2019 NFL preview: With Nick Foles, Jaguars try to recapture a brief run at glory

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The Jacksonville Jaguars are back to being one of the NFL’s relatively forgettable, middle-of-the-pack franchises. They were so close to having a better story to tell.

Just imagine if the Jaguars made one of about a dozen plays in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game two seasons ago — Jaguars fans will remind you Myles Jack wasn’t down and an ill-timed whistle cost them what might have been a game-clinching score — or Doug Marrone and his staff don’t go into a shell and let the Patriots catch them. The Jaguars had a 90 percent chance to win that AFC title game, based on various win probability models. But they lost. Nobody celebrates the team that almost won a conference championship.

The Jaguars could also be in a better place overall had they been more decisive on Blake Bortles. They hoped for the best and exercised his fifth-year option during the 2017 offseason, despite some major questions about Bortles to that point. The Jaguars then found themselves in a spot in which Bortles needed wrist surgery after the season and his option was likely going to be guaranteed due to injury. Coming off that playoff run, the team gave him an extension to massage the salary cap. And what makes it all so much worse is the Jaguars passed on quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft to pick running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall, because they weren’t ready to admit to themselves that Bortles wasn’t going to be the answer. Ouch.

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That’s what makes the 2018 Jaguars a sad tale. Mahomes became MVP. Watson looks like he can win one someday. Bortles completely fell apart and was cut in March. Fournette, at least through two seasons, hasn’t come close to playing like the fourth pick of the draft. The Jaguars defense was fine last season but not the same as 2017, perhaps because it was worn out from having to be nearly perfect each week. Jacksonville went 5-11. The Jaguars look like a team that had one shot at greatness at the end of the 2017 season in Foxboro, and choked it away.

So the Jaguars did what most teams in their position do: They found the best available quarterback and paid whatever it took to get him. Even though it didn’t seem there was a serious second suitor for Eagles hero Nick Foles, the Jaguars paid him $88 million over four years. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo said the Jaguars overpaid him by a few million because the team wanted Foles to be viewed as a leader in the locker room. Yes, seriously.

Maybe Foles is the answer. He’s certainly an upgrade. He has had a strange career, with extreme ups and downs. The Jaguars could be a good team during Foles’ hot streaks. We have also seen what happens to the Jaguars when quarterback play isn’t so great.

The defense should still be very good, but salary-cap issues have cost them some key pieces. Then they had an unexpected loss when linebacker Telvin Smith said he was stepping away from football for a year. Maybe first-round pick Josh Allen can give the Jaguars a nice boost as an edge rusher. If the defense is still among the NFL’s best and the offense goes from poor to even average, maybe we’re talking about the Jaguars as a playoff team again.

Realistically, the Jaguars had their shot and missed. It’s hard to envision this team being back in an AFC title game this season, much less having a 90 percent chance to win it. The NFL is littered with teams that come close, lose and go right back in the pile with all the other teams wistfully hoping to get back to that point. Ask the 2015 Carolina Panthers or the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. The NFL isn’t set up for teams to be great year after year, unless you’re the Patriots. You usually get one good chance every few years, if you’re lucky. It would be a lot easier for the Jaguars to handle if they had an AFC championship to show for it (and maybe even a Super Bowl title; it wouldn’t have been impossible for that 2017 defense to upset Foles and his Eagles).

Alas, the Jaguars will chase another shot at glory. They see the talent on defense and hope they’re just a quarterback away. The opportunities to get a difference-making quarterback are rare — which is why it’s inconceivable in hindsight that they passed on Mahomes or Watson for a running back — and Foles is as close as the Jaguars could get.

Maybe Foles will be good enough to get the Jaguars back to an AFC championship game. Odds say he won’t be.

