History doesn't repeat, but it's getting ready to rhyme in the AFC South.
The Jaguars' trade of 2011 first-round pick Blaine Gabbert is another reminder to Jacksonville fans of the decision the team made that year to take the Missouri quarterback with the 10th pick and then watch division rival Houston select J.J. Watt at No. 11. There were Pro Bowl-bound defensive ends also picked at No. 14 (Robert Quinn) and at No. 16 (Ryan Kerrigan, in a pick traded from Jacksonville), but it is Watt who will forever stand in severe contrast with Gabbert in Duval County. Watt is one the best defensive players in football over the last three years, while Gabbert never looked like a starter in Jacksonville, let alone a star.
Now the Jaguars are picking third, this time with the Texans two spots in front of them at No. 1. No one can say for sure what new Houston coach Bill O'Brien will do, but the Texans could pick Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel. If the Rams, picking second, go with an offensive lineman as expected, the Jags will once again be choosing between a quarterback and a highly regarded defensive end. This time, it's Jadeveon Clowney.
That means picking a quarterback will set up the same possibility for the Jags: watching their own selection falter while Clowney creates havoc elsewhere.
It certainly could happen: Clowney looks every bit as disruptive as Watt, if not more so. Watt has been remarkable in his ability to affect every single play, even if he doesn't break into the pocket, and Clowney has done that even in his off games at South Carolina.
So should the Jags go with Clowney if he's there at No. 3?
If presented with the same choice – a quarterback or a defensive end – it is smarter to do what Jacksonville did in 2011. That's especially so if Jacksonville has a chance to draft Bridgewater.
The Louisville quarterback is a lot safer as a first-round pick than Gabbert was. First, Bridgewater is a potential No. 1 pick, and nobody said that about Gabbert at 10 (except perhaps then-general manager Gene Smith). There is no way Bridgewater (or Bortles for that matter) is slipping to 10. There's a reason for that: Gabbert's college numbers were good but not eye-popping. He had 40 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. Bridgewater has 72 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. His touchdown count increased in every single season at Louisville, and his interception count fell. That wasn't the case with Gabbert.
Defenders of the 2011 pick argued Gabbert needed time to mature. Bridgewater, with three years already as a starter, looks about as prepared as any rookie could.
But there's a bigger reason to go with a quarterback, and it's the same reason picking a quarterback made sense three years ago. The Jaguars need a face for their franchise. They need someone worth paying to see. And most important, they need someone who can score points. They've had none of those things for years, save for Maurice Jones-Drew, and nobody makes an impact like a quarterback does.
Yes, head coach Gus Bradley is defensive-minded and he likes Chad Henne, but a quarterback is transformative in a way that a defensive player rarely can be. Let's face it: Watt didn't make a difference in the win column once Matt Schaub spiraled in 2013. Clowney, no matter how good he is, probably won't either unless the Jaguars can score.
The Jaguars have tried just about everything over the last decade in the first round, and nothing has worked. Byron Leftwich, picked in 2003, never played in 16 games in a season for Jacksonville and never won more than eight in a year. The next year's first-round pick was Reggie Williams, who had one good season with the team, in which he scored more than half of his 18 career touchdowns. Matt Jones (2005) had only 15 career touchdowns and was out of the league after four disappointing seasons and a substance-abuse suspension. Marcedes Lewis (2006) was the only first-rounder since 2003 to go to the Pro Bowl as a Jaguar.
A good rookie quarterback, however, could erase a lot of that pain. Imagine if Leftwich had stayed healthy: would Williams and Jones have worked out? We'll never know.
The Jaguars, with momentum from the energy brought by Bradley and GM David Caldwell, have speed on the corners in Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders. They have 2013 No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel – Manziel's former teammate – on the line. Blackmon is a fantastic weapon if he can rid himself of his personal demons. Some pieces are in place, but for now that's all they are – pieces. Drafting another offensive piece, like Sammy Watkins, only delays the acquisition of the biggest piece. Maybe that player will be available in the second round or in 2015, but why wait? That's a bigger risk than passing on Clowney.
As painful as it is to watch Watt shine elsewhere and then have to ship Gabbert elsewhere, it wouldn't compare to the second-guessing if Bortles or Bridgewater star in another city. This is a new coaching staff and a new front office. They need to take another chance on a new quarterback.