A championship caliber football team needs a championship caliber roster.
There are five positions that talent evaluators and roster builders consider to be premium positions: quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, pass rusher and cornerback. If you have a talented player at all five of these, you’re set up to succeed in today’s NFL.
The Jaguars do. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence battled through an injury-plagued season and has plenty of room to grow after three professional seasons. But there is no denying that if he can learn to take better care of the football and manage some situations better than he did in 2023 he will be the player the Jaguars need to reach the next level of performance.
Count me among those who believed that left tackle Cam Robinson was a good player but not a great one and with a nearly $23 million cap figure in 2024 he would be replaced by either Walker Little or a draft choice. Not so fast. Robinson has all the measurables on the field and when healthy he has played to that level. But it’s his intangibles that speak the loudest. The Jaguars won when he was on the field in 2023 and they lost when he wasn’t. He’s a good player and a great teammate and the Jaguars can count on him in the future.
We’ve seen what wide receiver Christian Kirk means to the offense by his absence this season, the Jaguars lost four consecutive games after his core muscle injury in December. The same can be said of fellow receiver Zay Jones who missed eight of the first 16 games with knee and hamstring injuries and we never really had a good look at how those two meshed with Calvin Ridley. The thought here is that together they’re a formidable group that can power the passing attack in future seasons.
Josh Allen set the franchise record with 16.5 sacks in 2023 and on the other side of the field Travon Walker broke through with a huge season of his own, 9 sacks and counting before the season finale in Nashville. They don’t have one dangerous pass rusher they have two and that’s going to change the Jags defense going forward. One needed the other and Walker’s emergence in his second season forced defenses to look his way and opened the door for Allen who burst through it and, in the process, past Calais Campbell’s previous record of 14.5 set in the 2017 playoff season. Watch out for what this pass-rushing duo has in store for quarterbacks in 2024.
On the back end, there’s cornerback Tyson Campbell who opposing teams generally recognized as a game-changing cornerback before a hamstring injury in mid-October cost him most of the rest of the season. He’s a top cover corner and when healthy the Jaguars believe they have a player that can shut down one side of the field.
And I didn’t even include tight end Evan Engram or right tackle Anton Harrison or safety Andre Cisco or linebacker Foye Oluokun. Clearly you can see that head coach Doug Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke have built a good core for their team, and they have a strong salary cap situation to use in the coming months to fill holes and find exciting new players to grow the roster.
There is, however, one thing missing. One thing that they absolutely must find if they’re going to go from being just a division title winner and transform into a Super Bowl winner. They need guys who know when it’s time to show up and play their best football. It’s an attitude or a mindset or maybe it’s an awareness or toughness. I’m not sure that it isn’t all of those. But they didn’t have enough of it in 2023.
I circled the Chiefs, Bills, 49ers, Bengals and Ravens games when the schedule came out last spring. The NFL gave them four of those games against the top teams in the league at home, two in prime time and the Bills in London where the Jaguars are always at home.
They won only the Bills game and played perhaps their worst games against the Chiefs, 49ers and Ravens. How can that be? How can a team come off that magical 2022 campaign where they scratched and clawed their way back from 2-7 to the AFC South title and incredible home wins over the Titans in the season finale and the Chargers in the Wild Card and play so poorly in the biggest of games? I didn’t think they’d win them all, but I didn’t think they’d lose the four at home and play as poorly as they did in the big ones.
You can’t win without talented players. But talent isn’t enough in the NFL. The Jaguars must find more guys for their locker room who can’t stand losing and for whom football is the most important thing in their lives outside of faith and family. It takes that level of commitment to play in the National Football League.
The Jaguars were good in 2023 but good isn’t the goal.
To be great in 2024 and beyond they must find that element which was missing this season and show up ready to play in the big games next fall.