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Jaguars Positioned to Be NFL's Most Important Player During 2021 Offseason

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 24, 2020

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) looks for a receiver during the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
Brian Blanco/Associated Press

The Jacksonville Jaguars received an unexpected present when the New York Jets miraculously captured a victory Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. In doing so, the Jets helped set the table for the Jaguars to dominate the 2021 NFL offseason.

Jacksonville (1-13) is already in the midst of a massive overhaul. Ownership fired general manager David Caldwell, who served in the position for nearly eight seasons, on Nov. 29. A potential 15-game losing streak to end the year will almost certainly doom head coach Doug Marrone as well.

What's the old saying? It's always darkest before the dawn. Well, in Jacksonville, Sol should beat down on the northeast corner of the Sunshine State next year with the brightness of multiple stars.

Everyone is already looking at the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft class as a possible franchise-changer, but the potential found within this sleeping giant runs far deeper.

Obviously, the possibility of landing Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence at the start of April's draft makes Jacksonville one of the more intriguing offseason storylines, though we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves.

Two weeks of play remain. Yes, the 1-13 Jets surprised by not going winless this season. Still, Jacksonville must face the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively. Is there another victory in there somewhere? Probably not. But everything must play out, and the Jets provided an excellent example of a squad not willing to give up even when everyone outside the organization already had.

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"The Jets better hope they don't win," a former general manager told ESPN's Rich Cimini. "I'm telling you, you can't afford to lose this kid [Lawrence]. They're so painfully bad in every area, on and off the field, they can't afford to lose this kid. They can't. This kid comes around [once] in a blue moon."

Brian Blanco/Associated Press

Another surprising outcome aside, Jaguars fans can get excited about the possibility that Lawrence lands in town. Everyone around the league knows what's coming for whichever organization owns the top selection, as Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer noted. While he's not a "generational talent" as is often stated, Lawrence has established himself as the best QB prospect since Andrew Luck entered the league in 2012.

Last season, Lawrence opened the door for another quarterback to usurp his destiny as a future No. 1 overall draft pick. His decision-making, particularly through the first half of the '19 campaign, could be called into question, and rightly so. But the 21-year-old signal-caller, who's expected to declare for the draft, showed no such deficiencies this season.

"It looks like he's having more fun this year, which has resulted in better play," an NFL personnel man told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "Last year he might have been feeling the expectations, the weight, but now he looks looser."

The 6'6", 220-pound quarterback completed 69.2 percent of his passes this season and posted a 22-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's the full package capable of delivering from the pocket, driving the ball to all three levels and working outside structure, and is athletic enough to be a factor in the running game. According to Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner, Lawrence managed more big-time throws (perfectly placed downfield passes) than any other collegiate quarterback over the last three seasons.

A straight line can be drawn from John Elway to Peyton Manning to Luck and now Lawrence when it comes to top-tier prospects. No one expects anyone other than Lawrence to be the first name announced April 29. However, his potential presence or lack thereof isn't a make-or-break-situation for the Jaguars.

With or without Lawrence, Jacksonville will still have arguably the league's most intriguing job openings.

The first overall pick (or second) is the starting point. The Jaguars have plenty of ammunition near the top of the upcoming draft to fill multiple needs with quality prospects, as they did last year with CJ Henderson and K'Lavon Chaisson.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Jacksonville is in line to land the first overall pick and the 25th, the latter courtesy of the Jalen Ramsey trade. The Jaguars also have a pair of second-round picks. In total, the team holds 11 selections for the '21 draft after adding 12 prospects in this year's class.

While the franchise's initial choice will be vital to its long-term success, Jacksonville's next general manager will have plenty of work to do to fill out the rest of the roster with those picks. Quarterback, offensive line, tight end, safety and the defensive front can all be addressed.

Or, the next regime can target certain positions in free agency since the Jaguars have plenty of financial flexibility in the coming years.

In fact, Jacksonville owns the fifth-most salary-cap space at $24.9 million, according to Spotrac. The previous number can be carried over to next year when the Jaguars already have a league-leading $84.7 million in projected cap space. Considering 10 franchises are already in the red before the start of the upcoming league year in March, the Jaguars could control the market.

Jacksonville's roster doesn't feature many significant financial decisions next offseason, either.

Left tackle Cam Robinson is the only player set to hit the market who could demand a significant extension or free-agent deal, and questions still exist about his viability as a starting left tackle. Otherwise, the team could make a few smaller investments in incumbents, like re-signing cornerback Sidney Jones or defensive tackle Abry Jones. 

Eventual additions will build upon what's already in place. Henderson, Chaisson, running back James Robinson—who broke an NFL record by an undrafted rookie with 1,414 yards from scrimmage and counting—wide receivers DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr., defensive end Josh Allen and linebacker Myles Jack form a solid talent core. 

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

The idea of having a young, extremely talented quarterback prospect in the fold, double-digit draft picks and the most salary-cap space of any organization make Jacksonville the ideal landing spot for top general manager and head coach candidates.

The primary goal during the next few weeks is finding a pair with like philosophies to create a top-down culture throughout the organization. The Cleveland Browns were a great example of what not to do regarding regime changes until this year when the Haslam family finally realized how important an aligned vision is to success in professional football. The same task stands in front of the Khan family.

The idea of not moving on from Marrone is unthinkable. A fresh start is necessary.

So, numerous candidates such as the Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, etc., will all come up during the head coaching search, the right hire is more important than name recognition.

Fortunately, candidates should be leaping at the opportunity to take on the Jaguars' rebuilding process. Jacksonville is already through the toughest portion of a teardown.

Most importantly, in a league where patience isn't a virtue, the Khans have shown restraint throughout their tenure. Caldwell lasted as long as he did despite major whiffs on Luke Joeckel, Blake Bortles, Dante Fowler Jr. and Leonard Fournette. Those high-profile misfires don't include Ramsey's forcing his way out of town. Marrone, meanwhile, remains the head coachfor now, at least—despite one winning season in four years.

Whoever enters a leadership role within the organization should understand they will have time to build this roster with everything at their disposal to turn a perennial loser into a long-term success. Everything is in place, as long as smart decisions accompany these expansive opportunities.

Next offseason, the Jaguars will be positioned for improvement better than any other franchise. They can make major moves with their hires, as well as during free agency and the draft. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come portends merry tidings.

                 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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