The 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars' defense was a massive improvement over the 2010 unit. Buoyed by the free-agent pickups of linebackers Paul Posluszny and Clint Session, safety Dawan Landry and the trade for Dwight Lowery, the 2011 Jaguars actually managed to field what most would consider to be a good defense.
As the season progressed and injuries piled up, the defense's final stats didn't look nearly as impressive as they had earlier in the season.
Nevertheless, they still finished near the top in total yards (sixth), first downs (third), passing yards (eighth), rushing yards (ninth), and yards per carry (tied for fourth). One category they were not near the top in, however, was sacks; they finished tied for 25th in the league with a total of 31.
Sacks aren't the only positive result an effective pass-rush can produce; hitting and pressuring the quarterback also carry considerable weight as well when determining the effectiveness of a team's pass rush. Statistically, quarterbacks perform much worse when pressured than when they have time to throw.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Jaguars finished 2011 with 43 hits and 123 pressures, numbers that appear to be relatively solid when viewed in a vacuum. However, compared to the top pass-rushing teams in the league, they are far from exceptional.
The San Francisco 49ers finished the season tied for 7th with 42 sacks, but their other pass-rushing stats paint a better picture of their ability to affect opposing quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus credited them with 73 hits and a ridiculous 260 pressures. Against stats like that, the Jaguars' totals don't look so great anymore.
AFC South division rival Tennessee was ranked near the bottom in PFF's pass-rushing grades; they managed 34 hits and 118 pressures over the course of the season, barely less than the Jaguars. Let's face it: Jacksonville needs a better pass rush.
The Jags expect better pass-rushing stats from Tyson Alualu after taking the offseason to recover from the knee injury he struggled with all season, and their linebackers are already solid pass-rushers. That leaves defensive end as the position most needing attention.
With Jeremy Mincey eligible for unrestricted free agency, the defensive end position is filled with question marks. Will Mincey be retained? Will the Jaguars hit the free-agent market and try to reel in a big fish or two? Will they try to draft the position and solve the issue organically?
Mincey's statistics profile him as similar player to Atlanta's Ray Edwards, who snagged a five-year, $30 million contract with $11 million guaranteed from the Falcons in 2011 after playing extremely well for Minnesota in 2010.
Assuming Mincey's price tag is similar to Edwards', I see no reason the Jaguars shouldn't lock him up prior to free agency. If he wants a significant amount more than that, however, I expect him to hit the road.
The 2012 free-agent crop at defensive end isn't especially deep, but there is some exceptional talent at the top. Mario Williams, the first overall pick in the draft in 2006, would cost the Houston Texans $21.99 million to franchise, meaning he's likely headed for the open market.
Williams' contract will likely eclipse Charles Johnson's six-year, $76 million contract with $32 million guaranteed, and could approach or even surpass Julius Peppers' six-year, $84 million deal with $42 million in guaranteed money.
"Super Mario" racked up five sacks in only five games in 2011, and is still only 27. It's entirely possible he hasn't even scratched the surface of his massive potential. Adding Williams would immediately elevate the Jaguars' pass-rush to respectable levels, and pairing him with Mincey could potentially take the Jaguars' defensive line to the elite level.
The Falcons' John Abraham leads the second tier of pass-rushers, though he turns 34 this year and wouldn't be a long-term solution. Indianapolis' Robert Mathis is similar in that he is also on the downward slope of his career at the age of 31.
Detroit's Cliff Avril would make a lot of sense as a secondary option, and if the Jaguars choose to forego the Mario Williams bidding, Avril would make a heck of a consolation prize. However, the Lions are expected to franchise Avril, leaving him a long-shot at best to be a Jaguar in 2012.
If the Jaguars choose to go the draft route, North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples fits very well in the range of Jacksonville's seventh overall pick.
Coples has the physical ability to be a dominant defensive end, but has had issues with technique in college. Dr. Jene Bramel of Footballguys.com wrote an exceptional multi-part profile of Coples' technical issues on Matt Waldman's Rookie Scouting Portfolio blog in which he compares his physical ability to that of Julius Peppers; it's definitely worth your time.
Coples isn't the only lineman worth his salt in this year's draft; there are many others that would elevate Jacksonville's pass-rush.
Melvin Ingram of South Carolina, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, Vinny Curry of Marshall, Nick Perry from USC, Clemson's Andre Branch, and Cam Johnson of Virginia highlight a surprisingly deep group of pass-rushers available in the draft.
Statistically, it seems obvious the Jaguars need another pass-rusher, if not two. In reality, what they need is an elite pass-rusher.
Having a player that can constantly affect the opposing quarterback can make a defense better by not forcing defensive backs to cover their man for as long. It also helps other pass-rushers get to the quarterback by demanding double-teams, leaving teammates in one-on-one matchups against the other offensive linemen.
If I were Gene Smith, I would go hard after Mario Williams. Not only would signing him weaken the division-rival Texans by subtraction, but it would also provide the Jaguars a sure-fire elite defensive end around whom they can build a pass-rush.
I would try to re-sign Mincey before free agency, but if he wanted much more than Edwards' deal I'd let him go and try to bring in a situational pass-rusher like New England's Mark Anderson to fill the void.
If Quinton Coples is on the board at seven, I'd likely pull the trigger and hope defensive line coach Joe Cullen can help hone his technique and make him into the monster he has the potential to be. Williams and Coples bookending the Jaguars' defensive line sounds like the makings of a long day for opposing quarterbacks.
To have an elite defense, the Jaguars need to have an elite pass-rush, and the transformation starts at defensive end. Whether it's in free agency or the draft, the Jaguars must add difference-makers at the position to give them any shot at having an elite defensive team.