Jacksonville Jaguars

It’s all about the quarterback


Two hundred fifty thousand people crowded into Cadillac Square on a cool spring evening in late April in downtown Detroit. They weren’t there to sing along with Taylor Swift or to rally for one presidential candidate or the other, and most of them weren’t in good enough shape to be there to lace up their sneakers and run a marathon. Instead, they were there, dressed to the flavor of their favorite NFL team, to watch men in suits walk across a stage and hug another man while holding a jersey with their name on it. I don’t know if they keep records on such things, but I can’t imagine more people gathering in downtown Detroit for any single reason at any time in the Motor City’s history.

It's hard to fathom that a nonsporting sporting event like the NFL Draft could be so compelling that it would draw more eyeballs than the NBA Playoffs, but once again it did. The NFL is so ridiculously popular that their ratings climbed 6% with more than 12 million viewers while the NBA lost 8% from 2023 and drew fewer than 4 million.

Jaguars fans on-site and watching on television were among the masses and, of course, eager to see how General Manager Trent Baalke and Head Coach Doug Pederson would use the NFL’s annual spring refresh to lift the team’s roster above the nine-win threshold of the last two seasons.

Cornerback was the most obvious need, what with Darious Williams released last February, but the Jaguars didn’t claim one in the first round despite the No. 1 defensive back in the class being right there for them to take. This was the best collection of offensive linemen in my 30 years covering the event and the Jaguars had their choice of offensive tackle, guard or center and let them all go by. They could have added to their pass rush with the best edge rusher on the list — and who doesn’t need a bigger arsenal to attack the quarterback?

Baalke and Pederson pushed those concerns to later rounds in favor of their young quarterback. This season is about Trevor Lawrence and everything is about putting him in position to at least brush up against his enormous potential if not fully grasp it.

Pederson is wired into the most successful franchise in football, the two-time defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs via his friendship with Andy Reid. Their offensive line was just above average last year, their running game unremarkable, the receiving corps unremarkable and any defense at all was the result of just defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. At one point they had lost four of five games after Thanksgiving when they almost never lost and ended up on the road in the playoffs, which had never happened since Patrick Mahomes arrived.

But in Buffalo and in Baltimore and especially in overtime in the Super Bowl it was Mahomes who went eight for eight and led his team on the game-winning drive. The NFL is built for great quarterbacks and Mahomes proved that once again with his late-game heroics in February.

Pederson believes Lawrence can be that guy in teal and wanted to use this draft to give him a weapon that unlocks the offense and allows him to play like the guy who once seemed unstoppable at Clemson. Imagine how that big, fast receiver down the field would stress a defense and make things easier for Christian Kirk and Evan Engram.

Lawrence has everything you want in a quarterback; the size, arm-strength, mobility, experience, leadership and desire to be great. The Jaguars have seen glimpses of that in his first three seasons.

They’re going to have to fine-tune the offensive line to keep the quarterback upright, and the running game must be better to keep the offense on the field instead of punting. The defense will look different this season under new coordinator Ryan Nielsen and so will special teams with a new kicker and a new approach to kickoffs.

But this draft and this season are about the quarterback, who is soon due for the kind of contract that will forever alter his future and hopefully change the fortunes of a franchise in search of its first championship in its 30th NFL season.

If he does, it’s not hard to imagine a huge crowd in downtown Jacksonville.