Nick Foles finished a legendary run with the Eagles, and now will try for similar glory in Jacksonville. (AP)
Nick Foles finished a legendary run with the Eagles, and now will try for similar glory in Jacksonville. (AP)

Nick Foles was obviously the key acquisition and you can’t fault the Jaguars for it, even if their “he needs to be a leader in the locker room” reason for overpaying him is a bit mind-numbing. There wasn’t much money left for anyone else. Linebacker Jake Ryan, receiver Chris Conley and tight end Geoff Swaim were the other big additions. The Jaguars had to fix a salary-cap crunch by cutting defensive end Malik Jackson and safety Tashaun Gipson, who got nice deals in Philadelphia and Houston respectively. Having linebacker Telvin Smith announce he was taking the season off to “get my world in order” was an unexpected blow. The draft was pretty good, with pass rusher Josh Allen a potential steal at No. 7 and offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor a good value pick in the second round. As a whole it’s hard to get really excited unless you think 30-year-old Foles solves everything.

GRADE: C

Very simply, it’s the defense. The Jaguars didn’t replicate what they did in 2017, but they were still good. They ranked highly in many key stats: sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, fourth in yards per pass play allowed, sixth in quarterback rating allowed. Defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, linebacker Myles Jack and cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are all-stars or have the potential for it. This can be a top-five defense and that gives any team a chance to make the playoffs.

Is it too early to wonder if Leonard Fournette belongs in this category? The Jaguars likely thought they were getting an Ezekiel Elliott-type difference-maker with the fourth pick of the 2017 draft, but Fournette has not been that. He has 1,479 rushing yards in 21 games, with a 3.7-yard average. He has played in just 21 of 32 possible games due to injuries and a one-game suspension last season for coming off the bench in Buffalo to join a fight. That suspension led to the team voiding $7.1 million in guarantees on Fournette’s rookie deal, which gives you an idea of the team’s frustration level with him. Fournette was arrested for driving with a suspended license in April, which isn’t the most serious crime but probably not a headline the Jaguars wanted to see. He hasn’t endeared himself to the organization but because the Jaguars have so much invested in Fournette and he still has talent, he’ll enter the season as the focal point of the offense.

“I’m going to call it what it is,” new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said, according to the Florida Times-Union. “He’s going to be a major reason for where our offense goes. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Leonard needs to be a big part of this offense. The harder he works, which he is right now, I think that’s not only going to be good for our offense, but [also] good for our team.”

There aren’t many careers quite like the one Nick Foles has had. Not in the NFL or any other sport either. He had a truly great season in 2013; Foles’ passer rating that year is still third best in NFL history. Then he completely fell off the map and nearly retired to become a pastor. Then he reemerged late for the 2017 Eagles, became a legend forever when he won a Super Bowl MVP, had another great stretch last season after Carson Wentz got hurt again, and signed an $88 million deal with Jacksonville.

The Jaguars can look at Foles’ great outings — tying an NFL record with seven touchdowns against the Raiders in 2013, the scorching hot streak two seasons ago in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl LII, 471 yards in a season-saving win against the Texans last year — and dream big. It shouldn’t be too big of a shock if Foles is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL or below average, because we’ve seen him be both.

Jalen Ramsey was great in 2017, then wasn’t quite so great last season after trashing half of the quarterbacks in the NFL. He was still good, and should be one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks again this season. Jacksonville has been putting off a contract extension, and that might end up looking bad next offseason. Ramsey said the team informed him they won’t be offering an extension this year, and he said he won’t be giving the team a discount.

″Next year, especially after I ball, they’re going to come to me, ‘Hey, you know, we want to holler at you,’” Ramsey said on an Instagram video, via the Florida Times-Union. “That number is going to be so ungodly. ... They’re going to say, ‘Oh god, can’t we get a little discount, 20 percent off?’

″I’m going to tell them last year you could have gotten that discount. This year, I’m going to need all of that.”

Jacksonville, the same team that couldn’t move on from Blake Bortles until it was too late, is playing a high-wire act with Ramsey, a phenomenal talent at a premium position. It seems like a bad gamble (the Jaguars are also dealing with a holdout from pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, if they needed more drama), and it could end up getting messy.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “When NFL teams select a running back with a premium draft pick, they expect a generational talent, a superstar. Leonard Fournette hasn’t come close on the field (3.3 YPC last year, 3.7 for his career), and he has also missed 11 games in two years. Now it’s a put-up or shut-up season.

