The Jaguars will open organized team activities, the OTAs, on Monday. For the first time in half a decade, there are credible expectations for the Jaguars to make a deep playoff run. In order to do that, they’ll have to answer these five questions:
1. Is Calvin Ridley ready to play at his best?
While the Jaguars have been fairly quiet in adding veterans in free agency this offseason, they made the biggest move last season when they traded for wide receiver Calvin Ridley. In Ridley’s last full season with the Atlanta Falcons, he caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. The following season, he tried to play through a foot injury but lasted only five games. Then he sat out all of 2022 after being suspended by the league for gambling. Ridley said earlier this year that he’s ready to be a 1,400-yard receiver. If he is, the Jaguars should have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL.
2. Can Trevor Lawrence take the next step as a quarterback?
There are at least three factors that go into Lawrence’s progression. The first is Lawrence himself. Last season ended with Lawrence looking in control and impressive (despite the four-interception first half against the Chargers in the playoffs). It’s easy to forget that halfway through the season, Lawrence had thrown 10 touchdowns and six interceptions, including two picks in a loss to Denver in Week 8. There were questions being whispered at that point despite some outstanding games earlier in the season. But what Lawrence did over the last half of season was among the best quarterback play ever seen in a Jaguars uniform. Over the final nine games of the season, Lawrence threw 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions as the Jaguars finished the regular season 7-2. That’s the kind of productivity that needs to be the baseline for Lawrence moving forward. He needs to keep working to improve, and there is every indication that he is doing just that.
The second factor is the players around him. Most specifically, the offensive line. Lawrence needs to stay upright. This isn’t as much about having time to throw, although that factors in. It’s about keeping him healthy. Nearly every NFL team takes a big step back without its starting quarterback, but Lawrence is moving into the realm of the elite quarterbacks in the league who do more than just take the snaps and execute the plays. At the end of the season and in the playoffs, he started to show ownership of the offense. That’s a great sign.
This brings us to the final factor: how he’s coached. The Jaguars surrounded Lawrence with some great offensive minds. Doug Pederson and his staff created an offense that was more creative than any in Jaguars history. How Lawrence grows in his second year in the system will determine just how far the Jaguars can go.
3. Will the Jaguars’ pass rush be more effective?
In today’s NFL, it’s about the quarterback. And it’s about stopping the other team’s quarterback. The Jaguars didn’t do that enough last year. With a schedule that includes Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson, the Jaguars defense has to produce more sacks. In his second year, Travon Walker will be expected to be more productive. The Jaguars spent a fifth-round pick on Louisville’s Yasir Abdullah, but rookies rarely make a big impact in the pass rush, and fifth-round picks typically need time to develop. So it will be up to Walker and Josh Allen (the Jaguars’ version) and Roy Robertson-Harris, who played well late in the season, to be better. Will they be?
4. How will the Jaguars deal with being the hunted?
Nobody had the Jaguars circled on the calendar at this time last year. Coming off back-to-back seasons earning the first pick in the draft, Jacksonville didn’t scare anyone. This year, things are different. Now teams will know to prepare for a playoff team when Jax is on the schedule. How will that affect what happens on the field? The Jaguars will still be hunting, especially games against the AFC’s heavyweights Kansas City, Buffalo, and Cincinnati. Still, the other 14 games on the schedule will feature teams who are chasing the Jaguars.
5. Can the culture continue?
There were a number of times last season when the Jaguars could have packed it in. Instead, they held together, kept working and wound up as division champs and won a playoff game. The culture permeated the locker room, but it began with Pederson. We’ve seen teams fall apart after a good season (2018 Jaguars ring a bell?). I don’t think it’s going to be a factor, but every season is a new one and you never know how a group of men will respond under pressure. We will see how the Jaguars respond to adversity as the season plays out.
Lead image: Will Brown, Jacksonville Today