out where certain guys played and kept them in their spots, and they blossomed from there.
“For Mike, it’s the same thing. He’s like one of those first-year players. He’s going to learn from this season, he’s going to grow from it. He’s going to be better. Now he has a year of defense under his belt that he can go back and refine and retool.”
Now, the Jaguars have both added in free agency and re-signed depth players, but could still look to improve using the 2023 NFL draft or signing still-available free agents.
Here’s a look at the current defensive roster and whether each position group is set, needs some tweaking or needs more work ahead of the start of the 2023 season:
Defensive line -- Needs more work
The Jaguars finished 12th in run defense and signed DE Roy Robertson-Harris, who played his best football late in the season, to an extension and also bring back DT Folorunso Fatukasi, DT DaVon Hamilton and DE Adam Gotsis. Fatukasi was signed last spring to beef up the run defense but he had career lows in tackles (24) and tackles for loss (two). He has to raise his level of play in 2023 considering the Jaguars guaranteed him $20 million.
Improving the interior pass rush is a priority and there are free agents available that could help (notably Calais Campbell, who was a very successful interior rusher in his previous tenure with the Jaguars) but the Jaguars don’t have much salary cap space (roughly $10 million). Lineman Michael Dogbe and Henry Mondeaux were added as depth signings.
Edge rusher -- Needs more work
Getting more pressure on the quarterback is imperative if the Jaguars are going to have a chance in the quarterback-loaded AFC. The biggest issue is the Jaguars’ inability to close: They were tied for second in the NFL with 209 pressures (according to NFL Next Gen Stats) but were tied for 25th with 35 sacks. Josh Allen was fourth in the NFL (behind Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett and Micah Parsons) with 64 pressures but had just seven sacks. He is playing on a fifth-year option and needs a big season to earn an extension or the franchise tag, but he had his biggest success as a rookie in 2019 (10.5 sacks) while playing alongside Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue.
Travon Walker, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, was moved to outside linebacker after playing mainly on the defensive line at Georgia. He was raw as a pass-rusher and his production proved that: 3.5 sacks. The Jaguars are counting on marked improvement from him. Behind Allen and Walker are K’Lavon Chaisson (three career sacks), De’Shaan Dixon (who played in three games as an undrafted rookie last season) and Jordan Smith (who missed last season with a knee injury after playing in two games in 2021). The Jaguars will almost certainly use an upper-round pick on an edge rusher in the upcoming 2023 draft.
Linebacker -- Needs some tweaking
It is unlikely that the Jaguars will add anything at this position, but expect some improvement from the 2022 draft picks. Middle linebacker Foyesade Oluokun led the NFL in tackles for the second consecutive season. Devin Lloyd, whom the Jaguars traded back into the first round to select, got off to a good start but had trouble in coverage and getting out of position. He eventually got benched for third-round pick Chad Muma, who was more consistent. The Jaguars need Lloyd to settle in because they want to be able to move him a round and give him some pass-rush reps.
Shaquille Quarterman is good on special teams and a solid inside backup and he delivered one of the most important plays of the 2022 season when he forced Tennessee’s Derrick Henry to fumble in the Jaguars’ first victory in Nashville since 2013.
Cornerback –- Needs some tweaking
Tyson Campbell is one of the league’s top young corners and Darious Williams played better at the end of last season after the Jaguars moved him outside, which is his natural spot. He had been signed to play the nickel because Shaquill Griffin was the outside corner opposite Campbell, but Griffin missed 12 games with an injury. If the Jaguars are committed to keeping Williams outside then the focus should be on addressing the nickel spot. Tre Herndon, who manned the nickel spo last year after Williams moved outside and has been an outside starter in the past, just re-signed on a one-year deal.
Safety – Set
The top four players are all back: starters Rayshawn Jenkins and Andre Cisco and backups Andrew Wingard and Daniel Thomas. Jenkins was team’s defensive MVP last season after making two of the biggest plays: A 52-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime to beat the Dallas Cowboys and a sack and forced fumble that Allen returned for a touchdown to beat the Tennessee Titans in the regular-season finale. The Jaguars need to start thinking a year or two ahead, however, because Jenkins and Cisco are only under contract through 2024.