Jaguars are sneaky playoff contenders (seriously)

Jaguars' defense key to season success (1:53)

Mike Clay explains why talent across the defensive board for the Jaguars, along with an 'easy' schedule, can make for a successful season. (1:53)

Could 2017 finally be the year the Jacksonville Jaguars return to the playoffs?

Recent history certainly doesn't provide much reason for optimism. The Jags struggled to a 3-13 record last year and have finished third or fourth in the AFC South in each of the past six seasons. The last time they were in the playoffs was 2007 and they've won only one playoff game since 2000.

So, yeah, not ideal.

Of course, history doesn't necessarily matter much when we're evaluating each team's current roster and future prospects. This is a franchise on the upswing and -- fueled by the three pieces of evidence outlined below -- ready for a run at a wild-card spot in 2017.

The defense is loaded

If you believe that defense wins championships, you'd be hard-pressed not to be on the Jaguars' bandwagon.

Jacksonville's defense was already pretty good last year, giving up only 6.59 yards per pass attempt (third best in the league) and 3.82 yards per carry (sixth best). The Jaguars gave up 5,157 yards -- the sixth fewest -- but still surrendered 400 points (eighth most). But why the discrepancy?

A negative-16 turnover margin led to an average starting field position on the opponent's 31.6-yard line. Only the San Diego Chargers' defense was put in a worse position at the 31.8-yard line. The Jaguars did a poor job generating turnovers, ranking 31st in the league with 13, but otherwise played extremely efficient defense.

That success would be reason enough for some optimism this year, but the Jaguars' offseason signings of three of the top defensive free agents -- Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church -- takes it to the next level.

Campbell was one of the league's most dominant interior defensive lineman during his nine-year stint in Arizona and still remains at the top of his game at age 30. He joins Malik Jackson, one of Jacksonville's successful free-agent acquisitions last year, to form what is arguably the NFL's best set of defensive tackles.

With Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars also sport one of the best cornerback duos. Ramsey was outstanding after being selected fifth overall in the 2016 draft. He was on the field for 97 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season, often lined up opposite the opponent's top wide receiver. He managed only two interceptions but was terrific in coverage and limited the opposition to a 54.3 percent catch rate. Bouye enjoyed a breakout season with Houston and, though he wasn't asked to shadow much, he was just as dominant as Ramsey in coverage. Bouye picked off six passes and gave up a 56.4 catch rate. The Jags also have a pretty good slot corner in 2014 fourth-round pick Aaron Colvin.

Church, who registered 89 tackles on 695 snaps for Dallas last year, joins incumbent free safety Tashaun Gipson to form a solid one-two punch at safety.

Jacksonville's switch away from Gus Bradley's defense and to Todd Wash's version of the 4-3 has led to a bit of a shakeup at linebacker. Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny were outstanding while each playing just over 1,000 snaps last season. Smith will sustain a large role on the weak side, but 32-year-old Posluszny will defer a chunk of his workload to 2016 second-round pick Myles Jack. Jack was originally ticketed to take over at middle linebacker, but recently moved back to the strong side.

The biggest question mark on the defensive side is the team's group of pass-rushers. Granted, Campbell might get some work on the edge on early downs, but youngsters Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. will be asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting in nickel situations. Ngakoue, a third-round pick in 2016, generated eight sacks but struggled with missed tackles and received Pro Football Focus' worst grade in run defense among edge rushers last year. Fowler was the third overall pick in 2015 but sat out his rookie year because of a torn ACL. He managed four sacks over 541 snaps in his first full pro season. With little depth at the position, the team's pass rush ultimately hinges on a pair of unproven youngsters.

There's a ton to like about this unit. It's stacked with talent on all three levels, and if high-pedigree prospects Ngakoue, Fowler and Jack pan out, this defense has a shot to go from very good to elite in a hurry.

A new-look offense will help

As this team demonstrated last year, having a quality defense can take a team only so far. The offense has to cooperate. And the Jaguars have taken some measures to minimize the offense's effect on the game -- or, to put it another way, minimize Blake Bortles' effect on the game.

When asked how many times he'd like Bortles to throw the ball each week, head coach Doug Marrone said zero. That's an understandable response when you consider Bortles ranks seventh in pass attempts (1,706), but fifth or worse in completion percentage (58.8 percent), yards per attempt (6.59) and interceptions (51) since entering the league in 2014.

A run-heavy game plan makes sense for a team built around defense and that selected Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 overall pick in April's draft. The former LSU star is the closest thing to "this year's Ezekiel Elliott" in that he'll be asked to handle a massive workload in a run-first offense. While Fournette won't benefit from Dallas' outstanding offensive line, the Brandon Linder-led unit in Jacksonville is serviceable.

The Jaguars are hoping that, by leaning on the running game and putting less on the arm of Bortles, the quarterback's efficiency will improve. It's not inconceivable, especially with the talented trio of Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee available as a targets. In some ways, the Jaguars are attempting to copy the division rival Houston Texans, who have gone 9-7 in each of the past three seasons thanks to a dominant defense and despite a run-heavy, low-scoring, quarterback-deficient offense. It just might work.

The schedule is light

At least on a macro level, the final piece to the Jaguars' potential 2017 emergence is their schedule.

My model, which determines strength of schedule based on each team's current roster -- not last year's record -- indicates Jacksonville has the league's third-easiest schedule this season.

The rest of the AFC South will also benefit from a slate that includes the AFC North and NFC West, though unique games against Kansas City and New England make life a bit tougher on the defending division champions in Houston. Jacksonville's unique games are against the Jets and Chargers.

The bottom line

I have the Jaguars projected for 8.2 wins and a plus-six scoring differential this season. That's not enough to keep up with the Titans, who I have projected at 9.3 wins to win the AFC South crown. However, Jacksonville's outlook is enough to put them with the likes of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Houston and the entire AFC West as teams who have a viable shot to seize a wild-card berth in 2017.