The Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t expected to contend for a title in the 2020 season. Instead. Jacksonville will use this year to properly evaluate 2019 sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew and see if he is their franchise quarterback.
Minshew is going to be behind the eight ball given the Jaguars’ situation. Jacksonville is playing the year with a lame duck head coach (Doug Marrone) and general manager (Dave Caldwell). The Jaguars hired Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator to assist Minshew’s development, but the second-year quarterback doesn’t have a lot of help given with the team’s pass catchers and offensive line.
This season could be rough for Minshew and the rebuilding Jaguars, but Jacksonville will get a good glimpse if Minshew can lead the franchise for years to come — and build future teams around him. In an AFC South controlled by Houston and Tennessee and with Indianapolis trying to make a playoff run as well, Jacksonville appears to be the odd team out as a competitor for the division title.
A rebuilding roster comes with plenty of position battles as the Jaguars arrive at training camp this week. Here’s a look at five training camp battles for Jaguars fans to keep an eye on.
1. Cam Robinson vs. Will Richardson (left tackle)
If Minshew is going to have any chance at succeeding in Jacksonville, his blind side needs to be protected. Is Robinson the right player to start again at left tackle? Robinson allowed 45 pressures last season, which was tied for sixth-most in the league (per Pro Football Focus) — and he missed two games. For the most part, Robinson has been underwhelming in his two full seasons as a starter in Jacksonville (he only played two games in 2018 due to a torn ACL).
The Jaguars didn’t make any massive upgrades on the offensive line, banking on Robinson being two full seasons removed from his ACL injury and living up to his status as the No. 34 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Robinson’s biggest problem was his inconsistency, but Marrone — a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach — seems to have faith in him.
Richardson rotated at right guard last season with A.J. Cann, and failed to win that job. His long frame (6-6, 303) is ideal for the tackle position, which he’ll get a look at during camp. Another year of experience in the NFL should help Richardson, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2018 draft.
Robinson is the clear frontrunner here, but Richardson will be the next man up if he struggles. Jacksonville’s offensive line is amongst the worst in the league, largely in part to the uncertainty at left tackle. The Jaguars need to get that straightened out.
2. Chris Conley vs. Laviska Shenault (outside WR, No. 3 WR)
Dede Westbrook and D.J. Chark are Jacksonville’s top two wideouts, but will the Jaguars go with an established veteran or their 2020 second-round pick as their No. 3 wide receiver? Westbrook will take the majority of the snaps in the slot, leaving Chark and either Conley or Shenault as the other outside wideout.
Conley had a career year in his first season in Jacksonville, setting career highs in catches (47), yards (775), and yards per catch (16.5). Based on that performance, it would appear logical Conley would get this spot.
Here’s the problem: Jacksonville’s offense wasn’t good in 2019 (26th in scoring) and Shenault has enormous potential as a big target on the outside. Shenault underwent surgery to repair a core muscle injury at the combine, adding on to the torn labrum in his shoulder (2018) and an inflammation of the pubic bone (2019) — which is why he fell to the second round in the first place.
Conley is also learning a new offense under Gruden, but he’ll get the first crack at being the team’s third receiver. Shenault will be right behind him the entire trip, ready to pass him once he gets a grasp of the offense. The Jaguars should eventually increase Shenault’s snaps and targets as the season presses on.
3. K’Lavon Chaisson vs. Lean Jacobs, Cassius Marsh (SAM linebacker)
Let’s envision Yannick Ngakoue showing up to camp and taking his spot as one of the two edge rushers (with 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen on the other side). Where will the Jaguars play Chaisson, the No. 20 overall pick in this year’s draft? Chaisson is as explosive as they come, but he needs to be able to stay on the field. There’s a chance for him to unseat Allen if Ngakoue does report to camp, but the Jaguars will have a spot for the versatile defender at strong-side linebacker.
Jacobs and Marsh are in a battle of their own for playing time, especially if Chaisson is moved to the line as a result of Ngakoue not reporting. With Chaisson starting at SAM, the Jaguars will have their three best pass rushers on the field at the same time.
With COVID-19 impacting Chaisson’s development, perhaps the Jaguars start the season with one of the veteran options in Jacobs or Marsh. Jacobs has played a limited role at SAM, only entering the game when opponents game out in “11 personnel.” Jacobs is a solid run defender, but Marsh is the more athletic of the two.
Marsh, a free agent signing from the Arizona Cardinals, has been effective as a rotational pass rusher for four different teams over his career and would provide the same advantage in Jacksonville. His coverage skills aren’t great, but neither are Jacobs’.
The Jaguars are banking on Ngakoue to show up so Chaisson can start at SAM. Jacobs and Marsh aren’t bad alternatives, but Chaisson clearly has the higher upside compared to those two — even as a rookie.
4. Abry Jones vs. Al Woods (defensive tackle)
Defensive coordinator Todd Wash has said the Jaguars “are not a true 3-4,” but there’s more than enough personnel in place to have a run-stuffing tackle. Jacksonville was 28th against the run and gave up 23 rushing touchdowns last year (second-most in the NFL).
Jones started 15 games last season, but the Jaguars brought in Woods in free agency. He was the top interior run defender for the Seahawks last year. Woods isn’t a pass rusher, specially lining up to clog the A-gap in the middle of the defense. It’s easy to give Woods the starting job here, but there’s a reason Jones has stuck around for so long.
Jones isn’t big enough to play every down, but gets the most out of his snaps. The Jaguars brought in Woods for this reason, also so Taven Bryan can actually line up in zero technique (he was mostly in two technique the majority of last year) .
Woods’ experience and size allows Bryan to play to his strengths, so he should get the other defensive tackle spot over Jones. Third-round rookie DaVon Hamilton shouldn’t be counted out of the mix either, but he can also serve as an understudy to Bryan. The Jaguars will find snaps for Hamilton during camp.
5. Yannick Ngakoue vs. the Jaguars front office
This one affects the Jaguars’ entire defense in 2020. Will Ngakoue play under the tag and show up to camp or will he continue to hold out in hopes of a trade? Jacksonville is determined to receive huge compensation for Ngakoue, similar to the deal they received when the franchise traded Jalen Ramsey last year.
Jacksonville is hoping someone gets desperate and gives it what it wants for Ngakoue, who has already said he will not sign a long-term deal with the franchise. The Jaguars are not even sure if Ngakoue will show up, adding more confusion into the teams’ plans.
Ngakoue wants to have his cake and eat it too — wanting a long-term deal as one of the highest-paid edge rushers in the game and to get out of Jacksonville. There’s a reason why it’s been difficult to deal him, especially considering his feud with co-owner Tony Khan as he’s been begging to leave.
We’ll see what Ngakoue does in the coming weeks, but his absence changes the entire Jaguars defense. Chaisson goes to the defensive line and Jacobs/Marsh will open the year at SAM to start. Allen had an underwhelming rookie season with Ngakoue and would become the top pass rusher in his absence. Let’s not forget Bryan was a disappointment last year as well (although moving him on the line will help).
The Jaguars will want a large haul for Ngakoue as they rebuild. If Ngakoue holds out, the franchise is willing to let him — especially in a year where the Jaguars’ chances of getting the No. 1 overall pick are far greater than winning the Super Bowl.