Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke took his time to hold it, but he finally addressed media Thursday for a season-wrap press conference.
It came 17 days after Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson held his season-ending presser one day after the team’s 2023 campaign ended on a sour note with a Week 18 loss against the Tennessee Titans.
While Baalke’s talk with reporters didn’t come until the end of January, the Jaguars executive spent more than a half hour answering questions about what went wrong for the team, what it needs to do to make things right, and the tough decisions it has to make in the coming weeks.
Here are five takeaways about the most interesting things Baalke had to say Thursday at his presser:
Are Baalke and Doug Pederson *really* on the same page?
In the weeks before Doug Pederson was hired by the Jaguars two years ago, Shad Khan reportedly asked at least one coaching candidate if they would be comfortable working with Trent Baalke while the general manager was in the room.
It screamed of a dysfunctional process that would inevitably force a coach into working with Baalke, whether they actually wanted to or not.
Two years later, there are plenty of rumors that Baalke and Pederson aren’t on the same page after a disappointing end to the 2023 season. On Thursday, the general manager disputed that claim.
“Great communication, great collaboration, and really respect him and everything that he does,” Baalke said of Pederson. “A lot of what’s written, a lot of the narratives out there are just false. Plain and simple, false narratives.”
Yet, Baalke didn’t dispute reports that he was — for some reason — a part of the process of hiring defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.
“I sat in on all the interviews, we shared our
thoughts,” Baalke said. “But at the end of the day, coach owns it. I respect those decisions.”
If there was any discord between the coach and executive, neither would publicly air that laundry.
At the very least, the fact that Baalke really was sitting in on defensive coordinator interviews, as was reported, lends credence to some rumors and sheds light on a power structure that certainly appears flawed.
Baalke backed Luke Fortner ... barely
No Jaguars starter received a lower grade from Pro Football Focus this season than Fortner, the team’s second-year center.
After a rookie season that showed plenty of promise, Fortner was worse in 2023. It seemed no player was more responsible for the Jaguars’ inability to run the ball down the stretch than the struggling center.
“I truly believe in Luke as a guy that has what it takes to play the position and play it well,” Baalke said Thursday. “He’s showing signs of doing that.”
That may sound like a ringing endorsement, but is it really?
If you expected Baalke to say that Fortner is a bad football player the Jaguars need to replace as soon as possible, that was never going to happen. There was no reason for the general manager to throw his 2022 third-round pick under the bus Thursday. Saying that Fortner “has what it takes to play the position” is also pretty far from calling him a superstar.
The more interesting (and revealing) parts of the quote came later. For one, Baalke seemed to have an issue with the way the offensive line operated in the coaches’ scheme.
“This was not necessarily one player’s issues,” Baalke said. “This was a systematic issue. So when you look at across the board, the things I talked about going back to the basics, going back to three-point stances, coming off the ball, forming an identity. All of those things, we’ve got to do better.”
And secondly, Baalke talked about adding another player to push Fortner.
“We also got to look to how we make this a more competitive situation,” he said. “…Whether it’s through the draft or through free agency, we’ve got to attack that to make these rooms as competitive as they can be so the guy that’s starting is always feeling the pressure of the guy behind him.”
Nothing about Baalke’s quotes suggest he plans on having Fortner be the Jaguars’ starting center in 2024. If anything, they show that fans should expect another player to be added at the position.
Baalke 'loves Calvin Ridley'
If you needed more evidence that the endorsement of Fortner wasn’t really an endorsement, look no further than Baalke’s answer when asked about Ridley.
“Calvin did some awfully good things. I love Calvin Ridley,” Baalke said. “He’s all ball. You guys and gals that were able to see it at practice, he loves to practice, he loves to play, he loves the game.
“The sky is the limit, he’s only going to get better because of the way he works. When you love something as much as he loves football, you can’t help but get better. We would love to have Calvin back and we’re going to work toward that.”
That is what it sounds like when a general manager really praises a player.
Keeping Ridley won’t be easy. If the Jaguars need to use the franchise tag to retain Josh Allen, they’ll have to negotiate a contract with a receiver who is set to become one of the top free agents of the 2024 offseason.
That’ll be even trickier if Baalke hopes to circumvent the terms of the Ridley trade with the Atlanta Falcons by re-signing the receiver after free agency begins on March 13. If the Jaguars kept Ridley that way, they’d owe the Falcons a third-round pick instead of a second-rounder.
What seems apparent after Thursday is that the Jaguars — in no uncertain terms — want to find a way to keep Ridley in Jacksonville.
Contracts for Trevor Lawrence, Josh Allen seem doubtful
Yet those endorsements didn’t come with much evidence that a massive contract extension is coming soon for either player.
Baalke called Lawrence’s string of injuries late in the season “alarming” and said the quarterback has to do a better job of protecting himself. Couple that with Doug Pederson’s comments that the quarterback’s propensity for turnovers is a problem that needs to be fixed and it doesn’t seem like the Jaguars are ready to make Lawrence the highest paid player in the NFL.
As for Allen, the Jaguars have less than six weeks to decide whether or not they’ll use the franchise tag. But as of Thursday, Baalke said the team hasn’t even started to negotiate a contract with the pass rusher.
Last year, the Jaguars got a deal done with Evan Engram just before the July deadline for franchised players. Getting Allen signed will presumably be much tougher as he’ll likely want to be one of the highest paid defensive players in the league.
Baalke's staying until Shad Khan says otherwise
If you were hoping those rumors about Baalke’s retirement were true, he definitively shot them down Thursday.
“I contemplate that on a daily basis,” Baalke said with a laugh. “But no, I’m going to be 60 years old. I’m far from retirement.”
Baalke is sitting in on coaching hires, thinking about the long-term timeline of a Lawrence contract, and contemplating the future of the Jaguars roster. It’s pretty clear he isn’t planning on going anywhere.
If Baalke is going to leave Jacksonville, it’d have to come from Khan giving him the boot. That, for reasons that haven’t been publicly explained by Khan, doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon.