Jaguars are set to be a force in the AFC South for 2023 and beyond

The Jacksonville Jaguars looked like contenders for a blink of an eye.

After a 2-1 start with back-to-back wins by 20+ points under the tutelage of new coach Doug Pederson, it was easy to buy into them and consider them a team on the rise. But then the Jaguars started losing. Amidst their inability to finish games, they were labeled as “the same old Jags”. Other known realities in the AFC South: Titans looking like the best team; the Colts disappointed after another hype-filled offseason, they also started to take shape. Tennessee is on the fast track to a third straight division title, with a 5-3 record that includes a 3-0 record in the AFC South, including a sweep of Indianapolis.

But while the Titans maintain control of a weak AFC South heading into 2022, the Jaguars are positioned to be their main challengers for years to come. For longer than the cameo we saw in September. Because? Jacksonville has the most promising offensive talent for 2023 and beyond.

In the Jaguars’ surprising comeback win over the Raiders, when they went on a 27-3 run from a 17-0 deficit to beat Las Vegas and snap their five-game skid, we again saw a glimpse of what Trevor Lawrence can do. be when you put it all together.

At one point in the second half, he completed 12 passes in a row. He was 11-of-19 for 111 yards and a touchdown on throws made less than 2.5 seconds after the complement, according to Next Gen Stats. He was 4-for-6 on third-down passes, with all four completions securing first downs. For the game, he completed 80.6% of his passes for 235 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He is the only quarterback this season to complete at least 80% of his passes in at least three games.

Lawrence has been inconsistent all season, and his biggest challenge so far will be carrying the Raiders’ game momentum into back-to-back matchups with the AFC Chiefs and Ravens, but he’s by far the closest to a franchise quarterback in the AFC South. Ryan Tannehill has been solid for the Titans, but his days are numbered — it seems unlikely he’ll be in Nashville beyond 2023, when his contract expires, and Malik Willis has more potential and is better than a surefire starter right now.

The Texans’ Davis Mills is a below-average starting quarterback, and Houston could draft his replacement in 2023. The Colts have arguably the worst quarterback situation in the division, with no clear-cut starter for the rest of this season and worrying that it might not. be bad enough to land one of the top talkers in the next draft.

And in a division full of star running backs who serve as engines for offenses, the Jaguars’ Travis Etienne has one of the most promising long-term prospects.

Derrick Henry, the King, is the best of the bunch, but at 28, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The Colts’ Jonathan Taylor was an All-Pro force as a second-year pro last season, but a nagging ankle injury and poor offensive play have made him less attractive this season and potentially beyond.

At least for now, Dameon Pierce of the Texans, a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, is the only running back in the division on a similar track to Etienne long-term.

“I wouldn’t say it’s close to where it’s going to be,” Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor said of Etienne last week. “As he continues to learn what defenses do, why we call for runs for certain fronts, the pitches on the pitches, how people are going to try to pick us off, combinations and shooters and different things like that. He matures, just in his knowledge football skills and understanding scheme offenses and how we’re trying to attack, I wouldn’t put a ceiling on it.

There’s no doubt that Calvin Ridley projects to be the best No. 1 wide receiver in the division for 2023 and beyond. The Titans don’t have a true WR1 (although Treylon Burks could become one eventually). Michael Pittman Jr. it’s been good but not great for the Colts. Brandin Cooks’ future with the Texans is unclear, after he reportedly wanted out of Houston before the trade deadline.

Nick reacts to Jaguars trade for suspended Falcons WR Calvin Ridley

Nick reacts to Jaguars trade for suspended Falcons WR Calvin Ridley

Nick Wright reacts to the Jaguars acquiring Calvin Ridley from the Falcons in one of the most shocking moves of the NFL trade deadline.

Of course, Ridley has to be reinstated (he can’t apply until February) and, assuming that happens, he’ll have to work off the rust as he hasn’t played since Week 6 of the 2021 season. But at full strength, he’s a great route runner and one of the elite receivers in football. He had 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020. No receiver on any other AFC South team has eclipsed 1,300 yards in a season.

In each season, Ridley has played at least 13 games, scored at least seven touchdowns.

“He’s a great player, so obviously it’s exciting going forward and next season to have a guy like that here,” Lawrence said of Ridley last week. “I hear he loves the game and obviously if you watch his tape, it speaks for itself.”

The Jaguars also have the best pass protection offensive line in the division. They have given up just 12 sacks this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFL, and have an adjusted sack rate of 4.8%, fourth-best in the league. Four of their five starters — left tackle Cam Robinson, right guard Tyler Shatley, center Luke Fortner and right guard Brndon Scherff — are under contract through at least 2023.

If Jacksonville re-signs right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, that would be huge. Of the 32 offensive tackles who have played at least 300 pass blocks this season, Taylor has given up the third-fewest pressures (7), according to Pro Football Focus.

The Titan could be on the brink of turnover this offseason, with many key veterans coming off their prime and the franchise with outs on their contracts. But as long as coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson are with the Titans, the team is positioned for success. He has put together six consecutive winning seasons. Vrabel, the AP Coach of the Year, has a history of maximizing the performance of his players, regardless of the quality of talent he’s working with. They will not leave for the AFC Sud.

In the next few years, though, the Jaguars will be knocking on the door.

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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