“Last year’s collapse had all sorts of extenuating circumstances — an injury-ravaged offensive line, a quarterback with the yips, questionable play-calling. And now the Jaguars are new again — the line has healed up, the quarterback and offensive coordinator replaced. But will it be the same old Fournette?

“The Jaguars certainly want to work a simple game plan this year — dominant defense, a mistake-avoiding quarterback, a power running game — and that plays into plausible fantasy juice for Fournette. He also could see an uptick in catches, and there’s no one challenging him on the depth chart. But given Fournette’s injury history and occasional problems with conditioning, it’s a dangerous check to write.

“Fournette’s ADP is in a reasonable range thus far — 32 in Yahoo drafts, 26 in NFFC rooms. You’re selecting him around players who also have easy pro and con cases; when you’re into that third round, everyone has a scary downside. But given Fournette’s red flags and the modest upside of the offense, he’s not someone I can pick proactively. Damien Williams, Aaron Jones, and Marlon Mack — running backs on likely winning teams — all look more appealing to me at the same price point.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Jacksonville Jaguars]

The Jaguars offense was hard to watch in 2018. The Jaguars failed to score 10 points six times. After Nov. 11 last season they didn’t score more than 21 in any game. Jacksonville gained more than 255 yards once in that seven-game stretch. The Jaguars failed to score more than 21 points in 13 of 16 games. Nick Foles doesn’t have to be great to provide an enormous upgrade to the offense.

HOW MUCH CAN NEW OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN DEFILIPPO HELP?

DeFilippo was a hot name when he was hired by the Minnesota Vikings to run their offense last year. He even got head-coaching buzz following his time as Eagles quaarterbacks coach. And then he had a rough year in Minnesota. DeFilippo was fired during the season as the Vikings failed to live up to expectations. Part of that was an apparent philosophical difference with Vikings coach Mike Zimmer — Zimmer wants to run more, DeFilippo’s play-calling is heavy on the passing game — but DeFilippo’s résumé as an offensive coordinator is one poor 2015 season with the Browns (25th in points, 30th in yards) and an abbreviated season with the Vikings (20th in yards, 19th in points). That’s not enough of a sample size to say DeFilippo has been overrated. Perhaps he can get the most out of Leonard Fournette and find creative ways to feature receivers like Dede Westbrook and Marqise Lee, who is coming back off an ACL tear. But he might need to have a good run in Jacksonville. It’s hard to get a fourth chance if the first three don’t go well.

The Jaguars were off to a good start last season at 3-1. They had an impressive 31-20 win over the Patriots. Of course the bottom fell out after that hot start, but this was a good team from the start of the 2017 season through the quarter mark of the 2018 season. Most of the key pieces remain, with Nick Foles providing an upgrade at quarterback. If Foles plays really well more weeks than not and the Jaguars defense is top five again, they could be a sneaky pick to win the AFC South.

it seems like the Jaguars have a combustible mix. The team seems to be tiring of Leonard Fournette. Having Jalen Ramsey play out his contract seems like a really bad idea, as was VP of football operations Tom Coughlin needlessly criticizing Ramsey for skipping voluntary workouts. Yannick Ngakoue wants a new deal, held out of the mandatory minicamp and even though in May he said, “Of course, I’m going to play,” it’s hard to tell when he’ll report. And even if all of those issues don’t affect chemistry, it’s not like this is a perfect roster, or a coaching staff you feel great about. And the problem with having a streaky quarterback like Nick Foles is you’ll get some bad stretches too, and the Jaguars’ supporting cast is nowhere near what he played with in Philadelphia. On top of all that, the AFC South is suddenly a pretty good division. Another last-place finish and top-10 pick is possible, and then it might be time for a rebuild.

The Jaguars could be much better. If Nick Foles is good, Leonard Fournette pays off on his potential and we get the best version of this Jaguars defense, Jacksonville can be a playoff team. But it’s hard to shake the memory of last year’s Jaguars losing 10 of 12 to finish the season. This also might not be quite the same defense, and the division doesn’t offer easy wins anymore. We can count on Jacksonville to lose more close games than it should, because of Doug Marrone’s track record of getting too tight. It seems like another season at or below .500 for the Jaguars, and another year removed from what was close to being a storybook 2017 season.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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