How Jaguars can become true contenders in 2023: An offseason checklist

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After the Jaguars’ divisional-round loss to the Chiefs, coach Doug Pederson laid out what the standard will be in Jacksonville for 2023 and beyond.

“We want to be one of the four, five or six teams in the AFC every year,” he said. “Our guys believe it.”

So what will it take to make it happen, making sure this season isn’t a one-hit wonder?

Here are six things, in no particular order, the Jaguars need this offseason to take a step toward becoming a perennial playoff contender:

Sign TE again Evan EngramRT Jawan Taylor

Even the best quarterbacks need a security blanket pass catcher and great pass protection. For the Jaguars, that’s what Engram and Taylor represented for Trevor Lawrence, and why they need to be re-signed at all costs. Both are slated to become unrestricted free agents this offseason.

Engram enjoyed a career year with Jacksonville in 2022, with the most receptions (73) and receiving yards (766), both single-season franchise records for tight ends. We’ve seen many great quarterbacks in recent years rely on strong tight end play. Tom Brady had Rob Gronkowski. Patrick Mahomes has Travis Kelce. Lamar Jackson has Mark Andrews. Jalen Hurts has Dallas Goedert. While not at the level of some of these other tight ends, Engram can represent that for Lawrence.

Then there’s Taylor, a full-time starter since being drafted in the second round in 2019, who was one of the best pass-blocking offensive tackles in the NFL last season. Among offensive tackles who played at least 80 percent of their team’s snaps in the regular season, Taylor’s 21 pressures tied for second in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Had career bests in pressures, hurries (15) and sacks (5) allowed in 2022.

Add runner #2

A common thread among the four remaining playoff teams — the Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles and 49ers — is that they all run the ball effectively. They all have a clear No. 1 tailback, but all of their running schemes have reliable second options.

The Jaguars didn’t have it in 2022.

The James Robinson trade in October made Travis Etienne Jr. at the clear No. 1 running back, but left Jacksonville without a particularly strong No. 2 option. From Week 8 (when Robinson was traded) through the end of the regular season, the Jaguars averaged 115.4 yards per game, 20th in the league over that span. From Weeks 1-7, they averaged 136.7 yards per game, eighth in the league over that span.

After Robinson was traded, the only real rushing contributions the Jaguars got outside of Etienne came from JaMycal Hasty (46 carries, 194 yards, 2 TDs). Fifth-round rookie Snoop Conner (12 carries, 42 yards, TD) wasn’t a factor down the stretch.

The Bengals have Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. The 49ers have star Christian McCaffrey and a number of backups and receivers they use in their diverse run scheme. The Eagles have star running back Miles Sanders and dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts, who had 760 yards and 13 touchdowns in the regular season. The Chiefs have Isiah Pacheco and Mahomes, one of the most effective scramblers in the league.

According to the advanced defense-adjusted value (DVOA) metric, which quantifies the value of each play based on total yards and yards to a first down, all four of these teams have rushing attacks in the top half of the league (the Eagles are No. 1, Bengals No. 4, Chiefs No. 9 and 49ers No. 13). The Jaguars are 20th in punt DVOA.

There is certainly room for Jacksonville to use Lawrence, an athletic quarterback, more as a running back. But a reliable second number behind Etienne could take the attack to new heights.

A perfect transition for Calvin Ridley

Every team left in the playoffs also has a bona fide star receiver. The Eagles have AJ Brown. The 49ers have Deebo Samuel. The Chiefs have Kelce, a tight end. The Bengals have Ja’Marr Chase.

That’s what Ridley can be for the Jaguars.

Make no mistake: Lawrence had a strong group of weapons around him in wide receivers Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Engram. But neither is a true No. 1 option. Ridley could be that for Jacksonville and take pressure off the other pass catchers, giving them more favorable one-on-one opportunities.

Ridley, who was suspended through at least the 2022 season to play in NFL games, can apply for reinstatement as early as Feb. 15. He also played just five games in 2021 after stepping away from football for mental health reasons.

So, as good as he’s been in the past, it might take him some time to re-acclimate to football and become the player he was. That’s the challenge the Jaguars face and must overcome to elevate their offense.

Growth of Trevor Lawrence

Lawrence has become a true franchise quarterback in 2022. The next step for him is to continue to work on the consistency of his ball security and decision making, which was an issue early last season . He threw a pair of atrocious interceptions in the red zone (think Week 5 against the Texans, Week 8 against the Broncos) and had 12 fumbles overall, fourth-most in the league.

Nick Wright predicts a Super Bowl appearance for Trevor Lawrence

Nick Wright predicts a Super Bowl appearance for Trevor Lawrence

Despite a valiant effort from Trevor Lawrence, the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn’t beat Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. But this is not the end of the road for the prince who was promised.

Pederson believes Lawrence could make big strides in Year 3. For the first time, he’ll know what to expect in the offseason program and will be able to build on the chemistry he established with his pass catchers in 2022.

“He knows the guys he’s going to throw the ball to,” Pederson said. “He knows the coaching staff that’s going to coach him. That’s a big deal for us from Year 1 to Year 2 (in this system). … For our quarterback, who had a big year this year, he’s only going to get better at it. consistency around him.”

Crush the draft

Earth shatters, right? (This is a joke).

Drafting consistently is the only surefire way to establish lasting power in the NFL. That’s even more important now for the Jaguars, an up-and-coming AFC team with financial constraints. Jacksonville is currently $22 million over the 2023 salary cap, according to Over The Cap. General manager Trent Baalke has also pointed out how this offseason is the time for the franchise to start relying less on free agents.

The Jaguars are slated to have nine picks in the 2023 draft, including the 24th overall pick (Jacksonville would normally have picked 25th this year, but the Dolphins, who lost their first-round pick, made the Jaguars get a place).

The team’s 2021 draft class helped lay the promising foundation it now has for 2023 and beyond. Lawrence, Etienne, cornerback Tyson Campbell and safety Andre Cisco are full-time starters in this class. Offensive tackle Walker Little, who stepped in as a starter at left tackle this season when Cam Robinson was lost for the year, and key backup tight end Luke Farrell were also drafted that year.

Improves pass rush

It’s not like the Jaguars can’t get after the quarterback in 2022.

They had a 32.9% pressure rate on dropbacks, third in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. But more often than not, Jacksonville couldn’t get home for catches, racking up just 35 of them, tied for 25th in the league. Of the 14 playoff teams this season, the Jaguars had the second fewest (the Bengals had 30). They did not have a player record of more than seven sacks. This is a figure that must improve in 2023.

Jacksonville expects continued growth from 2022 No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker (3.5 sacks), but could use another punter in the rotation. Defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot (5), who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, tore his Achilles in Week 16. Outside rotation contributor Arden Key (4.5) is someone who the Jaguars could come back.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for for three seasons (2018-20) before moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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